A week or two past, I got the first of what promises to be many, many alerts that this November will be the most important election of my lifetime. I received the same notices during the last election as well as before each of Obama’s terms. It may even be that elections have somehow been growing ever more meaningful. More likely, like the boy crying wolf, the repetition is evidence that the assertion was never sincere as it was made out to be in the first place.
Alongside the muster-the-voters alarmism, I have a handful of acquaintances on social media who believe the opposite. Elections, they say, are pointless wastes of time and each successive iteration only becomes ever less meaningful. I don’t find this argument very persuasive either. In my own experience, government action can and does effect me personally, sometimes to my detriment. Attempting to influence the outcome of election, even if only as a method of self-defense, does not seem like a waste of time.
For whatever reason, the contrast of these two lines of thought brought to mind a Jerry Seinfeld bit that he used to open one of his shows (30 years ago, if you can believe it*). It really bothered me then, in a way that even his most inane standup lines never have. He said, “to me, government is basically parents for adults.” He then continues with a Leave it to Beaver analogy. Perhaps because I never watched Leave it to Beaver as kid, I didn’t appreciate the humor. However, the line that really got under my skin is “…because jail is the government’s way of sending you to your room.” Something about the government destroying a life (the crime he’s riffing on is tax evasion, if that’s important) being equated being sent to one’s room seemed like an absolutely awful analogy.
But now, I’m wondering if he didn’t have a very good point. Not about going to jail, but the essential concept of the Government as in loco parentis.
In a world without governmental structure, the family hierarchy would likely be responsible for civilized** forms of order. A clan chief might be a patriarch or an elder and his authority would be enforced through familial ties, shared by all members of the clan. That family structure would be responsible for instructing the young in the common values of the collective as well as maintaining discipline and order for the under-aged. Among adults, if an individual were to transgress against another, the answer would be to go to the tribal chief or his designee for arbitration. It’s the equivalent of yelling, “Daaaad! He hit me” in an everyday familial squabble.
As society grows more complex, the degree of blood relationship between members declines. The regent may no longer be related to everyone in the tribe and his or her position may have nothing to do with inheritance. Still, the role that the government fulfills remains what we might call the responsibilities of the extended family but scaled up to society at large. Even between fully-functional adults, we often accept the need for an arbitrator who can put an end to disagreement and bind all parties to a solution. As with parents, there may be better and worse ways of accomplishing this. Getting the kids to agree to a solution is probably better, all-around, then falling back on the “…because I said so. Now go to your room.”
This analogy neglects a few aspects of the social contract between the individual and government. It ignores that a society might pursue collective goals – a giant pyramid to honor the sun god ain’t gonna build itself! That needs a father-figure to say, “Alright kids, today we’re going to go out and work in the yard. Everyone!”
The value of large projects that required central planning can be disputed, but all societies have foundational goals of governments as proclaimed in constitutions and the like. Common defense is, well, pretty common. Cross-border relations might be another example.
Yet another oft-stated purpose of government is the provision for the general welfare of the populace. Here, I am influenced by yet another item I read about the same time as that original alert. In this case, it was a media post suggesting that the origin of the government distributing rewards among the governed was simply a way to manufacture support. “We love our King, because he gives us free meat.” “We love our Senate, because they give us free bread and put on great circuses.”
The quote that I saw from Harry Browne, although I seem to recall seeing something similar from another writer.
Government programs didn’t arise because the people demanded them or because the free market was unable to provide needed services. They arose because the politicians found them to be a convenient way to buy votes with other people’s money, a convenient way to enlarge their own power, a convenient way to reward their political cronies, and a convenient way to keep people dependent on government.
Mom and Dad, as well, tend to dole out all sorts of things to the children. We provide; food, clothing, and shelter. We hand out gifts. We generally pick up the tab for the necessities and niceties of life. So is providing for societal welfare really a corruption of the core purpose of government? Or is it deep within our psychology that, just as society needs an authoritative structure function, we expect that authority to reward us with presents?
However we got here, it is clear that there is a basic function that society demands, and the 2020 election is a fundamental part of that. We need courts, whether that be a vast criminal justice system, the court of the King, or just a few minutes in the Chief’s tent. We need people who can speak for the whole, all of us knowing that their words are backed up by the full faith and credit of each of us. We want to be secure in the knowledge that, no matter how tough we are ourselves, if someone even bigger and meaner comes along and abuses us, then the clan will deliver unto him a righteous ass-kicking.
There are many ways to build and keep that authority. Where family bonds are dominant a hereditary system makes a lot of sense. As we find ourselves governed by those who are not related to ourselves, we might seek the backing of divine in our choices. We could always let the strongest prove himself through ritualistic combat. (Dune says the Fremen will still be doing that 10s of 1000s of year from now.) For the most part, even my Libertarian friends will agree that divine right, accident of birth, or formalized murder are all less-than-optimal ways to determine promotion in government.
The United States and its institutions seem to be getting a little creaky as we approach our semiquincentennial anniversary. Nevertheless, our entire system is roughly designed to replace violence, coercion, and inequity with a system under which we can make non-unanimous yet collective decisions. No doubt, there are plenty of shortcomings within this system. Applause to all those who seek to fix the system. Is it really helpful, though, to simply declare the entire system bankrupt? Wouldn’t such a stance, assuming its ever successful, simply guarantee to bring back violence, coercion, and inequity as the essence of government? I suppose one can dream along the lines of “suppose they gave a war…” Might one day we all wake up and realize we don’t need the “system” at all?
Umm, I’ll say no.
So back to that original question. Is this the most important election of my lifetime? I doubt it. However, the Wall St. Journal did, a few days after my shrill alert, use very similar language in one of their editorials. The election IS important. The stakes ARE high. At the same time, the ground rules and assumptions seem to be both rapidly changing and evermore bizarre. It leaves me very pessimistic and none of these people are helping.
*The episode in question is actually from the fifth season, 1993, so it isn’t quite three-decades old. The show itself first aired in the summer of 1989. I didn’t watch it then. It took many, many years before I finally watched the first season.
**I use the word civilized to exclude simple violence and coercion. If someone simply beats you and takes your stuff, this is a kind of order – even a kind of law. However, I’ll label bullying, robbery, and terrorism as “uncivilized.”