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09 August 2010

A Culture of Civil Cynicism

Krugman would have us believe that we have taken a wrong turn, making a bad decision collectively, to limit government in a time when we should in fact be asking our government to do more, not less.
It's the logical consequence of three decades of antigovernment rhetoric, rhetoric that has convinced many voters that a dollar collected in taxes is always a dollar wasted, that the public sector can’t do anything right.
I would challenge the origin of these ideas. What so many ignore is that the anti-government sentiment that seems to have come to a head in the likes of the Tea Party is actually a deeply ingrained part of the American culture. It is more than "rhetoric." It is hardwired into our national identity. In some very overt ways, the founding fathers intentionally hamstringed our government believing as Thoreau so neatly summarized, "That government is best which governs least."

In historical perspective, it is little wonder why early Americans felt this way. The Independence movement was an Enlightenment, bourgeois reaction against the perception of governmental intrusion (primarily via taxes). That first attempt at self-governance, the Articles of Confederation, was true to these principles. It was also a colossal failure, and likeminded proposals for editing the scope of government today would certainly share that fate.

Things are a lot different now in the early 21st century than the late 18th. We have gone from early industrialization to full industrialization to post-industrial service economy (i.e. finance). Our economy went from largely regional to global very quickly. Localized governance--at least as popularly conceived--is wholly inappropriate to addressing these intricately interconnected issues.

As an academic, I will be among the first to agree that cynicism and a critical approach are essential. However, when such thinking becomes so institutionalized that it becomes a kneejerk reaction writ large, it becomes counterproductive. In a representative democracy, it is the duty of the people to be vigilant. That vigilance needs to be accompanied by a reasonable awareness of the contextual realities.

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