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Do We All Belong to the Government?
This essay was originally published at Libertarianism.org.
hort video’s making the rounds, one played at the Democratic National Convention. At 17 seconds, it’s a nice little summary of just how out of touch we can be about the basic political thinking of our fellow citizens.
The line that has Republicans eagerly crafting attack ads is, of course, “Government’s the only thing that we all belong to.”
First, it’s not quite as “you didn’t build that” creepy as it sounds. The video isn’t saying we belong to the state like my Star Wars trilogy Blu-Rays belong to me. Rather, it’s using “belong” in the way I belong to my fantasy football league. We’re all members of the government, the narrator says, and the government is the one thing we’re all members of. In the video’s words, “We’re in different churches, different clubs, but we’re together as a part of our city or our county or our state and our nation.”
Still, this difference between types of “belong” doesn’t get the Democrats off the hook when it comes to tone-deaf collectivist rhetoric. First, there’s the ever-present confusion between society and government. I took David Brooks to task about this just last week. Yes, we are all parts of our communities. But those communities are not the same thing as their governments.
Second, to believe that we belong to government in the same way we belong to clubs or churches speaks to a dramatically different understanding of the nature of the state than is held by many Americans, especially those who recognize the society/government distinction. For those Americans, government isn’t a club or a church. It’s more like the cable company.
The federal government is a lot like Comcast. I pay Comcast in return for a service. Because of where I live, I don’t have options among providers. I either pay them or I don’t get broadband. The connection they give me mostly works, but it has problems and it costs too much. Comcast isn’t innovating as quickly as they should and their customer service lacks any redeeming qualities. Still, I don’t have much meaningful choice. Not having Internet just isn’t an option for me.
Many other Comcast subscribers feel the same way. We all grudgingly “participate” in this thing called Comcast, but we sure don’t feel like we “belong” to it. Comcast isn’t a club. It isn’t an association we draw meaning from or even much enjoyment. It’s just an organization we deal with in exchange for something we want.
Which is pretty much how I think about the government in my daily interactions with it. That’s what makes the video so weird: I simply cannot understand how anyone looks at Washington and feels a sense of belonging.
Clearly David Brooks does. So do many of Obama’s delegates, I guess. But you can always find folks with odd beliefs.