03 April 2012

If we can't trust government, who can we trust?

The April 9 issue of The Nation is a special issue dedicated to the question, "Can We Trust Government Again?" Guest editor Jeff Madrick decries trends that have left people thinking of government less as "we the people" than as "they the bureaucrats," as well as a skepticism or pessimism about government's potential that has infected even the Democratic party. While contributors blame these attitudes mostly on Republican propaganda, Madrick argues that government "can and must do its tasks more efficiently" to help win back public faith. From the combined contributions we can sum up a threefold approach to restoring that faith. One step is reasserting the necessity of government and political action, as James Lardner does in the realm of "setting rules for business" and Rinku Sen does on the question of ending discrimination and related privileges. Sen particularly tells a useful story about his conversation with a libertarian student who asked whether racial discrimination could be ended without expanding government; his answer is that changing minds can't happen in every case without organized pressure -- though he actually throws government's ability to change minds by changing institutions into question by conceding that "whether we win a change in the rules at City Hall or in the boardroom, we will always have to defend it." On a related note, Dorian T. Warren notes that black Americans trust the federal government much more than whites, and trust local governments less. In both cases the reasons are fairly obvious -- and all over the world you'll probably find more enthusiasm for powerful central governments wherever local governments enforce discrimination against minorities. You'll probably also find it even in more homogeneous places where class distinctions are stark and insulting and state power alone seems capable of humbling the haughty. Whether that's a good reason for people to want stronger government is another matter, but for Americans the Nation contributors also propose to make government, including regulatory bureaucracies, more responsive to ordinary people -- if necessary by minimizing or eliminating the conflicting influence of concentrated wealth wherever it exists. A related step, and an essential one if you want people to think of government as "we," not "they," is K. Sabeel Rahman's idea of democratizing the regulatory process instead of deferring to "experts" who aren't immune from money's influence. To sum up further, one would like to say that the easiest way to restore faith in government is to make it more democratic. Even then, however, Dianne Stewart reminds us of the difficulty involved in getting people to see the common benefit in policies perceived initially as benefiting "someone else." Her own answer, an appeal to local pride, doesn't necessarily address the problem of faith in federal or national government, but there's no reason that approach couldn't be adopted on a national scale.

As I've written recently, however, distrust of government may really be but a part of a more sweeping and culturally crippling general distrust of all by all. That feeling may be fueled partly by ideological delusions of self-sufficiency, but it may also be a backlash against an increasing complexity of society too easily seen as oppressive. The same issue of The Nation has a belated memorial essay on Vaclav Havel in which Caleb Crain considers Havel's critique of "automatism," defined by the rebel playwright as "the irrational momentum of anonymous, impersonal and inhuman power -- the power of ideologies, systems ... bureaucracy, artificial languages and political slogans." As Crain contends, the phenomenon against which Havel rebels "speaks as much to the managerial nonsense and social blackmailing of capitalism as to those of late socialism....it would be equally effective as a satire of American businessmen." Where automatism prevails, Crain writes, "it becomes a struggle to conduct oneself with integrity even in aspects of life that have little or nothing to do with politics [or, presumably, business]." What if Havel's automatism is a condition of modern (or postmodern) complex systems, private or public, political or corporate? Havel's own answer was to cultivate an "existential revolution" by recognizing and denouncing the "absurdity" of the automatist environment." The object is to live a life capable of the sort of "meaning" that automatism allegedly makes impossible -- in effect, to drop out of the automatist culture and create an "antipolitical politics," a politics presumably purged somehow of automatist tendencies and animated by authentic humanity. Is this how people restore faith in politics and government?  Is our collective mutual distrust a product of automatist momentum that could be reversed or overthrown? Or is the critique of "automatism" an unreasonable backlash against a complexity we all have to get used to, albeit without the abuses of power that so often flourish in corporate or political hierarchies? Globalization and social networking are changing the meaning of society and with it, inevitably, the meaning of politics. Will that process leave us more open, more trusting, more tolerant of others, or will it leave us more convinced that "Hell is other people?" Asking whether people can or should trust their political representatives, or the political process itself, may only be the start of hard thinking about the future.


Calmoderate said...

Hm, puzzling. Why ask if we can trust government again?

Listen to the republicans: They blast government as the Satan's concubine, perfectly willing to sell our innocent babies into slavery to pedophile narco-terrorists. That's what they clearly imply.

Listen to the democrats: Government and labor unions are good and the wealthy opposition is the essence of evil incarnate.

Neither side has any tolerance for unspun fact. Jeez, if they don't know what they are talking about, then who does? They are the insiders with nearly all the power and money and all the deep inside connections to every special interest that ever existed (except the extinct ones).

Mr. Warren's observations make some sense. People react to reality as they see it, regardless of how close to real (unspun) reality that may be.

There are very good reasons to not trust one's elected representatives. It is long past time to start thinking hard about the future.

Samuel Wilson said...

Cal, I suppose the reason The Nation raises the question is that they're not libertarians and thus can't imagine a civilization without a trusted and trustworthy government. There may be good reasons not to trust our current representatives, but that distrust should prod us into reforming representative government into a more trustworthy system.