Here’s a quick thought exercise: Imagine human society as an automobile. Now, where does government fit in this metaphor?
Your answer would probably reveal a good deal about how you view government, but this is my blog damnit, so we’re going to discuss my answer.
Government is friction.
Now before I get people yelling about mixed metaphors, allow me to explain more fully.
Friction isn’t always a bad thing in a car. Sure, you take the car in to get the oil changed on a regular basis (at least I hope you do), but without friction in all the right places, nothing works properly.
Friction is the means by which power is transmitted from the engine to the wheels, and from the wheels to the ground. Friction on the brakes keeps the car from running amok, friction on the wheel and the pedals permits control.
The thing about friction is that you want just enough, and in precisely the right places, in order to ensure maximum performance. Too much, and the car stops moving. Too little, and it either endlessly spins out in place or simply slides from one catastrophe to another.
So just enough, and in just the right places. And for more than simply practical reasons.
Because here’s another metaphor for you: Government is you holding a gun to the head of your neighbor and saying “Do what I want or I’ll shoot you.”
The greatest trick that governments ever pulled in the West was making people believe that they operated on some principle other than the threat of death.
“But wait!” you cry, “my government allows me freedoms! I am free to speak, to criticize, to vote and assemble, to bear arms, and the death penalty is forbidden! MY government doesn’t work that way!”
Ask yourself this: what happens to you if you reject the authority of your oh-so-benevolent government? If, for example, you get out on your front lawn and say that you have no intention of paying your income taxes; that the money you earned is yours and you intend to keep it, and that you will take whatever means are necessary to do so?
“Well, they’ll arrest you. They won’t simply shoot you!”
What if you resist arrest? To jump to the end of a long set of escalating responses, what if, when they come to take you away, you “simply shoot” one of the officers?
Daylight dawns in the swamp.
Oh, sure, they might manage to take you in alive regardless. But then that means incarceration, having your freedoms stripped from you, and if you resist that, well…
Hopefully you see my point.
In practice, every codified punishment under the law bears a hidden caveat at the end: “… or we can just shoot you.”
And what’s truly galling is that that threat of death doesn’t exist because of the crime you committed, it exists solely to prevent people from questioning the right of the government to enact its chosen punishment. The police won’t shoot you for jaywalking, but they will shoot you if you resist a jaywalking citation violently enough.
Don’t want to get a driver’s license? Well, we can just shoot you. Health insurance? Got a bullet for that too. Built something on your own land without permission? Psh, we can do this all day.
But here’s the rub: We need it. We need government, and the rule of law, and that abstracted Sword of Damocles hanging over our heads at every moment, because we’ve seen what happens without it.
And it’s worse.
Just enough, and in just the right places, and you save vastly more lives than you take.
The tricky part, of course, is figuring out how much is just enough, and where exactly the right places are.
The SEC, for example, is probably in the right place. We desperately need some sort of regulation in the market, or it will inevitably self-destruct.
To say that the SEC is applying the right amount of friction is to display an unbelievable amount of naivete. The SEC seems to waver between being inept, toothless, and downright crooked, and is just about the Platonic Form of regulatory capture. The government has failed miserably in that instance, because we have failed miserably in our role as citizens.
We are the government, in theory, but in practice our role is to hold government accountable for its actions.
And we just don’t.
A few years back I mentioned that in the 2012 election, at a time when Congressional approval ratings were as low as 10%, 90% of the incumbent candidates were reelected.
Think about that for a second.
Ten percent approval.
Ninety percent reelected.
There are excuses, of course. We’ve allowed the two big parties to rig the game so thoroughly that they can get away with damned near anything and still get reelected, gerrymandering districts into something more appropriate for a Rorschach test than for representative government, but the key part of that sentence is at the beginning: We’ve allowed.
And this situation will continue so long as we allow it to. We’ve been asleep at the wheel, and when it all goes to hell, we blame everything but ourselves. But you can’t blame the brakes for failing when you’re the one who didn’t even hit the pedal. Can’t blame the car when your hands weren’t even on the wheel.
The car is in motion, and it will never stop. But with the right amount of friction, in just the right places, we can at least steer it where we want it to go.
So take the wheel.