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By Tom Cushing

"...On the Pavement, Thinkin' 'Bout the Government ..." Part One

Uploaded: Oct 15, 2013

Setting aside Dylan's badge-wearing man in a trench coat (laid-off in the government shutdown), I Have Been thinking about the government lately. So have others, like Senator Warren and Professor Reich, who've been busily stealing some of my thunder. Hopefully, there's enough left to justify this week's missives, today and Friday.

Across the entire population, Americans have an abiding distrust of government – dating from before the founding of the Republic. That's understandable, based on the motivations of its early European settlers (to say nothing of the experiences of those who were already here, or came unwillingly, under color of law). The American Revolution was fought to oust a tyrant King, and early attempts to organize the former colonies under Articles of Confederation called for a loose state alignment around a weak central government – kind of a prior-day European Union.

This desire to not be fooled again, to borrow another rock lyric ("meet the new boss – same as the old boss"), dominated the debates that culminated in ratification of the Constitution under which we govern ourselves today. In return for a stronger central government, the anti-federalists won inclusion of the Bill of Rights – the first ten amendments to the new document.

These consist of limitations on the power of the government, acting against individuals, or claiming "inherent" powers other than those enumerated in the document. The colonists had suffered mightily under political censorship, unfettered searches of their property and incarceration without charges – and many had been persecuted for their religious beliefs, often as against state-sponsored church institutions. They wanted, and got, further assurances that they weren't just substituting one brand of tyranny for another.

Frustration with government contributed to secession and the Civil War, which killed more Americans than any other armed conflict. 2% of the American population died in that conflict; no one alive was untouched by it.

Distrust can also be found in other great social struggles – over racial civil rights, labor organizing and wars like Vietnam. There, the government's might was often a tool of suppression – enforcement of Jim Crow laws, strike-breaking and prosecutions ("better stay away from those who carry 'round the fire hose"), and those Chicago police whose job it was "not to create disorder, but to preserve disorder," according to Da Mayor.

In the 20th century to the present, government has also been seen as intruding into private lives, via such matters as taxation to finance its burgeoning mission, regulation of conduct (employment, environment, firearms), relief/transfer payments, and compilation of data, ostensibly to keep faith with its baseline purpose of the common defense.

To be sure, that unease takes-on different aspects, depending on where you sit in the political spectrum. Lefties tend to worry about government involvement in issues like personal privacy ("phone's tapped anyway"), foreign adventures inconsistent with the best American angels, and undue influence of what Ike called the Military-Industrial Complex (now much broader than just Defense, and much more incestuous). They worry that current government policies cater to the affluent, and don't do enough to encourage a vibrant middle class and upward economic mobility ("twenty-years of schooling and they put you on the day-shift").

Righties, for their part, fulminate about the sheer size of government, its complexity, its profligate spending habits and its penchant for social policy intrusions like anti-discrimination laws and progressive taxation. In their loyalty to unfettered markets, they dislike the inefficiencies of operations not ruled by profit motivation, and regulations that constrain their business instincts.

They worry when government enforcement can't seem to keep the vandals from taking the handles. And they dislike government efforts at relief – whether for the aged, infirm or simply unlucky – preferring to put faith in a perceived meritocracy that has served them well, and relegate relief to the tender mercies of non-profit and religious institutions. I believe they call it "income redistribution."

So, with all this suspicion and doubt, bridging the entire political spectrum – why, then, do we care so much when government's health is imperiled via shutdown and threat of default? More on that in Part Deux.

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