The State Is Not “We”

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The State Is Not “We”

Posted in : Government and Society on by : Michael Maharrey

A lot of people conflate society and the state. But the state and its government operate as a separate institution distinct from, and often at odds with, the broader society that exists within its borders.

During a speech in Ashville, North Carolina, in 1902, Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed, “The government is us; we are the government, you and I.” I run across people repeating this trope a lot.

I can demonstrate the absurdity of this statement with a personal experience. The city I live in sued me over an open records request I made. I simply asked for some documents relating to police surveillance programs. In order to keep those records secret, the government sued me. If “I” am the government, why would I hide documents from myself? And why would I spend my own money to sue myself to stop me from getting documents that are rightfully mine?

Clearly, the government is acting independently against my interests. If “we” are the government, then “we” should really stop treating “us” this way.

The other day, I was having a conversation with a supporter of a government-run, single-payer healthcare system. He supports such an animal. I pointed out several problems with allowing bureaucrats and politicians to allocate scarce resources, chief among them the fact that these technocrats and politicos can never possess the knowledge necessary to foresee all of the consequences of a given policy. His response reflects this “we are the government” mentality, and illuminates its fatal flaw.

“People need healthcare. We can use our imagination and build better delivery system and get past the ‘socialism’ B.S. and solve the looming problem.”

I agree that “we” can use our imagination and build a better healthcare system. But my friend and I have two distinctly different conceptions of “we.”

He views “we” as the state – government, politicians, bureaucrats and their minions. He thinks these people can get together in a room and invent a wonderful system, and then efficiently and effectively run it – despite reams of evidence that we’re just as likely to see a herd of unicorns running across the White House lawn pooping rainbows.

If my friend really wants “us” to use our imagination and build a better healthcare system, he needs to put his faith in the market process. Not the crony-capitalist system that exists in the U.S., but a true free market. That expresses the truest representation of “we.”

After all, what is a market?

It is simply the aggregate of all of our voluntary exchanges. It is all of us interacting peacefully, guided by a price system. This is demonstrably the best way to allocate scarce recourses. It’s certainly better than depending on a room full of politicians and politically connected hangers-on pointing guns at us and demanding that we do things their way.

We should not confuse society with the state. After all, community isn’t coerced.  We should not conflate society with the state’s governmental structure. Society can exist without either of these things. At the most fundamental level, society exists as an intertwined group of individual, bound together by their voluntary associations. This gives rise to culture. That is “we” in the truest sense of the word.

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