December 29, 2020 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
We are all responsible for the dead
If the debate is government vs. freedom, it's the wrong debate.
The Editorial Board spends a lot of time talking about the way we talk about politics, because the way we talk about politics often ends up becoming a made-up reality, one that we have to contend with at the same time we contend with real-world reality.
One of the biggest fictions we must all face, because it has been central to the identity of the Republican Party for 40-odd years, is this one: that government is locked in a reciprocal relationship with freedom. In other words, the more government we have, the less freedom we have. The less government we have, the more freedom we have.
We continue to ask ourselves how much government we need to fight the covid pandemic versus how much freedom we lose in the bargain. It’s time to break that cycle for good.
This is not necessarily a conservative view. The framers, after all, designed a system by which power is widely distributed—among federal, state and local governments—so no one person, and no one faction, could accumulate power to rule with impunity.
The framers, however, were not reacting to the advances of mid-20th century rights movements (Black rights, women’s rights, gay rights, etc.). Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, Bill Buckley and other conservatives were. When they said government was best when it governed least, they meant the federal government should do two things: get off the backs of the very obscenely rich as well as off the backs of white-power southerners outraged by federal demands that they treat Black people as equals. (The conservative movement wasn’t just a backlash against rising Black freedom; it was also a backlash against the international order’s effort to contain Communism’s creep.)
We now live in a time of the covid, so naturally, there’s some effort to rethink this conservative view (though not by people who call themselves conservatives, because their conservatism has, in fact, devolved into fascism). While the debate is necessary in light of 343,000 Americans having been killed by the covid, it seems stuck in the reciprocal relationship long ago defined by Reagan. We continue to ask ourselves how much government we need to fight the pandemic versus how much freedom we lose in the bargain (with “mask mandates” and such). It’s time to break that cycle. It’s time to see freedom and government not as two, but as one. It’s time to see government not as something cut off from the people and their sovereignty, but as an expression of both.
Reagan sourced his mantra in Henry David Thoreau. “I heartily accept the motto—‘that government is best which governs least’—and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically,” Thoreau wrote in “Civil Disobedience,” published in 1849. “Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which I also believe—‘that government is best which governs not at all’—and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have. Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient.”
Libertarians say this is not just a call for “limited government,” as the conservatives traditionally argue, but a call to get rid of government altogether. That might make a kind of sense if not for the subject of Thoreau’s civil disobedience. His principled opposition wasn’t rooted in the size, or the presence or absence, of government. It was rooted in what government constitutionally protected at the time: chattel slavery. By refusing to pay his taxes, he was refusing to support it. But that’s not all. Thoreau was objecting to being ensnared in a legal conspiracy against freedom. By objecting to being taxed, he was objecting to his “moral involvement in the misdeeds of government.”
The moral involvement of the misdeeds of government was the subject of Edmond Cahn’s “The Predicament of Democratic Man,” published in 1961. A prominent legal philosopher during his short life, Cahn was like Thoreau in refusing to recognize the gap between government and the people, as conservatives and libertarians do. For Cahn, a democratic government arises from “a democratic temper,” which is to say, “a firm respect for oneself displayed as a sort of briny irreverence toward officials.”
I’m going to close with an extended quote from Cahn, because it seems to me that we are facing the same predicament that he outlines. All of us are responsible for 343,000 dead Americans. All of us have been involved in a misdeed by our government. The question is what we are going to do, because we the people constitute the government.
The democratic temper “asserts that democracy has canceled and obliterated the old line of separation between governments and peoples, that democratic citizens are really operative units and elements within the government, that they are among the number of the governors at the same time that they are among the governed, and that the only acceptable distinction between an official and a general citizen is that the official’s governmental powers, functions and duties are more narrowly defined and specialized. In short, the citizen in a democracy may feel that he too holds an office.”
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.