There was a sort of mini-meme earlier this month circulating around left and liberal blogs, a response in a thread at digg.com satirizing conservative hostility to government by calling attention to all the high-quality services provided by government that we depend upon in an average day.
It’s an old sentiment, and a perfectly sensible reply to the notion that the state taints everything by its very nature. It’s not likely to convince people who have an impossibly sanctified conception of the market and its capacity to enhance human life, or an equally determined vision of the state as purely and inevitably demonic (save, perhaps, its military or police capacities). But liberals not unreasonably hope to remind most people of the lasting benefits that have followed the early 20th Century expansion of the idea and reach of public services and government responsibilities.
On the other hand, there’s a danger to defending the state as an institution by listing its productive integration into everyday life. For one, it’s important for educated elites in the U.S. and Western Europe to seriously consider the degree to which that state, the state that provides services and protections, is an institution to which those elites have privileged access. It is in some sense “their” institution: they provide its upper leadership and fill out most of the middle management in areas that process or generate expert knowledge and intervention. They feel more comfortable interpreting the state’s activities and interacting with its operations. If they feel at risk from the actions of the government, they’re often more comfortable negotiating or actively blocking those actions. (If nothing else, you’re going to be a more successful NIMBY if you’ve got some money and some education on your side.) When you feel more comfortable with government, it’s hard to understand why anyone else wouldn’t feel the same way.
I’ve pointed out before in the context of U.S. politics why some constituencies flatly reject portrayals of government as a potential savior despite the fact that they’re beneficiaries of many governmental programs and actions. The manipulative cynicism of many conservative pundits aside, a more grass-roots rejection of government often stems from a feeling that the state is simply not capable of systematic improvement to the circumstances that some communities find themselves in. It’s not that it’s incompetent to do so, more that those communities feel a fatalism about the drift of history, a sense that if life is growing steadily worse in its moral, economic and social character, there is no policy, no expert opinion, no government agency, capable of addressing that situation.
There’s another aspect to this populist skepticism about government that I think is much more widely shared and not really ideologically conservative by its nature. This New York Times piece today about a public struggle over the fate of some deer and a moose in Vermont is a pretty good example. On one hand, you’ve got experts trying to manage animal populations so as to minimize the threat of chronic wasting disease on behalf of the public interest. On the other hand, you’ve got a guy with a pet moose that he loves.
The experts are trying to do their best to look out for the people of Vermont and their environment. The policy on chronic wasting disease has the same intent as all the other things that the state of Vermont does to protect its public lands and the health and welfare of the state and its people, all the invisible things that the digg.com poster was trying to remind us that we depend upon and expect.
But each of us knows and lives our existence at a more intimate scale, where the abstraction of the public interest seems impoverished and cold compared to the vivid individuality of real people and real circumstances. Pete the moose’s owner is wondering why it can’t be “arranged where nobody wins and nobody loses”, why you can’t have a general policy about moose and deer and elk together in a hunting farm that also makes an explicit exception for Pete or for some deer or for the circumstances of one man’s facility. Vermont’s a small state, after all, and the elk-hunting farm in question is one of only two in the state. Shouldn’t that make it possible to make law and policy which is flexible and circumstantial rather than dispassionate and detached?
The reports about government action which are told and circulate as horror stories are often this kind of tale, where government officials intervene crudely in the name of a policy or procedure into subtle circumstances and produce individual injustice or suffering while claiming to protect a higher or more generalized principle. Sometimes that has something to do with the petty authoritarianism of official culture, the same kind of license that a TSA screener who makes your life miserable is abusing.
Often, however, this is just about an incompatibility between public and individual scales of life. If you start cutting separate deals with everyone who pleads that their circumstances are special, that a legitimate attempt to safeguard the public shouldn’t apply to them, you’ll end up with a public policy that applies to no one. Let’s suppose that the regulations proposed in Vermont are a good way to contain the potential spread of chronic wasting disease. (I’m well aware that you could question them in purely expert terms, but for argument’s sake, let’s put that aside.) So Doug Nelson and Pete the moose get an exemption. Presumably the other elk-hunting farm in Vermont should be offered that too, if it’s asked for. What if someone else rescues some deer and moose under circumstances similar to Nelson and ends up feeling equally attached to them emotionally? The whole point of making an exemption is to recognize the quality and depth of Nelson’s individual feelings and experience with Pete: how could you refuse a similar circumstance in the future merely because it happens after a policy gets made?
What if, what if, what if. These are the counterfactuals that policy-makers tell about exceptions and circumstances, as a kind of totemic ward against their power. If we had to consider circumstances, they say, we’d never get anything done. Or we’d open ourselves up to a kind of corruption and abuse because you would necessarily have to devolve authority to the most local levels of a bureaucracy and trust those individuals to navigate intimate circumstances of real life with discretion and sensitivity. That worries many people as much as inflexible or blanket policies. It’s unnerving, that idea that you can’t really say what an institution or government is going to do until the actual circumstances of action present themselves. It amounts to a blank-check invitation to small-town Bonapartism.
This is the well-worn terrain on which 19th Century liberalism and the modern nation-state were born and it has ever since been the proving ground for that ideal and that institution. I don’t see a way off the map, but it’s well to be mindful of Pete the moose every time we’re tempted to recite the catechism of government’s benefits.