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24 November 2010

In Locke Step

Much of the anti-government ire in the United States today seems to have its ideological roots among the Enlightenment thinkers who stoked the bourgeois revolutions of the late-18th and early-19th centuries, but there are significant differences between then and now, both in content and consequence. First, the political underpinnings of Enlightenment politics were not so much anti-government per se as much as they were anti-aristocratic. That is, the new middle-class in Europe and its colonies abroad had accumulated a critical mass of cultural and human capital which for the first time made it possible for them to generate a coherent identity and to direct the solidarity of that new identity at the falling nobility. Democracy was to be a self-correcting form of government to supplant the older, oligarchical model.

Today, anti-government sentiment is both irrational and indiscriminate. It is irrational because it is inconsistent ideologically, demanding that government simultaneously go away and continue to provide the invisible services to which our society has become accustomed. It is indiscriminate because it fails to recognize two things: first, the tendency for self-interested behavior to benefit only a select few (i.e. a new oligarchy) and the larger (and invisible) social structures that constrain so much of our behavior; second, the ways in which contemporary democracy can (and in countless cases has and does) benefit all individuals.

I believe the solution to this problem is in information. First, we need to hold our media to a higher standard. I can think of two recent examples to illuminate this. One is the midterm elections which were repeatedly called a "bloodbath," a "pummeling," and other equally hyperbolic qualifiers. The reality is that it was none of these things. By relatively small margins, one of two parties took control of one of two chambers of one of three branches of government. A shift and a message? Yes, but fully consistent with what has happened in the past to partisan-majority congresses in midterm elections. Two is the current debate about airport security. To believe the evening news, the townspeople have gathered in the square with torches and pitchforks, but the reality is that an overwhelming majority of Americans do not find full-body scans or pat-downs to be a worrisome intrusion on personal liberties. Second, we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard. Anti-government sentiments are rooted in knee-jerk cultural assumptions. For democracy to work--that is, for us to have a civil and just society--we need a critical and informed citizenry, not a bullhorn and a list of rhymed slogans.

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