Government of the People, By the People, For the People?

February 10, 2010 Leave a comment

I’ve been thinking a lot about why people love to hate government, and why I just can’t bring myself to hate it, too. I hold tightly to the notion of government “of the people, by the people and for the people” and want to hold it accountable to serving its role to “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

To the people who say (as I heard recently on the news) “I want government out of my life and out of my pocket!”, I say, see how far you get without roads, bridges, schools, water, sewer, fire and police forces, courts, public transit, public parks, libraries, and the like.  To those who say (as I also heard recently) “I was raised that if you see something that needs to be done you just do it. No whining. No waiting for government. You just do it.” I have a few questions. Does that include paving a pothole? Educating a neighbor with special needs? Making books available to children and adults doing research? Building an extension to a road or transit system? Ensuring that the air and waterways are not polluted? Providing shelter, health care and other safety net supports for people in need? Making sure that everyone does their part to avert a climate disaster? You get my point. As a tax payer, I’m getting a pretty good deal for what I pay. It would take more than 80 years of paying our property taxes to exceed just the cost of educating three sons in private schools!

This is not to say that I’m a misty-eyed enthusiast for all things governmental. I’m well acquainted with the glaring excesses and failings of our government, like the Tuskegee experiments (where black men were denied syphilis treatment in the name of science); coup and assassination attempts on foreign leaders;  surveillance, harassment and murder of domestic political activists; systematic investment in exclusionary white suburbs and the creation of a white middle class; and more recently, “systematically misrepresenting the threat” posed by Iraq’s weapons programs to justify a preemptive war.  I could go on, but I won’t. I just think that the alternative to bad government is not less government, but accountable government. I think it’s time to re-take and re-tell the story about what government is about and what it can do at its best. My biggest question is what will it take for the voting public to get fired up about that?!

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  • Charlie says:

    Cynthia: I love this post – all of your points are spot on.

    The thing that grinds my gears about our government is that the very points you make are its biggest selling points and what keeps the people ‘satisfied enough’ so as to maintain the illusion that our government is there for the people while it has always been a tool for corporate interests – dating all the way back to the Dutch West India Company.

    The recent Supreme Court ruling granting corporations the same rights as individuals is not shocking so much as the coup de gras for government of, by & for the people.

    US Constitution: RIP

  • Gibran says:

    I often hear you say the words that you believe in government that is “of the people, by the people and for the people,” and I’m thankful that you took the time to further articulate what you mean. As you know, I am one of those people that has little faith in government, though I do not come at my discontent from the now loudly heard right wing perspective.

    Charlie’s point resonates with me. But even as a corporate tool I think government can be a good administrative tool and that technical fixes could make it better at doing the jobs you outline. My two more important thoughts on the matter are interrelated:

    1. We are too quick to outsource our sovereignty, sometimes to a priestly class, sometimes to a crown, sometimes to a republic, often to a market that tells us what to love – I am interested in our reclaiming the sovereignty and responsibility that it takes to govern ourselves, the more community based, the better.

    2. Because we look to government to solve our problems we have over emphasized its potential role in the work of social transformation. I think that one of the biggest problems we have in the “social change” world, as currently contained by the 501(c)3 industrial complex, is that government is our only point of reference, we measure progress according to it, who inhabits it and what it does – this limited scope is limiting our possibilities.

  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    I hear you both. In theory, government is accountable to “the people” but more often than not, it’s actually accountable to the interests of those who fund the electoral process. Clearly a big, intractable problem. I also agree that “outsourcing our sovereignty” and over relying on government to solve problems are problematic as well.

    Still, as I consider the alternatives to the current collection of problems, I think it’s worthwhile to consider a multi-prong strategy that engages people and communities in reclaiming our sovereignty while also trying to shift our expectations about what government can and should be and creating a different kind of “demand environment” (to borrow from Lawrence Community Works and others)for government that is more effective and accountable both in solving technical problems/delivering services and participating in dealing with messy, adaptive challenges.

  • Curtis Ogden says:

    Thank you, Cynthia. I am largely in agreement with you. And to your points I add the work of J.D. Trout who writes about the “empathy gap” that individuals and groups seem to naturally have (that is, their compassion only goes so far) and that can be successfully mitigated at scale by farsighted (and equitable) policies. And I agree that we should not “outsource our sovereignty” while avoiding throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It strikes me that when we started putting huge expecations on federal agencies to solve things like education for us, we really started going down the right path. But that doesn’t mean the feds don’t have a role to play in helping to ensure fairness and access.

  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    Curtis, sounds like you meant to say we started going down the wrong path when we started putting huge expectations on federal agencies to solve things like education, yes?

  • Linda says:

    Great post Cynthia. I have similar questions about government – and must say that I do believe in some form of commons as necessary to create some way of leveling the field.

    Read this today, which seems related and thought you might appreciate it:

  • Curtis says:

    Oops, yes, meant to say the WRONG path. How can we expect the Federal DOE to know what’s best for localities? Devolving decision-making closer to the action seems best, while maintaining some basic level standards to ensure equity.

  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    Thanks Linda. I like Lorelei’s piece a lot. I agree that folks on the left could learn a lot by listening to folks on the right. I agree with her major premise that the job of government is to balance the needs of the parts with the good of the whole. And, I love the way she puts “getting drunk” on hope and change, and needing to sober up and get to the work of building. Let’s go!

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