(Author’s note: this is a post about ideas, not politics. It is unrelated to current events. It simply examines the philosophical views expressed by our Chief Executive.)
In a number of speeches, the President has outlined his views on the legitimacy of government. Following the Tea Party success in 2010, he resolutely responded to those who attack government. In his words:
The democracy designed by Jefferson and the other founders was never intended to solve every problem with a new law or a new program. Having thrown off the tyranny of the British Empire, the first Americans were understandably skeptical of government. Ever since, we have held fast to the belief that government doesn’t have all the answers, and we have cherished and fiercely defended our individual freedom. That is a strand of our nation’s DNA… But what troubles me is when I hear people say that all of government is inherently bad…For when our government is spoken of as some menacing, threatening foreign entity, it conveniently ignores the fact in our democracy, government is us. We, the people, hold in our hands the power to choose our leaders, change our laws, and shape our own destiny. (Michigan 2010 speech)
And again recently:
Unfortunately, you’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems; some of these same voices also doing their best to gum up the works. They’ll warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices. Because what they suggest is that our brave and creative and unique experiment in self-rule is somehow just a sham with which we can’t be trusted. (Ohio State 2013 speech)
In a sense, there’s little that is new. The President’s view is not necessarily statist in the sense that everything must come from government. He holds the fairly standard view that markets should be robust, but that market failures and other societal needs require government action. His views about the size of government are of course more expansive than that of most readers of this blog, but they are not out of the mainstream: they summarize the standard progressive position.
Yet it is not this antinomy between large versus small government that I want to discuss here. It is, rather, the President’s concept of legitimacy of government action. His view is disarmingly simple: the government is us. The government is not morally separate from us. We are part of it; indeed, that is the centerpiece of the “brave and creative and unique experiment in self-rule” that the President evokes. This view seems to suggest that when the government acts, it’s we who act. So if (say) the government snoops on journalists, then it is us who are snooping on journalists. This is because government and people are one undifferentiated entity. In our democracy, the government can never be tyrannical by definition, because whatever harm the government may inflict, it is self-inflicted. The people has harmed itself, and, of course, volenti non fit injuria (to the willing no injustice is done.) So when you lash out against government you are not lashing out against some sinister entity that is alien to you, but at an institution of which you are an integral part. Such view owes much to Rousseau and his concept of the collective will. Immanuel Kant flirts with this idea as well (see the Doctrine of Right on legislation, and his claim that the concept of revolution is an oxymoron). It is also reminiscent of some of Hegel’s organic conceptions of the state.
The idea, however, does not stand scrutiny. The government is an agent that we hire to do a certain job. The government is not us. It is contractually related to us. It has a fiduciary duty toward us, the duty to provide the services for which it was hired. This does not prejudge the question of how large that mandate should be. As any economist knows, fiduciary relationships often generate agency costs. The government sometimes acts ultra vires, it oversteps its powers, it spins out of control. When that happens, the position that the government is separate from us, that it has turned against us, is perfectly intelligible and justified. With the possible exception of Rousseau, the view that democratic procedures are sufficient warrant for government action is not supported by any credible philosophical view.
Let me put the matter a different way. In a well-functioning democracy, a government is composed of officials who play certain roles defined by laws, by rules. When officials perform coercive acts unauthorized by those rules, they violate the rights of the subjects. Those acts are impermissible acts of coercion. If this is correct, then the insistence that our “unique experiment in self-rule” somehow preempts us from warning about the dangers of government must be rejected. With the exception of anarchists, few people take the view that government is a “separate, sinister entity.” What libertarians and others do is to warn against the excesses of government, its threats to our liberties, its inefficiencies. Above all (and this is something the President overlooks), critics of government, armed with the tools of public choice, point out that the bigger government becomes, the greater is the threat it poses, the larger is the probability that it will malfunction and exceed its rightful function.
At a more general level, we should reject the President’s organicist theory of the state, this notion that we’re “in it all together,” that we are moving parts of an organic whole where we are all responsible in unspecified degrees for government excesses because we are the government. While Obama is right to reject the view that our constitutional democracy is “a sham with which we can’t be trusted,” we must and should retain our healthy skepticism about it, our Lockean intuition that governments are never the appropriate object of unlimited trust.