On Why We Are Told that We Are the Government and the Government Is Us

Read Kevin Vallier on the subject, as he responds to Barack Obama’s claims that “the government is us,” and makes a host of interesting points in response, including the following:

To vindicate the idea that the government “is us” in some interesting fashion requires a lot of heavy philosophical lifting. You have to do all of the following:

(1) Define the idea of a general will or collective will in a plausible fashion.

(2) Show that the idea does not contain an inherent contradiction (like an Arrow impossibility result).

(3) Show the ideal is normatively powerful enough to justify a state, any state.

(4) Explain how a government could be structured to express this will.

(5) Explain how individuals must be motivated in order to express this will.

And that’s just the normative part. On to the descriptive part:

(6) Argue that modern democratic governments are at least similar to the ideal institutional type.

(7) Argue that modern democratic citizens are at least similar to their motivational ideals.

(8) Argue that the relevant similarities are sufficient to show that democratic governments and citizens at least partly realize the ideal.

This is a tall order indeed. You’re going to have to be Rousseau, Kant, Rawls or Habermas or one who operates in their shadows to even formulate an interconnected and coherent series of arguments to reach these goals.

Quite so, and Vallier is to be praised for having laid all of this out–and for making it clear that just about no one is going to be able to clear this particular bar. Having written all of this, I do want to take slight issue with the following from Vallier:

Now readers on this blog, including myself, think this claim [that the government is us–ed.] is obviously false and that those who think it is true labor under a serious and dangerous delusion. Even if government isn’t inherently evil, the idea that it expresses our will to such an extent that the government should somehow be identified with its subjects is simply a quasi-theological belief that legitimates the power of the democratic state.

And yet, why do people think that this is true? Obama’s no moron, and he almost certainly thought this before he was president or even thought he could become president, so it’s not just power corrupting him.

Well no, the president is certainly not a moron. But the reason he and other port-siders think this is because he and other port-siders want some form of philosophical justification for the expansion of government into just about every aspect of our daily lives. Thus the claims that we are the government and the government is us; such claims prevent the citizenry from thinking of themselves as being in opposition to the government, and from thinking of the government as some kind of Other. Citizen identification with the government makes it easier to acquiesce in the expansion of government. The president–and those who sympathize with him politically–know all of this, so they are more than happy to press the narrative that we are the government and the government is us.

As Vallier demonstrates, the narrative is false. But it is also superficially appealing–at least to some–so don’t expect the president or his allies to drop it anytime soon.