The Government and the Nation: Thinking Out Loud

Huck has been kind enough to drop in on my post about David Gregory from a few days ago. Not surprisingly, he disagrees with much of what I have to say, but as always, he does so politely and engagingly. At one point in his comment, he says:

What I’d like to discuss a bit is the meaning of the idea that government is something we all belong to. Maybe the better claim is that America is what we all belong to; but what is America without its government?

That’s a fair question, I think, and it led me to this bit of thinking out loud. I would suggest that a nation and its government are not the same thing. I don’t mean this in some sort of volkisch/tribal manner, but I think a nation is made up of a group of people who choose to band together over some geographical area and choose to share a culture to some greater or lesser extent. It has often been said that America is about an idea (or set of ideas), rather than an ethnicity, language, or religion. That makes a great deal of sense to me — I think the dedication to certain ideas (e.g., equality before the law, a belief in “certain inalienable rights”, limited and representative government) is what has historically pulled disparate individuals together to form this nation. We may bond together for specific situations that require it for the continued survival of those ideas, but we do it because we share an identity as believers in these common ideas, and when it comes to matters not directly impinging on those ideas, we have historically allowed such matters to be handled at the most local possible level — even simply as neighbor to neighbor.

However, I don’t think that’s the same thing as a government, and particularly not the same thing as a national government. Indeed, I wonder if a burgeoning national government actually works to weaken the ties between individual citizens, and thereby of the nation. It’s been observed on numerous occasions that folks who oppose large government tend to be more individually charitable. If the welfare of our neighbors becomes the business of some governmental office, then we can assure ourselves that we needn’t worry about those neighbors — the folks in the office will take care of that. As I’ve noted previously, this is the Ebenezer Scrooge approach — the prisons and workhouses were the government programs of his era, and his conversion isn’t marked by a desire to fund bureaucrats, but to personally care for the people in his life.

It’s like the “It takes a village to raise a child” bit. If that means that my neighbors model civil behavior, tell us if the Spawn is misbehaving, and try to maintain a safe environment, that’s great. But if it’s a pretext for letting an apparatus of the State enforce some outsider’s edicts about what my kid should be reading, eating, or doing in her spare time, then I say it’s spinach and I say to hell with it.

So when politicians say things like “The government is something we all belong to”, I don’t see that as a statement of common nationhood. I see it as an invitation to give up our individual identities and responsibilities, to let a political class take responsibility for us, “saving us the trouble” of being responsible for ourselves, and to make our very lives community property.

Or as Jonah Goldberg noted a year ago:

Ever since William James coined the phrase “the moral equivalent of war,” liberalism has been obsessed with finding ways to mobilize civilian life with the efficiency and conformity of military life. “Martial virtues,” James wrote, “must be the enduring cement” of American society: “intrepidity, contempt of softness, surrender of private interest, obedience to command must still remain the rock upon which states are built.” His disciple, liberal philosopher John Dewey, hoped for a social order that would force Americans to lay aside “our good-natured individualism and march in step.”

[…] “All that mattered that day was the mission. No one thought about politics. No one thought about themselves,” Obama rhapsodized [in his account of the death of Osama bin Laden].

The warriors on the ground “only succeeded … because every single member of that unit did their job. … More than that, the mission only succeeded because every member of that unit trusted each other — because you can’t charge up those stairs, into darkness and danger, unless you know that there’s somebody behind you, watching your back. So it is with America.”

“This nation is great because we worked as a team. This nation is great because we get each other’s backs.”

No. Wrong. It is not so with America. This nation isn’t great because we work as a team with the president as our captain. America is great because America is free. It is great not because we put our self-interest aside, but because we have the right to pursue happiness.

[…] What I can’t forgive, however, is the way he tries to pass off his ideal of an America where everyone marches as one as a better America. It wouldn’t be America at all.

Because America isn’t a government to which everyone belongs. It’s far bigger — and better — than that.

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About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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One Response to The Government and the Nation: Thinking Out Loud

  1. Huck says:

    ProfMondo – In many respects, I agree with your essential points here. First, I acknowledge a difference between government and nation. But as I said previously, they are two concepts that are inextricably linked together, especially in the United States, where what does form the core of our “national” identity as Americans is, as you note, rooted in an idea or a set of ideas which rest almost exclusively in the realm of our political culture. And the organizational expression of this political culture are our governing institutions. We constitute our government, we look to our government, and we expect things from our government in the context of these ideas. If the whole idea of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people isn’t itself perhaps the purest manifestation of that “far bigger” idea of America, then I don’t know what is. Government in America is us. It truly is. And if we really want to look at the warts and dysfunctions of government in America, I think we need look no further than our mirrors. And that’s what I think really does set us apart from every other country in this world. But if you do have a better example to give me of what this “far bigger” America is that is divorced from our idea and practice of self-government, I’m all ears.

    Also, I think in your perhaps naturally-inclined antipathy towards the DNC (coupled with your cynical view of government as some foreign and threatening other), you spin the meaning of the statement that “the government is something we all belong to” in the worst possible way. And I would even say in a way that goes against its most common, most popular, and most used meaning. If I’m reading your interpretation correctly, you ascribe to the idea of “belonging to” as more akin to “being owned by.” (i.e. That book belongs to ProfMondo.) But I think in the context of the statement in question, the meaning is quite different and clearly reflects more the idea of “being part of.” (i.e. St. Rita’s Parish is the Catholic community that I belong to.) In that sense, the idea that “government is something we all belong to” is invested precisely with that “far bigger” meaning of America that we govern ourselves and, through this self-rule, we are able not only to manifest our freedoms, but also to guarantee and protect them.

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