What is Government for?
I’ve been thinking about this a great deal as I follow the news about the government shutdown. As a federal employee, I am incensed by the callous disregard for my individual livelihood, for the missions that I and my fellow public servants dedicate our working hours to, and the general disruption of many aspects of life. As a citizen, I am angered but not surprised as I watch the ongoing power struggle in the other Washington. On the surface, the intransigence is over one issue, but the undercurrent is all about who controls the direction of the country; whose version of reality wins.
What popped into my head as I pondered government was an image I first encountered in art history class. The Allegory of Good and Bad Government was painted by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in 1338 and 1339. The frescoes were placed in the council hall of the Republic of Siena, to remind elected officials of the consequences of their decisions. Good Government is symbolized by Justice and Wisdom (who receive their authority from God), and the virtues are personified as Peace, Fortitude, Prudence, Magnanimity, and Temperance. Under these figures, the city is filled with commerce, smoothly-flowing traffic, people working at trades, and happy dancers. The fresco of Bad Government shows the figure of Justice tied up and surrounded by Cruelty, Deceit, Fraud, Fury, Division, War, Avarice, Pride, and Vainglory. Not to mention the horned and fanged figure of Tyranny. The city is in ruins, the streets are empty.
Medieval art often was a substitute for literacy. The images spelled things out in black and white. The difference between good and evil was clear—no one needed a long explanation about choosing between God and the Devil.
Fast forward to the end of the 17th century and the Enlightenment. After decades of religious wars, the thinkers of Europe turned toward a secular point of view. The rise of science led to God in his heaven taking a step back. Once he set creation in motion as if it were some sort of clockwork, he didn’t intervene. It was up to man and his thinking brain to take charge of his own destiny. Kings no longer ruled by divine right. Men consented to be governed, and demanded a voice in making the rules.
The American experiment in democracy was the first government to incorporate ideas from the Age of Reason. Our Declaration of Independence and Constitution are filled with the language of 18th century philosophy. The Preamble of the Constitution states that the purpose of the federal government is 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.”
Well. How hard can that be?
Pretty hard, it turns out. The truths held to be self-evident in Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence are not that self-evident at all, since they apparently do not apply to women and persons of color and others who are different from the dominant class. My Rights and the Pursuit of Happiness might infringe upon your Rights and Pursuit of Happiness. Our system is full of flaws and inherent conflicts. The Founding Fathers of our nation had a lot of faith in mens’ ability to reason and overcome human nature—all those nasty things like Pride, Avarice, Cruelty, etc. depicted in Lorenzetti’s frescoes.
The purpose of government is to create a structure in which we might live together more or less harmoniously, decide how our economy is to be run, provide infrastructure and other aspects of the common good, including defending ourselves from hostile invaders. Our system was set up to be participatory, with citizens serving on school boards and city councils on up through county, state and federal offices. A country as large and diverse as ours necessarily has developed a bureaucracy to implement legislation that has been passed by our representatives. The people employed by these bureaucracies are us—the city worker who reads your water meter, the firefighter who responds to your 911 call, the inspector who ensures that you are not sold tainted meat, the forest ranger who answers your questions when you are out hiking. These are members of our community and fellow citizens who provide a service for the common welfare of us all.
To some people, the Government (they mean the federal government) is a shadowy monolith, a boogeyman that conspires to take away their rights and freedoms. I work for the government, and I have first-hand knowledge that many agencies lack the leadership and vision to pull off such a conspiracy. There are laws and processes to ensure that citizens have a say in decisions made by federal agencies. And it is the job of Congress to provide oversight and demand accountability. Government is not monolithic—there are many points of view and approaches within agencies. Many government employees are mission-driven and service-oriented. We care about something larger than our own self-interest.
What I fear are idealogues who so despise the notion of government that they are willing to dismantle it. These are the people who reduce funding so that agencies begin to crumble from within, and then point out the failure of government to carry out its mission. They give conflicting messages and directives so that work is paralyzed, and again point at failure. They play favorites with some agencies and give them more money than they need. They hand out lucrative contracts to their buddies. They exploit public resources for personal gain. I could go on.
As a federal employee I am held to certain standards of ethics and conduct. I cannot even appear to misuse my position. It baffles me that those in positions of power are allowed to do so.
American democracy is still an experiment, a work in progress. It feels gangrenous right now. We can let it die or we can go through the painful process of debriding the rotting flesh and let the healing begin. We can turn away from the deceitful manipulators of information who want to fill us with fear. We can reject the marketplace that has turned us into consumers instead of citizens. We can overcome apathy and participate in social structures meant to contribute to the common good. We can seek out opportunities to give public comment. We can find common ground with neighbors who may hold different opinions. We can demand equity and justice. We can insist upon fair elections (wouldn’t it be great to have shorter campaigns?). We can plan and prepare for the future by talking about how we want our country to look and behave. We don’t have to agree, but we could improve our civic discourse.
Our rights come with responsibilities. Because we are busy with our lives, too often we hand over our duties as citizens to elected officials and the government bureaucracy. Whatever’s wrong, we want the government to just fix it so we can get on with whatever we’re doing.
Now the government is broken, and the world feels a bit out of kilter. We humans need some kind of certainty to feel safe. There is no certainty about how this conflict will be resolved, or when. It’s tempting boil it down to a simple dichotomy of Good and Bad Government, good and evil, but that doesn’t describe the whole picture. We are no longer living in the Age of Reason, but our form of governing ourselves depends on some kind of rationality and ability to compromise.
I hope we return to it sooner rather than later.
In writing this post, I had help from Wikipedia and http://www.http://ushistory.org