Government Isn't Us

This Post was originally posted at the Blog of the Cambridge University Conservative Association.

President Obama recently spoke at the University of Michigan. In his speech, he criticised those who attack government as inherently bad. He stated that such people fail to comprehend that “in a democracy, Government is us.”

Why Obama Is Wrong – 1. Democracy?!?

At some level, democratic governments are supposed to be the collective will of the people. But let’s think about that for a second.

In the 2008 election, approximately 63 million votes for Obama were cast. That’s about a fifth of the people. You can’t claim that every policy you want is justified by the fact that a fifth of Americans voted for you, even if fewer voted for the alternative. At the very least, Obama should be saying that Government should be us.

Moreover, this is a rather disturbing example of the belief that 50%+1 should be able to set the rules for everyone. If you’re in the majority, you can get whatever you want; in the land of “we”, people have to give and take. Perhaps for students at the University of Michigan, in a town which voted 70% for Obama, the President meant “We, the majority” rather than “We, the People.”

Why Obama Is Wrong – 2. If Government Is Us, Why Does the State have Special Powers?

Is it right if I lock you up? Can I take thousands of pounds with the threat of force if you do not comply? Can I order a drone to blow you to smithereens? No. No. No.

If we agree with Mr. Obama, then it is morally OK for a large group of people to do things which would be wrong if individuals did them. Indeed, as noted above in the Democracy section, Obama would seem to believe that a sufficiently large mob becomes moral by virtue of its size alone.

There are reasons why the State has some special powers – some theorists might consider it a Social Contract whereby individuals trade some liberty for security. It remains the case, however, that Government is an entity that is supposed to work on our behalf, rather than “us”.

If Government is Not “Us”, What Is?

What can be termed “us” accurately? It would have to be the sum of everyone’s interactions with everyone else. There are two words we could use for this – Society, or the Market. The former implies non-financial interactions and the latter the opposite, but in reality, they are interchangeable. Why? If one stops looking at the Market narrowly as exchange of money and looks at it more broadly as the exchange of our wants and needs, one can include the way we choose to spend our time and amuse ourselves as well.

There is such a thing as Society. It’s not the same as Government, but it is the same as the Market.