Column: Government not the enemy

By Brian Pierce

In university classrooms and in small-town diners alike we hear, more and more, a general discontent toward government and politics. Note that I do not use the word “apathy,” though there is a dangerously high level of that as well, and anybody who cares enough to read this column knows that danger well. Distrust of, and disdain for, government and those who occupy its highest offices, however, is almost as dangerous.

Often times this discontent manifests itself in something that comes close to a coherent political philosophy and labels itself “libertarianism.” I use the word “philosophy” liberally; libertarianism is in fact more of a series of clever and righteous-sounding catchphrases pretending to be founding principles of government.

We as college students are exposed to it more than most. More and more I hear my friends speak of government as if it were the cause of society’s problems.

Libertarianism’s growth in popularity is reflected in the way politicians on both sides use its most endearing taglines to support their particular policy initiatives. When a conservative wants to advocate for privatization of social security, we tend not to hear the reasons why such a policy would improve the lives of its beneficiaries, but axioms like “people know how to run their lives better than governments do,” instead. When a liberal wants to defend the legalization of gay marriage, we tend not to hear arguments for the potential benefits to American culture that such a policy would bring about, but lines like “government should stay out of people’s bedrooms,” instead.

It isn’t that either of those arguments is necessarily wrong (I happen to agree with the second one). But there is a danger for politicians to constantly fall back on American’s blind distaste for government intrusion and there is an equal danger for Americans themselves to be so blindly distasteful.

There is a history of this sentiment in the American psyche. Part of it is the healthy inclination against unwieldy and intrusive governments that goes back to our revolutionary origins.

An unhealthy strain, however, began when the government betrayed the American trust during the Vietnam and Watergate era, and it is important to note that the blame for this lies with the government. It is the government’s responsibility to earn the trust of its people, and so the recent failings of our current government (from an incompetent response to Katrina to secret wiretapping programs, from the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal to the intelligence failures in Iraq) cannot go unnoticed or unpunished.

But the American people, too, have a responsibility. Each of us has a responsibility not to fall into the tempting trap that so-called philosophies like libertarianism lay for us. Governments fail, and those failings must be addressed, but we cannot be so distracted by them that we forget all that government is responsible for ensuring and capable of offering. A libertarian philosophy must not be embraced by Americans, or we run the risk of forsaking all that so-called “big government” has achieved.

The same claims that an expansive government is a danger were used to defend the states’ “right” to discriminate against minorities. They were used to attempt to discredit FDR’s notion that government could provide for the retired and create a safety net for the poor. They are currently being used to try to deconstruct public education at a time when more, not less, needs to be done by the government to ensure that all Americans have an equal opportunity to get a quality education.

One cannot base an entire political philosophy on a simplistic notion like “people know how to run their lives better than governments do.” Such a philosophy ignores the fact that we are a government of the people and neglects the possibility that government can exist not as an enemy of the people, but as a tool wielded by the people and used for the public good.

Brian Pierce is a junior in LAS. His column appears Wednesdays. He can be reached at [email protected]