Some time back, someone commented on an earlier column by saying “small government” conservatives only hated the government when it offered people a crutch, not when it clubbed them. There’s a lot of truth in that.
Listening to most movement conservatives, you get the impression that the military and police don’t count as part of the government. They talk a good game about “big government” and its intrusiveness, how it meddles in everything, how dangerous it is, and so forth. For example, take Michelle Malkin—please. She wants a government that’s small—just big enough to perform essential functions, like rounding up a few hundred thousand of its own citizens because of their ethnic background, and holding them without trial in internment camps.
Bill O’Reilly doesn’t like big government—but he thinks terrorist thugs should be killed “on the spot.” So apparently a government can be acceptably “small”—even with the power to kill anyone it claims is guilty of a crime. Once O’Reilly defended the right of police to harass people they “knew” were guilty, when they couldn’t prove it beyond a reasonable doubt to the satisfaction of a jury.
Sean Hannity’s second to none when it comes to denouncing “big government”—but he practically wet himself when Ted Kennedy accused Bush of lying about Iraq. Kennedy committed the heinous crime of—gasp—“calling the Commander-in-Chief a liar… in WARTIME!”
So apparently the single human being on Earth with the greatest concentration of coercive force at his disposal doesn’t count as part of the government. Government is to be distrusted. Government is to be feared. But it only counts as “government” when it’s acting within the borders of the United States. Even though the government is a stinking pit of corruption whose domestic policy serves “special interests” at the average citizen’s expense, when it acts overseas it suddenly becomes “us,” and it becomes un-American to question its motives.
The only part of government these “conservatives” seem to like is the part that wears uniforms and carries guns.
That whole approach is pretty weird, considering that coercive power is the defining feature of government. To quote George Washington (who damned well ought to have known), “Government is not reason; it is not eloquence. It is force.”
The police and military make government what it is. Poul Anderson defined government as the institution that claims the right to kill anyone who disobeys it. Without the ability to coercively enforce its will, government would just be a debating society, collecting contributions to fund worthy projects and suggesting new rules it might be a good idea for people to follow.
Both liberals and conservatives, in what passes for mainstream American political discourse, are guilty of ignoring the coercive nature of government, and thinking of it as “us.”
“Conservatives” are more prone to stop fearing government and think of it as “us” when it wears a uniform and beats people up; “liberals” are more prone to think of it as “us” when it coopts forms of social cooperation that would exist anyway.
It probably reflects a difference in personality types. Republicans tend to be type-A authoritarian personalities who are always demanding that we “show” somebody or other (i.e. outsiders and dissidents) who’s boss, or “get tough” on this or that, and constantly accusing liberals of being “soft” on this or that (it’s apparently a party for old men who need viagra).
Democrats, on the other hand, tend to see society as a giant nursery, with a social worker going around saying “Momma don’t allow this! Momma don’t allow that!”
Both sides are guilty. But at least the liberals have an internally consistent logic, because they don’t claim to fear government. It’s pretty damned weird, on the other hand, when a philosophy claims to distrust government but doesn’t think cops and soldiers—the people who make it a government—are part of the government.