“The government is the only thing that we all belong to.” So says a kindly-sounding gentleman in a video played at the Democratic National Convention. An almost off-hand, but thought-provoking idea.
That one compact statement raises a question I thought we had settled quite some time ago: Are we a people who has a government, or a government that has a people? Pretty much the whole of Western political history is the story of becoming the former and fleeing the latter. And our pursuit of freedom, and flight from government’s proprietary embrace, has traditionally been something on which we have been of one mind.
But is that as true now as it has been in the past? The gentleman’s statement, as well as others made at the national conventions, suggests we ought to explicitly revisit what it is that holds us all together, what it is that has traditionally made us “one people.” Here are a few.
We don’t belong to the government. Government belongs to us. That is the gist of Abraham Lincoln’s formulation that ours is a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” This is not a merely semantic quibble. We are fond of saying we are a sovereign people in this country. And that is quite true, which is why our Constitution’s preamble explains that it is “we the people” who established a more perfect union. The government did not arise of its own accord, nor did it create its own authority. It does not exist except by our consent, and cannot operate but through the authority we choose to delegate. We could be said to belong to a government only if it was totalitarian and tyrannical – at which point even John Locke would throw a flag and declare a revolution.
And let’s not forget that the “American government” is not the same thing as the “American people.” Government is something we – the American people – created to accomplish limited and particular objectives. We must fervently hope that the government is not the only thing that binds us together. After all, governments (wherever and whenever they exist) are organisms with a very small repertoire: They can compel people to do that which they do not want to do, and prevent them from doing that which they do want to do. That’s good, as far as it goes. Life would be an uncertain thing if government didn’t effectively prevent others from stealing our property or threatening our lives. And getting home from the office this evening would be a dicey affair if we couldn’t compel people to drive on the right side of the road.
But it is a cold and barren community in which the only common link between the members is an instrument of coercion. In fact, if that is all there is, we cannot properly call it a community at all. Communities, real ones, have their primary existence and dynamic core outside of government. We build them on shared moral assumptions, a common (though dynamic) culture, certain and identifiable principles, and a sense of identity attractive to its members. These are the things that give life and color and meaning to our national community. And those constitutive elements of community foster generosity, sacrifice, and the rest of the noble virtues that form a nation – a people – of which we can be proud.
Government exists to protect these things, not supply them. Its role is essential, but by its very nature limited. It cannot make you love your neighbor, sacrifice for your children, or volunteer at the food pantry. It cannot ennoble you or bring meaning to your labor. It has never brought community or national greatness, and it never will.
Government cannot, must not, be the only thing we have in common. It would be too sad to bear were it true.