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November 16th, 2006


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02:47 pm - Thoughts on attitudes towards government
Before I begin this discussion, I would like to ask the various non-Americans reading this for their input.

My question to non-US readers: Is there anything like the general distrust of government found in the US in your country? Is the concept of public education suspect? Is both the right and the ability of the government to make effectively laws about land use considered dubious by many people in your nation?

On with the discussion: I ask this in part because there are definitely times I don't feel particular American in my attitudes. Specifically in my general attitude towards government. Obviously, libertarians and many conservatives despise government and wish to severely limit it. They specifically do not believe that government should or even that it can effectively make people's lives better except in the most minimal ways of enforcing contracts, providing for defense (internal and external) and similar reactive measures. However, social programs ranging from welfare to public education are deeply suspect.

However, such attitudes have spread. As I discuss in this post, these days a great many progressives – perhaps almost half of the progressives I know, also do not trust the very idea of government or the concept that government programs can be useful. When post about public education and alternatives, I not only find objections to the way that it is currently implemented, but also a general distrust in the idea of public education, supported largely by the argument from origins.

While obviously incomplete, I do know that state-sponsored education in Canada and most of the nations of Western Europe and Canada is derived from the exact same 19th century roots as that in the US and that in test scores students from Western Europe regularly do considerably better than US students (thus neatly disproving the argument from origins about US education). My guess is that this generalized distrust of government by both conservatives and progressives is a particularly US problem.

Much of this distrust includes radical (and to me deeply disturbing) ideas about the absolute nature of individual property rights that are almost as common among progressives as among conservatives. Similarly (and utterly bafflingly to me) I've seen progressives argue for destructive nonsense like utility rate deregulation, despite the obvious fact that the only people who benefit from this sort of deregulation are the owners who use the lack of regulation to do their best to rob rate-payer blind (cf. Enron).

A few days ago toy_dragon linked to this excellent post, which contains the valuable (to me at least) point that distrust and loathing of government is a very poor position from which to approach government. This quote from that piece was particularly impressive:
The Republicans have spent three decades very successfully promulgating the idea that the proper attitude toward your government is cynicism and contempt: nothing the government can try to do to help citizens will help them, regulation is explicitly designed to harm you, no politician ever seeks higher office in the interest of public service. This has been so successful, in fact, that it’s not only been the animating force of the “Republican revolution,” it’s taken as clear-as-day gospel truth by nearly every third party. There are aspects of standard Green rhetoric which are just about interchangeable with standard Libertarian rhetoric.
In any case, my take on this issue is that while I do not understand libertarianism, it seems clear to me that many US conservatives became strongly anti-government in the 1960s, when Kennedy and (especially) Johnson used the federal government to reduce poverty and segregation. A great many conservatives are racists and social darwinists, and so they strongly objected to both the idea of desegregation and especially of using their tax monies to pay for this effort or to help improve the lives of people of color and the poor.

In response, they managed to largely dominate the government since 1980 (including the Clinton years, where they merely had the pace of their vile agenda slowed somewhat). During this time, a truly horrifying number of progressives have become almost as anti-government as the conservatives, both because the conservative controlled government did many horrid things and because programs like public education have experienced such severe and relentless cutbacks since 1980 that it honestly is doing a considerably less good job than it was in the previous few decades.

As I discussed in this post about attitudes in the 1970s, my own PoV in all this is not that government, social service, eminent domain, or public education, are at fault. Instead, I see the fault as being a combination of two decades of drastic underfunding of positive services and a history of gross abuses of power by conservatives. I want a strong, vibrant US government that is not run by people who hate government social programs and want to destroy them (at stated policy of conservatives who call the concept "starve the beast". One seeming oddity that the neocons now controlling the US now mix this hatred of government social programs with a desire for tyranny and control. However, my take is that it's all part of the same ideology, they hate government and have no respect for it, and attempt to replace it with raw power.

Instead of playing the same game from the other side, I would very much like to see more progressives embrace the idea of a functional government. By almost every measure one can find the nations of Western Europe are doing vastly better than the US and they have embraced neither the raw tyranny supported by US neocons nor the libertarian agendas common on both the conservative and progressive fringes of US politics.
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[User Picture]
From:rjgrady
Date:November 16th, 2006 11:11 pm (UTC)
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One seeming oddity that the neocons now controlling the US now mix this hatred of government social programs with a desire for tyranny and control. However, my take is that it's all part of the same ideology, they hate government and have no respect for it, and attempt to replace it with raw power.


I think one of the things I find most exasperating about your politics is that you don't see a point by point relationship between right wing totalitarianism and left wing totalitarianism.

Let's take education. Let us imagine, for a moment, a right wing control of education, in which creationism is taught in school. Now let us imagine the opposite, where evolution is taught. In both situations, an intellectual position is being thrust on someone, and that person or their parents may not approve.

Now, I say evolution, and tough cookies to those who believe otherwise. But I would not for a second insist anyone has the right to insist others believe in evolution. It is simply what I consider reasonable scientific belief, and creationism is not.

The same tool, which could find every child in America and give them a pro-evolution education, could in one brief moment during which control was wrested by the creationists, be used to instead supply a pro-creationism education.

Regulation that can protect utility consumers can also be used to enrich monopolies, foster neo-feudalism, or destroy energy alternatives.

My preference in governance is always for the least irrevocable choice.

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From:heron61
Date:November 16th, 2006 11:26 pm (UTC)
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Wrt education, my answer is very simple. Schools have an obligation to teach children proven facts, not myths (unless they are presented as myths). Schools teach evolution, parents can teach their children whatever wacky religion they wish. I'm fine with that. Separation of church as state is an essential part of any diverse democracy by simple virtue of the fact that not everyone shares the same faith.

As far as the same regulations being able to be used for good or bad, that's true of everything. Anarchy can produce everything from egalitarian hippie communes to brutal oppression. I see this in no way as an argument against such regulations and instead as a strong argument for both laws to attempt to prevent such abuses and (more importantly) for people who actually care about government and about making the world a better place to be involved in politics. As the Edmund Burke quote goes: "All that's necessary for the forces of evil to win in the world is for enough good men to do nothing.
[User Picture]
From:rjgrady
Date:November 17th, 2006 08:24 pm (UTC)
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Not every democracy is diverse, and indeed, democracy is well-suited for bringing about a firecely homogenous society.

My point was not to not make laws, but rather, to avoid calling up that which you can not put down. Megacorps, massive disarmement of the populace, unelected bureaucracies, powerful domestic armed forces, corporate subsidies, and a vulnerable tort system are just some examples of things that worry me. Utility regulation, fair labeling laws, freedom of the press, the right to bear arms, distributed federalism, the jury system, the right to assemble, and the right to secede are examples of things I find very valuable.

"Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master." - Goerge Washington
[User Picture]
From:heron61
Date:November 17th, 2006 08:40 pm (UTC)
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I agree about the corporate subsidies. The rest is (to me) nothing more than standard libertarian government-is-bad rhetoric.
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From:rjgrady
Date:November 17th, 2006 09:57 pm (UTC)
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I don't believe government is bad. I believe it is powerful. I don't believe a drill press is bad, but I wouldn't operate one without the proper safeguards, and great care besides.

You seem to have skipped over my post a bit... surely you are for regulated utilities?

[User Picture]
From:jiawen
Date:November 17th, 2006 09:51 am (UTC)
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It's not my nation, but I know a fair bit about Taiwan. Taiwan has a terribly corrupt government, quite a bit worse than the US's. People there generally don't trust the government at all; few people pay their taxes correctly, trying to actually get all the licenses and inspections and things needed for almost any business to be legal is near-impossible, the roads are designed so that it's almost impossible to drive legally and actually get anywhere (and you can just forget about trying to walk anywhere), etc. The corruption scandal surrounding Chen Shuibian is just the latest in a near-infinite string of them.

I remember one day when a friend and I went to a local park. There was a pavilion set up with all kinds of vendors selling funky teas, "massage sticks", plastic toys, etc. They were just setting up, but some were already starting to sell stuff. A couple police officers came in and told them that the market didn't officially start until tomorrow, so they'd all have to not sell anything till then. But did the police instruct them to vacate or pack up? No, nothing of the sort. I don't think it ever occurred to them to do anything to make the vendors actually obey the law, just to use it as a way to annoy the vendors and maybe shake them down for some money.

It seems like Taiwanese people think politicians are even worse than Americans do, although you'll still hear them shouting how great their preferred candidate is (corruption is always someone else's problem). Most people, though, in my experience, really don't think the government is capable of anything much at all. Apathy is a big problem in the US, but it's a huge problem in Taiwan.

Religious studies-type person that I am, I lay the blame for this squarely on the shoulders of Confucianism.

This is all a very interesting contrast to Hong Kong (at least pre-handover) and Singapore, which are both very Chinese and very efficient. It's possible for a culturally Chinese nation to have non-corrupt government, but it's rare.
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From:heron61
Date:November 17th, 2006 10:01 am (UTC)
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Faascinating. Given that the governments of most nations in Western Europe actually serve their people considerably better than in the US, it then makes even more sense that people there trust these governments more.

Religious studies-type person that I am, I lay the blame for this squarely on the shoulders of Confucianism.

How so? I'd love to hear your analysis of this.
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From:jiawen
Date:November 17th, 2006 08:13 pm (UTC)
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One of my favorite quotes from the Analects is: 以正為德,僻之如北斗,居其座而眾星供之 "As for governing by virtue, let us compare it to the North Star: it remains in place, while all the other stars wait upon it." The idea is that the perfect ruler should rule by virtue, not by laws; by example, not by threats. When the ruler is a good person and provides a good example, the people will naturally become better people.

Confucian-influenced countries (i.e., most of East Asia) tend to de-emphasize laws. The laws are there for reference purposes only. For example, in Taiwan, it's pretty common when there's a car accident for the police to arrive and tell all parties concerned to come to an agreement. Right there, on the spot, possibly bleeding, they're supposed to agree how much money to pay each other for busted headlights or bashed-in heads. That is actually part of the police mandate: not to enforce the law, but to ensure harmony. And there are many more examples.

Confucian societies tend to be much less lawsuit-happy than the US is, which is a good thing and a bad thing. Damages awarded in Taiwan are much, much smaller, so there are many more stories of people who've been hit in a car accident or wounded on the job and now have a hard time finding work (but there's also national health insurance and workers' comp, so the blow is lessened). And construction companies discovered to have used sub-standard cement and so now a thousand people live in constant fear that their apartment building will turn to sludge during the next big earthquake... and the construction companies get a tiny slap on the wrist at best. Lawsuits have made far too many lawyers far too rich in the US, but they've also made us a lot more careful (sometimes too careful) about building codes, driving, etc.

Confucianism, like most ideal systems, is great in principle but very lacking in reality.
[User Picture]
From:heron61
Date:November 17th, 2006 08:45 pm (UTC)
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That makes excellent sense. In general, one of the central tensions in government seems to be between government by people and government by laws. Both can have exceedingly diverse results, the first can range from the system you are describing to charismatic dictators. However, in general, I strongly prefer the model of government by laws (which is primarily why I support the idea of electing political parties and not individuals). The current US regime seems to be an attempt to switch the balance in the US more from laws (which are cheerfully disregarded) to people and (fundamentalist Christian) "virtue".

In any case, thank you for a fascinating response.
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From:jiawen
Date:November 18th, 2006 07:11 am (UTC)
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I tend to see that as a central tension because I've studied it so much. :)

Like you, my preference is definitely for laws rather than personalities. I could list a million reasons why... But I also think that, as with so many things, the correct answer lies somewhere in the middle. Figuring out where in the middle is, naturally enough, the tricky bit.

And: you're welcome. :)
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From:heronheart
Date:November 17th, 2006 12:18 pm (UTC)
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In any case, my take on this issue is that while I do not understand libertarianism, it seems clear to me that many US conservatives became strongly anti-government in the 1960s, when Kennedy and (especially) Johnson used the federal government to reduce poverty and segregation.

I think you have to take into account the effect on progressives of the war in Vietnam and the "War on Drugs" both of which heated up considerably in the Johnson years. There's something about being tear gassed for expressing an opinion or being jailed for marijuana or LSD that tends to radicalize people and make them distrustful of the government.
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From:kitten_goddess
Date:November 17th, 2006 12:55 pm (UTC)
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Thank you for your post. Your point of view is one I've never heard explicated in such detail.

There are some government programs I like (NEA, Metro, free public education, Medicare, Medicaid), some I am neutral about (DMV, IRS), and other I loathe (Homeland Security anything, any agency that uses "national security" as an excuse to torture people and imprison them forever without charge).

I don't have the faith in corporations that a classic Libertarian does. I don't trust them at all and expect them to be out for themselves exclusively. Politicians, IMO, are the same, except they are actually accountable to the voters, who can throw them out if they get too carried away.

Trusting in institutions is never a good idea. However, it is the age of the corporation, so the individual needs to stay under the radar. Luckily, in a nation of 300 million people, this is fairly easy to accomplish.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:November 17th, 2006 08:21 pm (UTC)
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[url]http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/politics/6155932.stm[/url]
[User Picture]
From:heron61
Date:November 17th, 2006 08:48 pm (UTC)
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Indeed. That article makes a great deal of sense. I hope distrust of government does not spread from the US via the internet, and have no idea if it will.
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From:madmanofprague
Date:November 25th, 2006 09:13 am (UTC)
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I hope it spreads to the US.
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From:heron61
Date:November 25th, 2006 11:20 am (UTC)
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Large number of people in the US do not trust the government, unfortunately, they trust other governments (and in the case of far to many white people) non-white people even less. It's not a question of trust but of balancing fears, and fear is an impressively useful way to control people.
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From:eklectick
Date:November 17th, 2006 10:55 pm (UTC)
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>this generalized distrust of government by both conservatives and progressives is a particularly US problem

You need to travel more, and read more history. The only people in the only nations I know of who DO trust their government are: English-speaking mostly white people in Canada; ethnically entrenched majority peoples in Western Europe (for example, ethnically French people in France, etc. not minority populations such as Romani groups, minority religions/ethnicities, Langue d'Oc speakers, etc.) who are moderately conservative to moderately liberal; mostly white people who are moderately conservative to moderately liberal in the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. And that's about all, folks. Because you fall into one of those groups culturally and ethnically and politically, it is not surprising that you do not "see" the others, or their disenfranchisement - yes, even in these groovy, modern times. If you don't believe me, go visit any Indian reservation - I am sure there are several near you, or go talk to the guys (and women) living on the sidewalk in your downtown.
[User Picture]
From:madmanofprague
Date:November 25th, 2006 09:04 am (UTC)
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My question to non-US readers: Is there anything like the general distrust of government found in the US in your country?

General distrust? That's not how I'd put it. There's a certain amount of acceptance that the people in power are, for the most part, Rich White Males and will act like it. However, there is a standard of common decency that they are expected to uphold–they are there to reflect the cultural mores of the people.

Is the concept of public education suspect?

No.

Is both the right and the ability of the government to make effectively laws about land use considered dubious by many people in your nation?

Nooooo idea. Locally, some people are angry at the failure of the municpal gov't to be more aggressive in claiming unused lots for low-income housing, and establishing some sort of counter to suburban sprawl.
[User Picture]
From:heron61
Date:November 25th, 2006 09:14 am (UTC)
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*Sigh* All in all vastly more sensible attitudes than those common in the US, but I consider the view of most people on all aspects of the US political spectrum to be highly suspect.
[User Picture]
From:madmanofprague
Date:November 25th, 2006 09:16 am (UTC)
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highly suspect of what?
[User Picture]
From:heron61
Date:November 25th, 2006 11:31 am (UTC)
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Having at their basis the exact same mixture of a libertarian distrust of both government and the idea of any sort of common good, combined with a puritanical belief that moral virtue is (or at minimum should be) rewarded by material prosperity and that anyone who isn't working themselves into the ground is lazy or unfit. You can find such attitudes among people on the left right and center of US politics, and I'm fairly certain these attitudes are significantly less common in the rest of the first world. In part, this is a legacy of our vile and pervasive Puritanical heritage and in part it's a result of the far right setting the agenda and even the nature of discourse in US politics since the late 1970s.

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