Mistaken Identity

In a speech at the University of Michigan on Saturday, President Obama castigated critics of recent government excesses, reminding them that “government is us”.

This seems innocent enough, but in fact it is chilling. The Founders saw a powerful central government as an unfortunate and dangerous necessity, the only way to administer certain tasks that cannot be performed by individuals. The apparatus of Federal government was to be a machine that existed solely in service to, and at the pleasure of, the free citizens of the United States. But here Mr. Obama tells us, explicitly and revealingly, that in his mind the State and the people are one.

“Government is us.” It is difficult to see how this proposition differs in any meaningful way from Mussolini’s words: “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”

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  1. Kevin Kim says

    Far be it from me to defend Obama, but is it possible that he was channeling Lincoln’s notion of government of, by, and for the people? (Emphasis on “by,” which dovetails with the idea that “government is us.”)

    Maybe we need to parse the problem further, but it seems to me that the only way to know what Obama really meant by his statement is to ask Obama himself. Taken one way, “government is us” is a chilling notion that reflects a totalitarian mentality, such as when the arrest of a Chinese dissident is described by the authorities as having been done “according to the will of the people.”

    Taken another way, however, Obama might simply have meant that our government is composed of our own citizenry, who are at least in theory no better than any of the rest of us, and not above the law. (I know, I know: cue mordant laughter.)

    I suppose I’d need to read the text of the speech in question to know more. Right now, all I’m doing is offering at least two possible interpretations of an utterance whose context I haven’t seen. At this point, I won’t rule out the chance that Obama might have been implying something sinister. Or might not have been.

    Posted May 2, 2010 at 11:09 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    I’m sure that if pressed even lightly, Mr. Obama or any of his spokesmen would say that your interpretation is just what was meant. Certainly the association with his illustrious predecessor from Illinois sits comfortably enough.

    But there are lots of ways to express the idea that the power of government arises from the people. “Government is us” is the sound-bite here. It says what it says.

    And yes, you should read the speech. It’s here. It’s a good speech. Mr. Obama does this sort of thing very well.

    Posted May 2, 2010 at 11:59 pm | Permalink
  3. Kevin Kim says

    It was indeed a good speech. I liked what O had to say about making an effort to broaden one’s horizons by meeting people from different walks of life, and also by reading sources that challenge one’s assumptions.

    Posted May 3, 2010 at 12:40 am | Permalink
  4. JK says

    If ever there were two men capable of “parsing words” I suppose it proper and fitting they both be lawyers from Illinois and of suspect birth.

    Posted May 3, 2010 at 4:09 am | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    I agree, Kevin. It’s important to read contrary viewpoints. One often can’t be sure one is right until one clearly understands the ways in which others have gone wrong.

    Posted May 3, 2010 at 9:57 am | Permalink
  6. Kevin Kim says

    Just saw this article today. The writer’s critique focuses, at least at first, on the same “government is us” problem.

    Posted May 3, 2010 at 12:58 pm | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says

    Yup, that’s a sharp little post. Thanks for the link. I liked this:

    “But what troubles me is when I hear people say that all of government is inherently bad…”

    Straw man alert! The One loves to do this. Set up an argument no one makes and then knock it down. No one in this debate is saying ALL government is bad. We are calling for the government to actually live up to the limits set for it by our constitution. The problem is Barry thinks the more government, the better.

    “When our government is spoken of as some menacing, threatening foreign entity, it ignores the fact that in our democracy, government is us. We, the people–[Applause.] We, the people, hold in our hands the power to choose our leaders and change our laws, and shape our own destiny.”

    See, you’re so dumb that you don’t understand your anger at government is really self hate. Oy.

    Does he really not understand this? We know the government is supposed to be us, that’s why we’re so upset. We see our government as not representing us anymore. We are frustrated because we feel we’re losing the power to shape our destiny. (Funny how when Obama, Reid, Pelosi, Cindy Sheehan and Code Pink we’re screaming about our horrible government under Bush, they weren’t confused about the government being them.)

    Posted May 3, 2010 at 1:32 pm | Permalink
  8. bob koepp says

    Granted, I am no one, and I don’t know what the “debate” is. But I do think that “all of government is inherently bad…” Let’s see, government reserves for itself the authority to determine who/what/when/where the use of coercive violence is “legitimate” — and without that authority, it isn’t government…

    Posted May 3, 2010 at 2:31 pm | Permalink
  9. Malcolm says

    I think most conservatives would agree with you, Bob, that government needs effective restraints. Anarchy is a tough sell, though, in a crowded world. Doable, perhaps, in small and homogeneous communities, where people have a firm social understanding, and can pool their resources when necessary without too much friction. But anarchy doesn’t “scale well”.

    Posted May 4, 2010 at 12:03 am | Permalink
  10. bob koepp says

    I don’t know that anarchy doesn’t scale well. I do know that a monopoly on coercive force is evil, at any scale.

    Posted May 4, 2010 at 7:00 am | Permalink
  11. Malcolm says

    Hi Bob,

    Yes, a true monopoly on coercive force is tyranny, which is why the Second Amendment is so important, and why there are circumstances in which the use of lethal force by private citizens is entirely legal.

    Have you any examples of anarchy scaling well?

    Posted May 4, 2010 at 9:34 am | Permalink
  12. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – No, I don’t have any examples of anarchy scaling well. But then, I don’t know that the experiment has ever been conducted. And, just for the record, I’ve never imagined that a world without central government would have no need for coercive force — just that it wouldn’t be wielded monopolistically by a (corrupted) cadre who think they know how the rest of us should behave.

    Posted May 4, 2010 at 10:16 am | Permalink