If one lives in an oppressive system, like Iran or North Korea, then, yes, one can quite easily make the claim that government can be evil.
Modern history is littered with examples of evil governments, from Stalin’s USSR to Pol Pot’s Cambodia.
But what all these governments have in common is a lack of agency among its subjects. The people who lived and continue to live under those regimes have no political control over their lives. Decisions are mandated from some remote source, and all opposition is quashed. With my cantankerous nature, I certainly wouldn’t want to live in the Iran of Ahmedinajad, or the Belarus of Lukashenko.
This is not the case in the United States of America.
For all our faults, citizens are in control of their own destinies, or should be. Elections are frequent, common, and free. Whether we like it or not, Tea Party governors and legislatures were elected openly, and their policies have the imprimatur of the electorate.
Which is why, whenever I hear anyone say that “government is evil”, or “government is the problem”, I want to shake them until a modicum of sense seeps back into their addled brains.
Let’s take a look at two of President Obama’s recent “scandals”, and at the tragedies in Oklahoma.
In the IRS “scandal”, overzealous IRS employees, deluged with Tea Party applications for 501 c 3 status, decided to look more closely at those applications. The fact was that these employees were operating with very vague guidelines, as the Supreme Court’s decision that money was speech didn’t put in place policies to guide employees as to the appropriate tax status of all these new “social” organizations. Such policies also weren’t enacted by Congress. The policies put in place by the IRS evolved, and as they evolved, they grew to the point where most all applications were approved. We can argue whether organizations—of either the left or right—which are devoted mostly to political work should be tax exempt. I, of course, think they shouldn’t, either on the left or right. But that’s the muddle in which we find ourselves thanks to a bought and paid for Supreme Court, and the “government”, once the situation was evident, moved to correct the disparities based on existing law. No groups were persecuted or denied something afforded to other similar groups. This was far from a case of government oppression of protected political activity.
The AP “scandal” is even more clear cut. An AP story alerted Al Qaeda to a CIA operative in its midst. We, of course, don’t know the ramifications of that leak. We don’t know if people working with the US were captured or killed. At the very least, the AP story terminated an ongoing intelligence operation which yielded much good work, including the prevention of an airline bombing. The AP had a right to publish the story; but it has no right to shield the person who leaked the information, which threatened national security and a theater in the struggle against Al Qaeda. Furthermore, despite the hysterics from the fourth estate, the AP wasn’t being “spied” upon. If they can’t tell the difference between spying and obtaining phone records from a legal search warrant, then they have no business reporting on anything. No, the government isn’t “evil” for subpoenaing the AP; it is, in fact, doing what the Right always wanted the government to do, which is to quash national security leaks. But, of course, it’s quite different when Barack Obama is the one pursuing those leaks.
Now we come to the tragedies in Oklahoma. Let’s put aside for the moment all talk about climate change and the fact that such change will make our weather more extreme. (Yes, Sarah Palin, including snow in Alaska in May, you vituperative, know-nothing guttersnipe.) Who is going to be there helping those affected put together their lives? Yes, the evil government. The government, much like a lawyer, is evil—until you need it.
But what kind of civilized life would we have without a strong, well-funded government? None, as far as I can see. From disaster relief to clean air and clean water to drug standards to food safety to the thousand other things which make modern life possible, government has its hand in it all.
And what is this government? You. And me. And your neighbor next door.
The greatest trick the Right has pulled is to con its followers into thinking of “government” as an “Other”, something far away and alien. The Founding Fathers they parrot ad nauseam would be aghast as such an ideology. Although their concept of the makeup of the Republic was limited—white men, propertied, no blacks or women—their idea was that all citizens had the right and the obligation to self-government. The thought of a political faction divorcing the idea of “government” from the rights and obligations of a citizen would have been anathema to them.
But, that’s where we are. The tragedies in Oklahoma are going to stir up the images of Congressional dysfunction once more. Yet again, there are Republican legislators (like Oklahoma’s very own Senator Coburn) who vow that any aid to Oklahoma must be offset by spending cuts elsewhere, holding victims of unimaginable tragedy hostage to the political combat of the day. The churlishness on display while people are in mourning is hard to fathom
And yet, we have stories of neighbors running towards the rubble, of teachers shielding their students, of first responders digging frantically to save lives. And we have a President who doesn’t think of red states or blue states, but of people suffering who need all the help he can offer.
Government is not evil, because we are the government. To say that it is evil is to say that we are evil. To say that it does ill, apart from any power we have to control it and change it, or consent we give, is to surrender to the grossest sort of nihilism. And that would be the end of any civilized life.
Don’t listen to the hucksters and the charlatans; all they have to sell is falsity and resentment. I’m with those that hope and work and make the world just a bit better. The government is only as good as we make it.