Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Government: Who and What It Is

This is Part 3 of a series of essays I am writing after reading The Revolution: A Manifesto, by Dr. Ron Paul.  If you like, you can find Part I and Part II at these links.

The Establishment is and always has been a favorite target for abuse. Right or wrong, you can pick up a lot of support for your cause by contrasting it against a big, entrenched - and decidedly un-sexy - Establishment organization (aka, "The Man".) And whether you're a 1960s radical agitator or a Tea Party Express rider, it's easy to get carried away by the romantic ideal of bringing down the Bastards, and sweeping away your problems.

It's hard to argue against that impassioned radicalism, especially when you know what you're defending isn't perfect. Not only that, but Bureaucracy is always a vote loser, and maintaining the "status quo" is always looked upon as an oppressive move.

In my adult life, I have butted my head up against the Establishment and have complained loudly about Bureaucracy many times, and I have to admit - I'm not always right. As I heard one senior manager put it recently, "Bureaucracy exists to protect Government from whacky ideas." And some of my ideas are downright whacky.

In fact, when I consider the things I want to change about the world realistically, I've been forced to accept that Bureaucracy is not a Bad Thing(tm) in and of itself. I've written before on this blog about this:

That last Great Innovation happened 125 years ago, when a little known Republican "machine" politician named Chester Arthur was sworn in as U.S. President after the assassination of James Garfield. Arthur reformed the Civil Service and basically gave us the Bureaucracy that we all complain so much about these days. At the time, it was a huge improvement, bringing all of the shady deals and corruption of the system out into the light.

So, while instant change makes for a compelling rallying cry, for ideas to be accepted, they need to be proven first... to the Establishment. In America, the problem we have is in figuring out when something is sufficiently "proven" to warrant making a change. And in accepting that the Establishment is a Representative body of us. It is certainly frustrating, especially when you always feel like the one with the "right answer", and you always feel like you're being ignored.

From the beginning of his book, Dr. Paul professes to believe in our system of government. He analyzes the Constitution throughout the book, particularly in Chapter 3, where he excoriates President Bush and the Congress for overreaching their authorities in regards to the 2003 Invasion of Iraq. In other chapters he refers to the possibly unconstitutional body of laws regarding free trade and international organizations - laws which few people seem to understand. His observations are compelling, and I appreciate his point of view on issues and events which have disturbed me in recent years.

But what bothers me about Dr. Paul's approach is the pervasive assertion that our Government is innately bad; an outside influence, completely divorced from what the constituents want. He pays lip service to our system of government, but either implies - or states outright - that the laws we have in place are illegal, according to the Constitution, and imposed on us by unspecified Others we have no control over. It's a popular idea, often shared by whomever is in the current minority party or by groups which feel marginalized - and of course, by radicals looking to bring down the Establishment.

There are a few areas where I feel Dr. Paul takes this too far. He characterizes income taxes as a kind of armed robbery - despite the 16th Amendment, which specifically authorizes them. Regarding regulation of businesses, he refers repeatedly to Government as a thing outside ourselves, causing all of the problems that our society suffers. He argues passionately for that most Libertarian of ideas, that if Government would just butt out, we "free and unfettered" individuals and businesses could take care of ourselves.

I appreciate the difficult balancing act faced by all Libertarians in finding that area between "too many laws" and "anarchy." I recognize that getting their point across is hard to do without becoming pedantic and boring. And outlining the limits that they feel our Representatives have ignored is tricky; but pretending that Government - all Government - is the culprit in the equation is misleading and dangerous.

First of all, as Dr. Paul claims to believe from the beginning of his book, our government was formed to represent us. If the government fails to do so, it is directly our fault. We are to blame, because we "own" it. The main body of the Constitution outlines the system and the process for controlling our government. It's not as if Dr. Paul doesn't understand this; he seems aware that the Government is our tool for ensuring that we don't take advantage of each other. He discusses this in several places, notably in Chapter 4 (Economic Freedom), where he quotes Thomas Jefferson, William Leggett, and Walt Whitman at length to illustrate the idea:
" single enough to form the starting point of all that is necessary in government; to make no more laws than those useful for preventing a man or body of men from infringing on the rights of other men." (Whitman)

Reading this book, it becomes clear that he does not believe that our representatives, operating under our authorities granted by our Constitution have made the right laws. I would tend to agree that we have allowed our government to overstep those bounds, but I fear that Dr. Paul goes further than that. Throughout these pages, he implies or states outright that our Government has been hijacked by what are generically referred to as "special interests"* - another populist meme, and an attitude which I believe takes away the burden of personal responsibility that we are all supposed to share, and turns what is supposed to be our arbitrary instrument of control over how our lives are shaped into a foreign threat.

This amplifies the most dangerous meme Dr. Paul employs: that Americans are "forced" to obey our laws - in several places he decries any regulation of business, and repudiates the requirement to pay taxes. He hearkens back to the founding fathers repeatedly, citing their dislike for taxation, apparently forgetting that the rallying cry was not "no taxation", but rather "no taxation WITHOUT REPRESENTATION."

As for the "force" involved, I have spoken to many people about this over the years. Dr. Paul echoes this approach, which characterizes the collection of taxes as money being taken away at gunpoint by an authoritarian regime. At one point he asks the favorite Libertarian question: "don't you think you are entitled to keep the money that you earn?" This is always presented as a trump card; if you don't respond with an unqualified "Yes", then you are proven to be either a fool or a dupe. I often ask in reply, "don't you think you should pay for the services provided by your government?" Guess what that makes me.

But when you face facts, every individual does have the choice to NOT pay their taxes. There are certainly consequences for this - fines, jail time, sometimes even exile - but to imply that thugs from the IRS will come and rob you at gunpoint for failing to file is just plain silly. It's an exaggeration, and one we are inclined to accept because it sounds right.

In comparison, I recall how, after enlisting and signing all of the papers, I got to Basic Military training and heard all of the dire warnings of things that would happen to me if I failed to complete it. A lot of people hated Basic, and wanted to leave, and the truth is, despite all of the contracts and documents they signed, they could have done so at any time. Sure, there were consequences, depending on how they tried to leave - climbing the fence will get you arrested; pretending to be crazy will land you in a psychiatric ward for an extended visit - but at the end of the day, despite all of the threats, no one will shoot a recruit for deciding to go home. If you're desperate enough to get out, the worst you can expect is eternal disdain from those of us who fulfilled our commitments.

Following that logic, by choosing to remain a citizen, you have "volunteered" to pay your taxes; in our country, it's more of a fee for services provided than the arbitrary, emasculating excise most people consider it to be. And we all know what happens when you don't pay your bill. That's not robbery - at least not in a free market society - so much as the rule of law.

So my contention is that the Government which we occasionally choose to ignore or vilify, does represent us. We are asked to give up time, money, and effort in exchange for things like roads, education, and military security, and if we don't want to, we have the right to petition for changes in the law. Changing rules we don't like is not an "instant" process, and a citizen has to stay involved for a long time to make changes. And while I think we should seriously consider Dr. Paul's suggestions to limit the Government's power, we cannot and should not simply ignore or throw out the Bureaucracy which we use to protect ourselves.

I don't believe that Dr. Paul has proven his assertions about Government, and as I intend to explore in the next essay, I don't believe he has proven that his proposed solutions - namely, throwing away any Government regulation, taxation, or institutions - will have the positive affects on our economy that he asserts they would have.

*Terms like "special interests" and "agenda" seem to pop up a lot in our political discourse. They ring like accusations: "They caved in to 'special interest' groups", or "they have an 'agenda'!" But it's like accusing people of having skin or breathing; of course people with a common political goal with team together to promote their "special interest"; and they won't get far without an "agenda". These words by themselves do not make a case that their intentions are either good or bad.

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