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The Reactionary Utopian – Classic
April 6, 2010

The Government We’re Stuck With
A Classic by Joseph Sobran
fitzgerald griffin foundation

[Confusing legislation with government]

DUNN LORING, VA — Are you trapped in an abusive relationship with your government? Does it do all the taking and none of the giving? Has it become increasingly demanding and dependent? Does it refuse to admit being at fault? Does it always insist on being the dominant partner, while refusing to accept its own responsibilities? Does it run up huge bills and stick you with the payments? Is it secretive and evasive about its activities, while denying you your own space and privacy? Does it demand your undivided love, while remaining emotionally distant from you and indifferent to your basic needs?

If you answered yes to all these questions, you have a problem. In fact, you have the same problem every American taxpayer has.

What’s more, there’s no solution. If you had a spouse that behaved like your government, you could not only break free of the relationship, you might be able to collect damages or even have the offender jailed, or at least ordered to stay away from you. But the cost and inconvenience of divorcing your government is prohibitive. You have to leave your home, move far away, and start a completely new life.

For many people, the problem is aggravated by denial — the need to pretend that everything is all right because many other governments are even worse. They feel guilty if they criticize their own government, which constantly tells them how lucky they are not to be living elsewhere. It’s as if an alcoholic, adulterous wife-beater were to keep reminding his wife that she’s fortunate he’s not O.J. Simpson.

The modern state stands ready to release you from all your duties to your own family, while constantly increasing your political obligations. You can divorce your spouse, neglect your parents, abandon or abort your children. But you’d better pay your taxes, most of which will be spent for the benefit of people you’ve never met and have never agreed to support.

This system of forcing some to pay others’ way is justified as “compassion,” but it’s an inversion of the natural order of love, the family-centered affections that modern liberalism despises as narrow and selfish. It’s typical of the champions of the all-absorbing state that even as they treat the family as something a child must be protected from, they try to clothe the state itself in the warm metaphors of “family,” “community,” and “village.”

Our public discussion seems to assume that it’s the destiny of the state to keep getting bigger, without limit. We are told that we’re not being governed unless Congress is continually passing new laws. But this confuses governing with legislating. We have more than enough laws, while the most basic ones are being enforced less and less. The disparity between the number of laws on the books and the will to punish violent crime ought to tell us something, but it doesn’t seem to. We complain about “partisan bickering” and “gridlock” and demand that Congress get back to passing more laws, any laws.

The current scandals have almost nothing to do with the central problem: defining the proper role of government. Neither party has anything worth calling a philosophy; both talk vaguely about reducing government’s size without specifying its nature, purpose, and limits. But it’s obtuse to discuss political questions exclusively in terms of quantity, in an inane dialectic of empty uplift and equally empty cynicism.

In reality, both parties seem to feel we’re stuck with the kind of government we have. It’s instructive to contrast their vacuous debates with the real debates this country witnessed before the Civil War. Not only was the rhetoric grander; the substance was solid. From Jefferson and Hamilton to Lincoln and Douglas, people argued about the principles of government, on the assumption that they could still shape their destiny.

We can’t assume that anymore. A sense of dull doom hangs over our politics, as if the fateful decisions have already been made for us, and all that’s left is a little wiggle room. The awful part is the suspicion that we may be getting the kind of government we deserve.

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Copyright © 2010 by Joe Sobran and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. A version of this column was published by the Universal Press Syndicate on January 28, 1997.

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