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On The Fear Of Government, Or, Let’s Get Back To Basics March 11, 2010

It seems like everywhere you look these days, someone’s trying to spread…The Fear.

All around us…in every town…on every corner…a massive Army Of Fear is standing by, according to the Messengers, ready at a moment’s notice to obey the dictates of some unappointed Czar or another.

Just ask Glenn Beck: concentration camps for the white people, jackbooted stormtroopers ready to snatch the guns from your cold dead fingers…Socialist Government-Controlled Healthcare That Threatens Your Not Socialist Medicare…it’s all coming, my friends—and unless we organize, as a community, to return to the values of the Founding Fathers, The Government, meaning that awful Obama and Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid and George Soros and all the other Evil Community Organizers, will win.

There’s no government, we’re told, like no government.

You know who would find all of this fear of self-government just entirely bizarre?

The Founding Fathers.

In today’s conversation we’ll consider the fundamentals of American patriotism, we’ll ask one of those Founding Fathers how he saw the role of Government—and we’ll toss in a few words from Abraham Lincoln, just for good measure.

“…There’s a lot of different scenarios…We’ve got a great union. There’s absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that. But Texas is a very unique place, and we’re a pretty independent lot to boot…”

Texas Governor Rick Perry, April 15, 2009

In a conversation about American Patriotism, it’s hard to find a better place to start than with the words of Thomas Paine…as long as you actually understand what he’s trying to tell us.

“The trouble with people is not that they don’t know but that they know so much that ain’t so.”

–Henry Wheeler Shaw, as Josh Billings, The Encyclopedia of Wit and Wisdom

Lots of people figure it’s just plain common sense that Government must be evil, and to make their point they regularly quote from the very first paragraphs of Paine’s seminal work, which, coincidentally, is also entitled Common Sense:

“…Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness…Society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil…”

But what these observers fail to understand is that, in the end, Paine’s not condemning government’s intrusions as much as he is man’s frailties.

Consider this passage, from just a bit farther down on that same page:

“…Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence: the palaces of kings are built on the ruins of the bowers of paradise. For, were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform, and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which, in every other case, advises him out of two evils to choose the least. Wherefore, security being the true design and end of government, it unanswerably follows, that whatever form thereof appears most likely to ensure it to us with the least expense and greatest benefit, is preferable to all others.”

(Emphasis appears in original)

So…what is Paine actually saying?

Since people don’t always do the right thing, you need a government that governs wisely and well—and the last thing that you want, if you want security…is no government at all.

Paine continues by giving an example of how a community of people formed out of nothing will eventually have no choice but to organize themselves—and in a turn of phrase that our Tea Party friends would do well to note, Paine goes on to say this about societies forming governments:

“…And however our eyes may be dazzled with show, or our ears deceived by sound; however prejudice may warp our wills, or interest darken our understanding; the simple voice of nature will say, it is right.”

You’ll notice that when Paine writes about government he is referring to a thing which is imposed upon a people by a King, or someone similarly placed. Of course, since “Common Sense” was written before the American Revolution, what he could not yet do was speak from experience about a different kind of government: one that is created by the people themselves.

Abraham Lincoln could, however…and one November afternoon, he did:

“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.

(Emphasis added)

Government of the people, by the people, for the people.

In other words, a government that belongs to us, run by people of all political persuasions, working for the benefit of everyone.

What would Abraham Lincoln say to today’s Tea Party community? I suspect the obvious question he’d want to ask is: “In a country where we are the government, why in the world would you be afraid…of yourselves?”

And that is the question we should be putting to those same people.

We should be asking them why they are afraid to help captain the Ship of State…why they are afraid of the same democracy Ronald Reagan thought was the greatest on Earth…why, if they really feel that patriotic, they are afraid to do exactly what Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Paine told us would be best for the Nation: be a part of your own government, charting your own future, along with all of the rest of the citizens of the United States…and, most importantly of all, we should be asking why they are, today, so afraid of our shared democracy that they can’t help the rest of us as we try to turn Pluribus…into Unum?

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