The news since Oct. 1 has made two facts abundantly clear. The first is that performing the basic functions of government – making and enforcing the law, ensuring a stable currency, providing the goods and services we deem essential and public – is extraordinarily important and far-reaching. Visitors turned away from national parks and monuments provide compelling “made-for-TV” images, but food in danger of rotting for lack of health and safety inspectors and would-be presents for the holiday season gathering dust on docks for lack of customs inspectors are less obvious but more potentially dangerous examples of what happens when government ceases to operate. And the consequences of these examples pale in comparison to the thought of what would follow from the failure of Treasury bond interest and Social Security checks to arrive as expected in several weeks.
In modern, technological parlance, government is our society’s operating system. We can tinker with it on the margins, bringing out versions 2.0 and 2.1 periodically, but we unplug it entirely only at our peril. Those who have long dreamed of drowning the federal government “baby” in the bathtub have suddenly woken the rest of us in a cold sweat from the nightmare of what that might really mean. And perhaps in provoking an appreciation for this frightening possibility, they have done us an unintended favor – heightened our appreciation for the truly necessary things government does and thereby underlined the importance of real reform. Let’s really make an effort to identify what is necessary and redouble our insistence that it be done well.
The second fact that has become clear over the past several weeks is how difficult it is for government to do new things, however simple and necessary some may think these new functions to be. Here I am thinking of two events. The first is the litany of glitches – failed connections, spinning wheels and closed loops – that have grounded the government’s efforts to enable us to shop for health insurance online. The second is the apparently unexplained electrical failures that have fried millions of dollars worth of computer equipment somewhere in the Utah desert that were supposed, in the name of national security, to monitor all our telephone calls, texts, emails and other efforts to communicate electronically. Apparently, our privacy is better protected by the difficulty of snooping than by the legal protections against doing it.
Both of these sets of facts bring us to a direct confrontation with the virtue of humility. Faced with the absence of government, most of us can see clearly the arrogance of those who blithely assert that we can do without it. Faced with the abject failure of government to fulfill two newly established (if not openly mandated) functions, most of us can see clearly the arrogance of those who blithely assert that government can do anything.
The conclusions should be clear – yes, it is important that government do some things and do them well, no, government cannot and should not do everything, and, finally, we must involve ourselves in the effort to draw these lines. The ultimate failure of government is its failure to govern us. And the key word here is “us.” As long as our legislative bodies are composed of two sets of people each of which represent only a small segment of “us” as defined by ever-more carefully gerrymandered Congressional districts, and as long as each of those segments views the “not us” not as fellow citizens with different opinions, but as “the enemy,” our system of government loses its exceptionalism. We become little more than affluent barbarians led by preening war lords cynically maintaining their own privileges by stoking our fears of and hate for the “not us.” The real, more fundamental government shutdown is not the one brought on by the juvenile bickering of our elected representatives, but the one we are allowing to occur by accepting the degradation of our electoral system that has led us to have such representatives.
And the lesson to learn here is that we need to become more involved in the process of structuring and paying for our electoral system. In the technological world, we have wrested control of our own operating systems from the high priests of inside control through the rapid multiplication of mobile apps. We must do the same in the political world through an equivalent increase in our personal involvement in the electoral process.
Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions Inc. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org