"Government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together."
That quote, usually attributed to former Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank, is one of those rare political statements of equal use to opposite sides of America's bitter ideological divide.
Bay State governor Deval Patrick deployed Frank's aphorism at the 2008 Democratic National Convention to make the case for Barack Obama's quest "to rebuild our national community." My first hit in a Google search for the quote reveals a San Francisco Foundation essay celebrating Tax Day, "that day that calls on all of us to think about what it means to be a citizen of the United States and what our obligations are to each other."
The right tends to deploy the quote sardonically. "'Government' is just a name for things we all do together, like shove elderly war heroes back from the memorials built in their honor," Human Events staff writer John Haywood tweeted at the beginning of the government shutdown in October. As Jonah Goldberg observed in The Tyranny of Cliches, "We do many things together, some of them involve the government, most don't. An estimated 111 million people watched the 2011 Super Bowl. Weren't we as 'together' for that as we are for, say, an OSHA hearing on the efficacy of toilet flush regulations?"
On those rare occasions when the national political conversation focuses on the proper role of government in our lives, the sentiment behind Barney Frank's quip fills the airwaves and op-ed pages. On the third day of the federal government shutdown, for example, President Barack Obama trotted out this parade of horribles: "The impacts of a shutdown go way beyond those things that you're seeing on television. Those hundreds of thousands of Americans don't know when they're going to get their next paycheck, and that means stores and restaurants around here don't know if they'll have as many customers. Across the country you've got farmers in rural areas and small business owners who deserve a loan, but they're being left in the lurch right now. Veterans who deserve our support are getting less help. Little kids who deserve a Head Start have been sent home from the safe places where they learn and grow every single day."
So the federal government is apparently the name we give to the magical apparatus responsible for maintaining the status of public-sector workers, private sector retail managers, farmers, small entrepreneurs, and preschoolers, in addition to the one group (veterans) whose care is incontrovertibly the responsibility of the national government that sent them into war.
No wonder the 2012 Obama campaign didn't understand why critics were creeped out by its "Life of Julia" slideshow demonstrating how Democratic policies are crucial at every stage of a woman's life from age 3 to 67. When people depend on government for everything of value, it's hard to tell the difference between objecting to a smothering state and complaining about the very existence of other human beings.
Given the stakes, it's no surprise that Democrats and liberal columnists reacted to the government shutdown by portraying Republicans as anti-human. New York Times columnist Charles Blow warned that the GOP's tactics were "how the money-rich are able to prey on the knowledge-poor," opening up "the possibility that a government by the people may swiftly give way to a government dominated by dark money and dark motives." Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. singled out the "cranks and outliers within the party so addled by hatred of the president, so crippled by the mental disorder known as Obama Dementia, that they are incapable of rationality and reason."
I prefer to assume that people with whom I disagree about politics come to their opinions genuinely, rather than through sinister, anti-democratic motives and/or advanced mental illness. And while I believe that shutting down the federal government was mostly the result of a series of tactical and political blunders by the GOP majority in the House of Representatives, it's worth pausing to examine the broader argument about the role of government occasioned by the dispute.
Yes, in a universe where the overwhelming majority of federal government expenditure comes in the form of transfer payments, yanking the plug out is going to hurt some people and disrupt business as usual for many others. (Though most of those payments are actually unaffected by D.C. closing down, ensuring that more than four out of every five federal dollars gets spent regardless of whether the Grand Canyon is open to the public.) Those first days of October were filled with horror stories of children and widowed families not getting their planned clinical trials or day care or even funeral ceremonies. Many of the highlighted cases drew enough outrage to loosen either federal monies or private philanthropy.
But in our sea of federal spending and debt, these direct tales of woe are mere drops. A Congressional Research Service report released just before the shutdown about the effects of the 1995-96 Newt Gingrich/Bill Clinton federal work stoppages included in its top-line highlights such mundane hiccups as: "National Institute of Standards and Technology was unable to issue a new standard for lights and lamps that was scheduled to be effective January 1, 1996, possibly resulting in delayed product delivery and lost sales."
Meanwhile, Obama's magic machine is still capable of literally dumping hundreds of millions of dollars directly into the trash: The Dayton Daily News reported in October that a dozen brand new $50 million C-27J cargo planes were delivered straight to the Air Force's "boneyard" of abandoned aircraft in Tucson, Arizona, because no one actually needs the things. Amazingly, the production orders continue apace.
The shutdown should make us question these oozing pits of government waste and the folly of nationalizing so much of American life, from beaches in New York City to crab fisheries in Alaska. When you stuff so many disparate responsibilities into a single entity in Washington, the on/off switch becomes terrifyingly potent.
But D.C.'s latest dysfunction should also be an occasion to rethink the "things we choose to do together," reflecting on whether we are in fact making those choices consciously. And it's time to confront the neglected truth that government is also the things that centralizers inflict upon those of us just trying to exercise our freedom.
This issue of reason is all about the messy, heavily contested intersection between do-it-yourself technological liberation and the intolerant forces of state control. From the 3D-printed firearm on the cover ("The Unstoppable Plastic Gun," page 24) to the mind-bendingly decentralized currency and digital protocol Bitcoin ("Bitcoin: More than Money," page 34) to the sadly shuttered doors of once-thriving marketplaces ("The Death of Intrade," page 44, "How Poker Became a Crime," page 62), these cautionary tales reveal an unpredictable leviathan capable of suddenly throwing its massive weight onto whatever new innovation or subculture it considers suspicious.
As the George Mason University economist Robin Hanson points out regarding Intrade, "The history of financial regulation is that everything was illegal gambling to start with. Insurance, stocks, commodities futures, options—all of these things were illegal."
With the world's highest incarceration rate, the United States government spends far too much of its time using its monopoly on force cracking down on peaceable individual transactions. We need to reorient the default arrangement between federal government and American citizen, so that freedom is assumed to be desirable, instead of a national security threat. Or as George Will explains in a wide-ranging interview on page 50, "Before the government interferes with freedom or privacy, it ought to have a compelling reason. That's all, tell me your reason."