What the Tea Parties Miss: Some Regulation Is Key to a Well-Functioning Society
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Anti-government rhetoric is all the rage these days. And "rage" is the operative word here. Small-government enthusiasts are like the drivers of Hummers incensed at all the difficulties they encounter on the roadway — pesky speed limits, red lights, construction-related delays. Fuming at these restrictions on their liberty, they suddenly have a profanity-laced meltdown and take it out on those around them.
Michele Bachmann (R-Mars), who represents the Palin constituency inside Congress, regularly flies into anti-government rages. "I want people in Minnesota armed and dangerous on this issue of the energy tax because we need to fight back," she told a Minnesota radio program last year. "Thomas Jefferson told us 'having a revolution every now and then is a good thing,' and the people — we the people — are going to have to fight back hard if we're not going to lose our country."
Florida senatorial candidate Marco Rubio has gotten a lot of mileage out of his anti-government tirades. The Obama administration is trying to create "a dependency society," he has said. But of course now he's begging the federal government for assistance in fighting the oil spill.
Ironies abound. These people are in government. I propose we come up with a new term: self-hating politicians. If they hate government so much, the Bachmanns and Rubios of the world should simply resign and get jobs in the private sector. The slogan for the 2010 elections should be: No More Self-Hating Politicians!
Here's the more depressing irony: Right now we need more government, not less. We need sustained government investment in public works. We need the government to focus on sustainable energy and the reduction of carbon emissions. We need assertive diplomacy from the U.S. government in global affairs. The small-government cabal has gotten everything turned around. The government isn't intervening in the economy and suppressing liberty. The government creates the conditions within which liberty can thrive.
Let's go back to the traffic metaphor for a moment. I recently came across an interesting article in The Washington Post that brought together anti-government sentiment and road rage. Complaints have been piling up in Washington over a particular stretch of roadway heading out of the District. After miles of delays on New York Avenue, drivers finally hit a green light at Bladensburg Road and start to accelerate to get out of town. Problem is, 'there's a speed limit on that stretch of highway and speed cameras have been issuing citations.
"What motorists think is happening at this [camera] site is a violation of their sense or understanding of freedom," Isaac Kramnick, professor of government at Cornell University, related to me in a corrected version of a quote he gave the Post. "What they are thinking is that they've come all this way through traffic and now the government is stepping in with a ticket at this crucial moment of freedom."
But how soon the freedom-loving motorists forget! Actually, the government stepped in a long time ago to build and maintain the road, set up the traffic light, establish the rules of traffic safety, and police those rules. Perhaps freedom of a sort existed when New York Avenue was marshy land and 18th-century horseback riders could gallop as fast as they pleased through the mud and muck. Since then, the government has created the conditions under which freedom (to drive) can exist in the first place.
We might quibble about this or that traffic rule. After all, we live in a democracy. But we must recognize that the traffic system saves us from the law of the jungle — might makes right — and tames the savage beast behind the steering wheel. Only because of government-sanctioned rules of the road can the Hummer lie down with the Honda. Government is the real invisible hand here, so invisible that we all forget its role in sustaining commerce, creating jobs, and establishing fair rules.