We Are Not The Government — Guest Post by Kevin Groenhagen

Dave Johnson posted an article on the Huffington Post entitled “Things Change When We Realize WE Are the Government.” According to Johnson, “The Constitution of the United States and of the State of California begin with the words, ‘We, the people…’ because here the people are the government. And it is time we all realized it.”

Further, “Our government is US working together to take care of each other. This is a monumental shift in the way many of us have come to think about our relationship with our government. Government is not some ‘them’ out there, like the conservatives want you to think—government is you, and me, and all of us in this together, for each other.”

A search of the words “we are the government” on the Internet turns up numerous editorials, letters to the editor, and blog comments from those who share Johnson’s belief that “we the people” are the government. There are even many references to President Theodore Roosevelt saying, “The government is us; we are the government, you and I.” Dictionary.com notes Roosevelt offered these words during a September 9, 1902 speech at Asheville, N.C. However, the words do not appear in the actual transcript of the speech.

Another Roosevelt clearly did promote the “people = government” doctrine. “Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared in 1938. President Bill Clinton in 1996 said, “The government is just the people, acting together—just people acting together.”

A video shared during the Democratic National Convention in 2012 offered a similar belief when it proclaimed, “The government is the only thing that we all belong to.” In an attempt to quell controversy concerning that assertion, the Obama campaign disavowed its involvement in the production of the video. According to an Obama aide, “The video in question was produced and paid for by the host committee of the city of Charlotte. It’s neither an OFA nor a DNC video, despite what the Romney campaign is claiming. It’s time for them to find a new target for their faux outrage.”

It is true that it was neither an Obama for America nor a Democratic National Committee video. However, it is also true that the Democrats’ convention was a highly scripted event, and that the Obama campaign approved every aspect of that convention. Someone did not simply break into the convention and play the video without permission.

In July 2013, Obama reversed the message in the video and declared, “We the people recognize that this government belongs to us.” However, he went on to say, “We all have a stake in government success—because the government is us.” Of course, if we are the government and the government belongs to us, then we belong to the government since there is no distinction between us and the government.

Undeterred by the controversy that arose from the video played at the Democratic National Convention, MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry doubled down on the video’s message in an April 2013 “Lean Forward” spot for her network. “We have never invested as much in public education as we should have because we’ve always had kind of a private notion of children,” Harris-Perry said. “Your kid is yours, and totally your responsibility. We haven’t had a very collective notion that these are our children. So, part of it is we have to break through our kind of private idea that kids belong to their parents or kids belong to their families, and recognize that kids belong to their communities.

Of course, if children belong to their community, i.e., government, then government can decide how many children couples can have, as they do in China with the one-child policy. And if the “collective notion” takes precedence over the “private notion” concerning children, then the government should have more say about a child’s future than that child’s parents. This is what happens in China when a child demonstrates athletic ability. According to The Daily Mail, the Chen Jinglun Sports School “recruits about 900 children from kindergartens in Hangzhou each year, with their parents all but forced to accept their fate.” One Chinese athlete said she was “identified by a number, Sportsperson 137, rather than a name” at her training camp. The parents of another Chinese Olympian acknowledged they withheld information that her grandparents had died and that her mother had been battling cancer for years so that she could focus completely on her training. “We accepted a long time ago that she doesn’t belong to us,” the athlete’s father told a Shanghai newspaper. “I don’t even dare think about things like enjoying family happiness.”

If you think children belong to the “community” is merely the belief of a far-left host on MSNBC, think again. Hillary Rodham Clinton also expressed this belief when she spoke at the 1996 United Methodist General Conference. “As adults, we have to start thinking and believing that there isn’t really any such thing as someone else’s child,” she told the audience.

Clinton also advanced the “people = government” doctrine in It Takes A Village. “In earlier times and places—and until recently in our own culture—the ‘village’ meant an actual geographic place where individuals and families lived and worked together,” Clinton wrote. If the “village” is no longer an “actual geographic place,” what is it? “It takes a village to raise a child,” wrote political satirist P. J. O’Rourke. “The village is Washington. You are the child. There, I’ve spared you from reading the worst book to come out of the Clinton administration since—let’s be fair—whatever the last one was.”

Of course, O’Rourke used “Washington” to represent the federal government, and not an actual geographic place. And Clinton certainly offered many examples to demonstrate O’Rourke’s contention that her “village” is actually the federal government. Here are a few examples:

  • “The village as a whole owes expectant and new mothers and fathers its accumulated experience and wisdom, and the resources they will need to tackle the important and exciting task ahead.”
  • “The village can do its part to help. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees school lunch and breakfast programs, has started Team Nutrition, a partnership between the federal government, states, school districts, farmers, and businesses to promote healthy food choices in homes and schools and in the media.”
  • “Many people believe that we cannot guarantee health care to all because of the cost. In fact, a sensible universal system would, as in other countries, end up costing us less….But until we are willing to take a long, hard look at our health care system and commit ourselves to making affordable health care available to every American, the village will continue to burn, house by house.”
  • “Do I believe the French love their children more than we do? Of course not. Nor do I believe that their system can or should be duplicated wholesale here. France is a country far smaller and more homogeneous than ours. And the price for such generous programs is felt across the board in higher taxes. What I do believe, however, is that the French have found a way of expressing their love and concern through policies that focus on children’s needs during the earliest stages of life.”

So, are Johnson and others correct when they say “we are the government,” or when they equate the federal government with a “village”? Thomas Paine answered this question when he wrote Common Sense in 1776:

SOME writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher.

Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a government, which we might expect in a country without government, our calamities is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer!

“We the people” make up society. Government is not “We the people.” As Isabel Paterson noted in The God of the Machine, “The modern cliché, ‘This is a democracy, I am the government,’ is nonsensical. Even as an agency, the government is a formal organization with an authorized personnel, of which the private citizen is not a member. When several persons employ an umpire, they are distinctively not the umpire, although he holds that office by their agreement.”

President Ronald Reagan once said, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.'” In his Huffington Post piece, Johnson wrote when we consider “we are the government,” “it makes the things Ronald Reagan said sound contradictory. How can we, the people be the problem? How can it be scary that we, the people are here to help each other?” Obama tried to make the same point in April 2013: “You hear some of these folks: ‘I need a gun to protect myself from the government. We can’t do background checks because the government’s going to come take my guns away.’ The government’s us.”

In an article entitled “The Anatomy of the State,” Murray N. Rothbard, a prominent exponent of the Austrian School of economics, explained why the “government’s us” argument is fallacious:

With the rise of democracy, the identification of the State with society has been redoubled, until it is common to hear sentiments expressed which violate virtually every tenet of reason and common sense such as, “we are the government.” The useful collective term “we” has enabled an ideological camouflage to be thrown over the reality of political life. If “we are the government,” then anything a government does to an individual is not only just and untyrannical but also “voluntary” on the part of the individual concerned. If the government has incurred a huge public debt which must be paid by taxing one group for the benefit of another, this reality of burden is obscured by saying that “we owe it to ourselves”; if the government conscripts a man, or throws him into jail for dissident opinion, then he is “doing it to himself” and, therefore, nothing untoward has occurred. Under this reasoning, any Jews murdered by the Nazi government were not murdered; instead, they must have “committed suicide,” since they were the government (which was democratically chosen), and, therefore, anything the government did to them was voluntary on their part. One would not think it necessary to belabor this point, and yet the overwhelming bulk of the people hold this fallacy to a greater or lesser degree.

As Rothbard noted, if “we are the government,” then anything government does is just and untyrannical because we are doing it to ourselves. President Woodrow Wilson suggested this was the case when he said, “In the last analysis, my fellow countrymen, as we in America would be the first to claim, a people are responsible for the acts of their government.” James Bovard characterized this doctrine as “political infantilism.” “The notion that ‘you are the government’ is simply a way to shift the guilt for every crime by the government onto every victim of the government,” Bovard wrote. “This makes as little sense as holding each ‘widow and orphan’ owner of a single share of a company stock fully liable for crimes secretly committed by the corporate management and holding the actual corporate directors blameless, since they merely followed the unspoken will of individual shareholders.”

In 1850, Frederic Bastiat, a French classical liberal theorist and political economist, published a pamphlet entitled The Law. Bastiat also addressed the distinction between government and society:

Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all.

We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.

Isn’t this exactly what socialists such as Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and, unfortunately, too many Republicans do? If we object to the federal government getting involved in health care, education, and other areas in which the Founders would have reserved to the states and the people, they claim we oppose health care, education, and other wants of society. If “we are the government,” then we owe it to ourselves to provide health care, education, and other wants through the federal government. If socialists consider something too vital for states and the people to take care of, then, they argue, the federal government must assume a significant role. Consider the words of Los Angeles Times columnist David Horsey:

Unless you are an anti-government, free-market absolutist or just a rich guy who hates paying taxes, Obamacare does not need to be repealed or replaced. It needs to be fixed. Republicans, working with Democrats (what a crazy idea that is!), should repair it, improve it, call it by whatever name they want, but stop pretending that most Americans have not already decided that healthcare is too vital not to be a right guaranteed to everyone.

Given that food is more vital than health care (the words “vital” and “vittles” both come from the Latin “victus,” which means “nourishment” or “way of living”), how much longer before the socialists demand the federal government provide universal nourishment? Undoubtedly, many Americans would cheer at such a proposal. However, they fail to take into account Paine’s warning about government, i.e., government is a punisher. With Obamacare, millions of Americans have been punished through fines, increased premiums, higher deductibles, and reduced hours at companies subject to the employer mandate. Imagine the ways the federal government could punish Americans if it fully controlled the distribution of food.

Kevin Groenhagen is the author of The Tea Party Challenge: Understanding the Threat Posed by the Socialist Coalition.

5 Comments

  1. The government already feeds your kids, breakfast, lunch and dinner at schools and a backpack for weekends. And food stamps for heaven knows what. “We” are generous to “ourselves”, whatever that means…..

  2. If we are the government, and the government is the us, then what is moral for us is moral for the government, and what is immoral for us is immoral for the government.

    It is moral for the government (the police) to use deadly force when the lives of one of “us” is immediately threatened. It is a bit more difficult to extend this argument to when is the military aloud to use deadly force. If we are faced with an existential threat, or the more lives would be lost by inaction than action, I suppose, but the slope becomes slippery.

    But when is it moral for me to spend my neighbor’s money on some project that I deem beneficial to the both of us? If I pay to repair the fence that joins our two yards, it is generally traditional for us to split the bill. While it may be “bad form” to do so, it may be considered reasonable to commit my neighbor to such an expense with out consulting him, initiating the work before notifying him that this work would happen, perhaps at greater expense than he might have expected. Though it is generally preferable to have these discussions beforehand.

    But as the geography expands it becomes increasingly difficult justify committing my neighbor to some expense where is direct benefit or obligation is less obvious.

    It is definitely not acceptable to claim his property for projects he neither desires nor benefits from.

    If children, to some degree, belong to the community, then it become not just your moral duty, but your civic duty to protect small ones when you see them exposing themselves into danger (playing in traffic perhaps).

  3. “if children belong to their community, i.e., government, then government can decide how many children couples can have,”

    How does it follow? Children belong to their parents but does that follow that parents have the right to decide how many children they can have? This of belonging turns into an argument for contraception–regarded as moral evil very recently.

    The whole tenor of the article and the authors quoted smacks of libertarianism, hardly the best authority on the theory of government.

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