The Basics: What is a government

If we’re ever going to actually get government under control, we have to stop being sloppy about managing government. By sloppy, I mean ignoring the boring stuff in favor of the latest shiny distraction that somebody decides to offer. One of the most fundamental questions is what is a government. You would think we would know that. You would think that somewhere in some bureaucracy somebody would assemble a comprehensive list of all the governments that we could all work off of.

You would be wrong.

There is a national list of governments. The census puts one out every five years. The census of governments, however, is done from a federal perspective according to uniform federal rules. It is the federal government’s opinion what governments are out there but the vast majority of governments are subsidiaries of an individual state, not the federal government. A small minority of governments even cover territory in multiple states. If a state says an organization is a government but the federal government disagrees, or vice versa, a comprehensive list of governments would include that organization. Nobody has ever assembled such a list.


This matters because lying about whether something is a government is a great way to get around legal barriers such as Indiana’s constitutional restriction on public indebtedness, which are regularly violated by Indiana when they build libraries. But those end run organizations end up on the federal census.

Other organizations are left off the federal census because they’re considered sham governments, wholly dependent on other governments for their powers, funding, or existence. The feds consider them puppets dancing to someone else’s tune even as the state recognizes them as legitimate governments.

If we ever want to fix the problem of big government, both these kinds of organizations need to be monitored, along with the tens of thousands of organizations that both state and federal officials agree are governments. Until we get that basic task out of the way, we’re always going to be blindsided as new and creative ways are developed to metastasize government into something monstrous.

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