Q: How do you know when a politician is lying?
A: His lips are moving.
As one might expect, Obama’s speech at the University of Michigan this past weekend contained a healthy portion of misstatements, debatable half-truths, and deep-thick bullshit. If political rhetoric were to pollute our drinking water, we’d be perpetually living in a state of panic, as many here in the Boston area felt the same weekend. But as Christ himself said, it’s not what goes into a person that defiles him, it’s what comes out.
I’m not going through the entire speech, but I’d like to focus on one little gem that was picked up by the AP and rebroadcast far and wide:
What troubles me is when I hear people say that all of government is inherently bad… When our government is spoken of as some menacing, threatening foreign entity, it ignores the fact that in our democracy, government is us.
This snippet contains two huge, obvious fallacies. Can you spot them? If not, don’t worry; I intend to point them out.
First of all, our government is not a democracy; rather, it’s a representative government, where we elect those who represent us in the government. If we had a direct democracy, in which every law was a public referendum, then the government would indeed be us. But as it is, there’s that degree of separation between the government and us. They are the government; we are the governed. And the reason for elections? Because a government only governs at the consent of the governed. That’s just one of the many checks and balances that exist in our system of government, designed to prevent any one group from abusing the power of government.
But the founders of the United States wisely and astutely disparaged direct democracy. Even then, they knew that in a democracy, the majority always ends up using the power of government to oppress the minority. That’s why our government has multiple branches and layers as well as constitutions that limit what the government is allowed to do. And it’s also one of the reasons we generally vote for representatives, rather than on referendums. Even if the government were us, that still would not make it good. That’s the second fallacy, that somehow a democratic government is non-threatening.
(Notice how he also threw in foreign: a “menacing, threatening foreign entity,” as though foreigners are more menacing or more threatening than our fellow Americans. Hey, I’d take a foreigner with a sense of fair play over an American with a extortive agenda any day. But it’s human nature to fear that which is different, and that includes foreigners. Funny, that, the foreigners are to be commended when they promote government policies that Obama wants to copy, such as government-run healthcare, but they’re menacing and threatening otherwise?)
So we come back to the root of Obama’s point, that it troubles him when he hears people say that government is “inherently bad.” Well, I would expect it to trouble him. But that doesn’t make government any more or less “inherently bad.” Our system of government revolves around the idea that government power will eventually be abused, if we let it, either by the majority—as in a democracy—or by the minority—as in a monarchy—not because those holding the reins of power are evil, but because “all power tends to corrupt” (as Lord Acton put it). Our very political tradition is to be skeptical of anyone who claims that power. Given this, I might buy that a certain level of government is a necessary evil, as the saying goes. But even if it’s necessary, that doesn’t make it any less evil, any less inherently bad.