Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The People and Their Government

Roger Cohen's column yesterday is actually about encouraging support for President Obama's health care agenda, not to mention insulting anyone who disagrees with it. But before he makes that point clear, he attempts to construct some philosophical scaffolding upon which to build his case. Over in The Corner at National Review Online, Jonah Goldberg does his usual outstanding job of pointing this out and then dismantling his real argument. But I would like to linger a bit longer on Cohen's philosophical underpinning as it is useful for highlighting a key difference between the left and the right.

One distinguishing characteristic of the left is that it too often conflates and confuses the people with their government. I've touched on this distinction in a previous post, but I want to elaborate a bit. In his column, Cohen briefly recapitulates what is actually a fairly common and longstanding critique of the sometimes alienated and often lonely nature of life in the modern West. He writes that:

Community — a stable job, shared national experience, extended family, labor unions — has vanished or eroded. In its place have come a frenzied individualism, solipsistic screen-gazing, the disembodied pleasures of social networking and the à-la-carte life as defined by 600 TV channels and a gazillion blogs. Feelings of anxiety and inadequacy grow in the lonely chamber of self-absorption and projection.

Cohen then stretches for the conclusion that we should support the public option, i.e., government-run health care, for many reasons, but significant among them is that it will be something we do together, a shared sacrifice, and anything we do together will help recover our "vanished and eroded" community. Leaving aside the ridiculous leap to health care legislation, the general critique is fair enough, at least as far as it goes. But where Cohen and the left go awry is in trying to restore what has been lost (i.e., a sense of community, of wholeness) artificially through an activity of the government, rather than more naturally through the people, which is where it originates.

Ideally, I suppose, a close connection, an identification even, between the people and their government would make for an extremely stable country. But in the West, and especially within the the Anglo-American experience, i.e., our experience, the two have always remained at least intellectually separate. To demonstrate the point, consider our Declaration of Independence. After the familiar words in which the people's unalienable natural rights are listed, the Framers posit that "to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." That is, the people, who possess rights, are one thing, and the government, charged with securing them, is another.

The immediate and purely instrumental reason for this distinction, as well as one explantion as to why it has remained intact, is because we value liberty, because we want always to remind both ourselves and those who govern us, that it is the government that serves the people, and not the other way around.

But yet another, and deeper reason the distinction has survived is because it represents something fundamentally true about human nature. We understand instinctively that whatever it is that comprises a people, it is something that occurs naturally. A government, by contrast, even a good government, maybe especially a good government, is always an artifact. Those things that most efficiently and most authentically contribute to the sense of community that the left senses is lacking, are things closer to the people, and arising more naturally from them. That is, things like family, as in shared blood relations; neighbors, as in people who literally live and work near you and because they do, share with you very local and practical common interests; faith, as in a body of shared beliefs so fundamental they trump, when challenged, any and all other obligations to the state.

It is here that genuine community is found, and only from here that it can be nourished. If the left understood this, they would hound the government to encourage the natural community that issues only from family, friends, and faith. Or at least they would demand it not interfere. But, instead, they vigorously pursue measures that disrupt and damage all three.

To be sure, there is more than just one reason why they, the left, do this. (An overvaluing of equality is another.) But significant among them is that they imagine the government legitimate and competent where it manifestly is not. Hence, when the government meddles here it is often met with resistance from the people. And even when it is not met with resistance, it is met with failure.

President Obama's proposed legislation may or may not improve the quality and/or lower the cost of health care. I happen to think it won't do either. If it passes, I guess we'll see. But one thing I'm sure of, it will do nothing to restore the lost sense of community among us.

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