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August 27, 2005

DC Downsizer Philosophy: Big Government is NOT Society

A fundamental flaw in most Americans’ thinking is that they confuse Society with the State. They think of the two as virtually synonymous. But they’re not.

The State, properly defined, refers to centralized rule by politicians and their appointed surrogates. (Note: Downsize DC uses the term “Big Government” because most folks can readily understand that and we’ll use that term throughout this lesson.) But Society is so much more.

This confusion about the difference between government and society is not a new problem. Thomas Paine recognized it in 1776, in Common Sense


“Some writers have so confounded government with society, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher. Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one…”

How does this problem manifest itself in our time?

  • I’ve wondered, for example, why the news media are so obsessed with covering politicians and bureaucrats. Big Government dominates the coverage. Do they believe that City Hall or, worse, Congress, is what made America great?

  • Or why is it that politicians can convince us that a national policy on education will make our children smarter, or a national initiative to combat fat will make us thinner? (Of course, “the war on fat” bill would probably include a lot of pork.) The politicians also promise to take care of our retirement, our healthcare, to keep us safe at work, to protect our children from drugs, and to keep adults from driving badly. Are we really better off because Big Government did something about these issues?

  • I’ve also wondered why start sporting events with a song about military rockets, a flag salute, and if we’re talking about the Super Bowl, a wing of fighters in formation jetting overhead? Why are these emblems of Big Government so featured? Are they what made America great?

    If your goal is a peaceful, prosperous society, there are other, better “governing” options than Big Government. These time-honored “institutions” have “Social Power.” They are the other forms of government – the very things that make up a complete picture of what we can properly call Society.

    In descending order of importance, these options include:

  • Self-government. The unchecked passions of any individual will soon bring that person into conflict with the world around him or her. On the other hand, the standard virtues of thrift, industry, delayed gratification, and common courtesy will help someone advance and enjoy life. The decision to be passionate (in the negative sense) as opposed to virtuous, resides in the will of each person. But the greater the level of virtue, the greater the overall level of peace and prosperity. We learn how to be self-governors in the next societal institution…

  • The Family. The family serves as not only the first, but also the most efficient, nurturing and compassionate Department of Housing, Health, and Welfare ever devised. Children need the encouragement, discipline, and direction of their parents because they lack life experience. The Family teaches children to become self-governors. Admittedly, some parents do a better job than others. That doesn’t negate the fact that fathers and mothers are natural candidates for raising children. Where parents aren’t up to the task, adoption is the next best thing. That children belong in families is made abundantly clear in light of what happens to so many children who grow up in constantly changing foster situations, or worse, in institutions run by Big Government. The Family is a form of government that actually works, because it is based on Sociol Power rather than political power.

  • Commerce. In order for Society to function, nearly everyone must a) Serve their customers well, or b) Serve their boss well. Now, it’s the self-governor who responds to the alarm clock, but would that person do so if all his or her needs were met without work? Would they be accountable to, as well as contribute to the world around them, if not for the fact that their needs and wants require them to serve others? How the social objective of meeting individual needs is achieved matters greatly. Too many people put down the free market. But the horrors of 20th Century totalitarian movements in places like Russia, China, and Cambodia demonstrate that collective responsibility for providing the needs of the community leads to shared poverty. A worker who enjoys equity in their labor outworks, out-innovates, and out-produces his or her counterpart in every collective scheme ever devised. Thus, commerce must be kept as an integral, separate, governing component in a Society that wishes to enjoy freedom, peace, and prosperity.

  • Community. Human’s have a natural desire for relationship – a place to belong. We identify with others. And so we join churches, civic groups and charities, reading clubs and political parties. For my family and I, church is the place where we find community. And in times past, when we’ve struggled – with illness, death, or finances – it was the “church family” that was there to catch us before we fell. Each of the aforementioned entities has a code of behavior, often unwritten, that all participants abide by, or else they’re asked to leave (if they don’t become uncomfortable and leave first). The need to belong to a group “where everybody knows your name,” to have a safety net you can count on when trouble strikes, is a powerful incentive to “play nice.” We also, generally, want to be good neighbors – even good citizens. Whether someone likes their neighbors or not, they don’t want to do things that would cause trouble in the community, because virtually everyone understands the value of the Golden Rule. If an individual treats their neighbors badly, sit back and watch their life become more complicated.

    In order, these are the four most important governing institutions that comprise Society. But there is one more – the last resort when these other institutions fail to civilize.

  • Civil Government. Here, the members of Society come together and form a government that will protect them, their families, and their property from force and fraud by others. Specifically, the government provides police and courts (last resort contract enforcement mechanisms), as well as a militia and military to protect from foreign invasion. And that’s it…

    …because to do anything else would be competing with the fundamental institutions of Society – undermining them.

    When Big Government takes on the responsibilities of the first four time-honored institutions, it causes them to atrophy. For example:

  • When welfare or retirements are provided by Big Government, people tend to give less to these needs.

  • Trusting the government to provide all of our protection means that we all tend to be treated as suspects (potential criminals), subject to searches, regulations that improse prior restraitants on our actions, and licensing requirements, before we’re allowed to engage in peaceful recreation or commerce.

    1. In such a “society” simple possession of certain components that might possibly be used in a crime, becomes a criminal offense.
    2. In such a “society” offensive speech becomes a crime.
    3. When there are so many stupid laws, it’s hard not to become a criminal, and it’s natural to begin disrespecting the law itself.

    Remember this: “Treating citizens like criminals and children leads to a nation of irresponsibility and crime.” That’s why we should return to a balanced model of Society, where we prioritize individuals, families, commerce, and community over Big Government.

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