Govt neutrality a myth

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Barack Obama is under fire. George Will, a conservative commentator – one of the very smart ones, not a rhetoric-spewing hater – has a strong editorial in today’s Post about the IRS scandal:

Haven’t heard of it? The deal is, the IRS decided to investigate conservative groups in the process of determining their tax status – investigations that were not conducted on groups more favourable to the Democrat cause.

It’s one of just three scandals brewing in DC. The Benghazi incident last September 11 in Libya continues to brew. Obama’s administration characterized it as an out-of-control riot that ended with the murder of a diplomat and a security team, when it’s been revealed it was a planned act of terror. The Democrats have been stumbling over their story on Benghazi from day one.

And the justice department revealed it was tapping phones at the Associated Press. Not exactly the kind of behavior that will endear an administration to journalists.

I especially like this part of Will’s editorial:

Jay Carney, whose unenviable job is not to explain but to explain away what his employers say, calls the IRS’ behavior ‘inappropriate.’ No, using the salad fork for the entree is inappropriate. Using the IRS for political purposes is a criminal offense.”

…and this…

Five days before the IRS story broke, Obama, sermonizing 109 miles northeast of Cincinnati, warned Ohio State graduates about ‘creeping cynicism’ and ‘voices’ that ‘warn that tyranny is … around the corner.’ Well.

He stigmatizes as the vice of cynicism what actually is the virtue of skepticism about the myth that the tentacles of the regulatory state are administered by disinterested operatives.”

Why should we care what’s happening in Washington? Other than the obvious – America is very big and powerful and right next door to us – this type of behavior is illuminating when we consider the power of government in all of our lives. I particularly like Will’s phrase about the myth of regulations being administered by disinterested operatives.

When you’re a child, government is generally good. It’s the roads and the schools and the police, and the people who make sure we have soldiers and prisons for bad people. That’s the child’s perspective. As adults, though, that view needs to be more nuanced.

Government is not neutral. Not the politicians, not the mandarins, not the frontline staffers nor the union members. Like all of us, they have personal opinions but, more importantly, they have skin in the game: careers and incomes. Unlike the rest of us, though, they are backed by society’s most powerful tool, namely coercion. You don’t have to shop at a store you don’t like, but you do have to submit Form A and Form B if the government says you do.

This is not a screed against government. There are good politicians and good public servants, valuable government functions and necessary red tape. I get that. But this is a warning against the assumption government – federal, provincial, local – always has the public’s best interests at heart. The child’s narrative of private sector being greedy and public sector being dispassionate and neutral is a fantasy. Instead, there are people pursuing their own paths to the benefit of themselves and those they care about. A sense of duty to society and a desire to serve absolutely exists, and probably in most of us to varying degrees. But it is not the principle motivation for the overwhelming majority of people nor, frankly, do I think it should be.

I don’t care about you as much as I care about my spouse, for example, and I care about someone on the other side of the planet even less.

Some people are uncomfortable saying that, but I’m not. In fact, the idea that principle would trump emotional attachment to such a degree it would put our closest loved ones on par with complete strangers strikes me as a denial of the human experience. Self-interest is normal and nothing to apologize for.

Politicians want to be principled, but most want to be principled less than they want to be successful politicians. It would be nice if that weren’t the case, but it’s unreasonable to expect it to be otherwise. So what does that mean for government?

It means we shouldn’t believe government wants what’s best for us. It means we should tell government that what’s best for them is to do what we want or they’ll be out of jobs in the next election. It means we should always be suspicious of public servants and never let up our scrutiny. (Unfair? Then don’t work for the public.) And it also means we shouldn’t buy into the absurd notion that the more money we give government, the kinder and better society we’ll have.

The government is a vital, central part of a free and civilized society. But its best role is as regulator – a check on the potential rapacity of private industry – and its second best might be as savior of those among us who truly can’t help themselves. Many of its other functions are make-work projects and babysitting.

Government isn’t the enemy nor are the people who work for it. But their desire to improve their circumstances must be checked by our desires to hang onto our liberty, property and hopes for future generations.

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