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A Flawed, Good Government

One of the points I made in my last blog was that cynicism about the government not only casts an unjustified wide net that claims everybody is corrupt, it often spawns apathy that leads people to ignore what is going on politically, even to the point of not voting.  

What is easily overlooked is the fact that cynicism and apathy are rooted in a naïve view of institutions. They want the government to be better than it is when the truth is, institutions cannot be better than they are because it is the nature of institutions to be corrupt.

By corrupt I mean that institutions invariably and inevitably lose sight of their original purpose, become self-serving, allow people to become leaders who have no real commitment to the institution’s mission, and sooner or later put money before people. 

This may sound cynical in itself, but it isn’t because it is based on empirical data, on facts easily observed. In other words, that institutions are corrupt is not a criticism, it is a description.

I know of what I speak. I have spent a life-time in the oldest continuing institution in the world – the church – that has had an unbroken life-span of 2000 years. As an institution, the church is as corrupt as they come. Centuries ago it identified the Seven Deadly Sins – Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, Pride – because it was guilty of all seven. It still is.  

The reason the church is corrupt is because it is led by people. So is every institution on earth, and that is why every institution is corrupt. Institutions exist because people create and run them, and people are weak, flawed, selfish, sinful, use whatever adjective you want to. All of them fit.

Even the best man or woman has flaws, weakness, moments of moral failure, moments in which terrible mistakes are made. 

Yet people are also good, righteous, noble, capable of doing wonderful things for others, often willing to sacrifice their very lives to save someone else.

This is the human condition, the good and the bad mixed together in a constant struggle to gain control. Sometimes the good rises above the bad and inspires others to do better. Sometimes the bad rises above the good and does terrible things.

Individuals and groups can reach the level of being so bad we use the word “evil” to describe them, but most of us live our lives in the manageable tension between the good in us and the bad in us.

Institutions are no different because they are the lengthened shadow of the people who lead them, with all the good and bad in them wrestling for control. Governments are such institutions. They are as bad and as good as the people in them.

That fact demands that we have some perspective when we see what is bad about our government. It is bad and does bad things, but it is also good and does good things, all because of the people in it.

I believe the difference between the two major political parties – Republicans and Democrats – is not that one is corrupt and the other isn’t. I would argue that the real difference is the distinction in their perspective on government.

Republicans hate government. Democrats don’t. Republicans believe the less government the better. Democrats don’t. 

Republicans want Americans to believe their government is bad, so bad in fact that they want to follow the advice of anti-tax Republican Grover Norquist who said that he wanted to reduce government down to the size where he can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.

Democrats don’t want to do that. Democrats don’t believe government should be destroyed, abolished, limited to the point of being feckless.

Neither did our founders. They tried the way modern Republicans want things when they wrote the Articles of Confederation that created a federal government that had no power to tax and, thus, no money to do anything. It existed more on paper than in reality. The states had all the political power. 

It failed miserably to establish the government the new nation needed and the founders admitted it, replacing it with the Constitution that we now have. There was strong opposition to ratifying the Second Constitution, but eventually it was. I have no doubt that today’s Republicans would have been among its strongest opponents.

These very different perspectives on government the two major parties hold is why there will be chaos and conflict in the House of Representatives for the next two years. The goal of House Republicans is not to have better government. They want as little government as possible, and preferably none at all. 

They have already passed a bill cutting the IRS budget, which if it became law would mean the government would have less money and be forced to make deep cuts in its budget, especially directed at social programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. The aim is what we have been saying, to reduce the government down to the size where Republicans can drown it in the bathtub. 

The first big step to this end Republicans say they will take is to refuse to raise the debt ceiling that is necessary for the government to pay the bills it already owes. If Democrats don’t agree to the budget cuts Republicans want, they say they will shut down the government completely and let the country default on its debt.

This is what the next two years are going to look like because voters who are disillusioned with government run by people just like themselves voted for people who want to defund the federal government so it cannot do anything it is currently doing.

I don’t understand it. As corrupt as the church is, I don’t want to drown it in a bathtub. I feel the same way about our government.

Our government has its faults, probably more than we can count, but what is wrong with it is offset by the good things it does, and each good thing moves the country closer to being a more perfect union. 

It makes for an effective sound bite, as lies often do, to say the government is the problem, but it’s not. Most grown-ups understand that if we wait for perfection, nothing will ever get done. It’s the immature not yet grown-ups who can’t tolerate the inevitable flaws of institutions that want to reduce government to nothing.

At the moment the House of Representatives is controlled by the latter. I am confident we will survive their adolescent antics, but we cannot at any point give them reason to believe we want what they do.  

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