“The Government is All of Us.”
By Leonard E. Read
A renowned and respectable sociologist once wrote, “The Government is All of Us,” and a President of the U.S.A. voiced the same idea in another of its several versions, “The Government is the People.”
How this notion, so at odds with American concepts of limited government, ever insinuated itself into our folklore is a mystery. It may have had its start — who knows? — with a misinterpretation of the Preamble to our Constitution: “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union. . . .” Semantically, this is tricky: a correlation of two collective terms, “People” and “Union.” Instead of being construed as intended, namely, that All of Us should support the idea of a government of limited scope, many have misread this as saying that “the Union is the People,” which is to say, that the Government is All of Us.
Regardless of the esteem in which we may hold the authors of a concept, we are in no way absolved from thinking the concept through for ourselves — especially if the inferences drawn from it lead to mischief. We must never commit the present to errant ways because of a sanctimonious regard for the past. If we let our ancestors do our thinking for us, we shall do no thinking for ourselves, nor will we ever really understand what their thinking was.
In an ideal free society each individual may do anything he pleases as long as it is peaceful. The role of government is limited to keeping the peace. There is a principled justification for All of Us to support a government thus limited; but it is absurd to conclude that this commits everyone to support everything a contemporary government may undertake in the name of All of Us!” This perversion would virtually acknowledge that we count for nothing as individuals. It would identify Government with All of Us, and imply that the regulation of every detail of our lives is a proper function of government — because “we are doing it to ourselves!” A comparable perversion would be to suggest that a company, having employed and given its backing to a group of company guards, thereupon becomes a company of guards, and nothing else!
The dictators headquartering at Moscow and Peiping are not the People — far from it. And in democracies where majorities have the political say-so, the Majority is not All of Us, for there is the Minority! Indeed, there is no conceivable organization of society in which the Government is the People.
How, then, can mischief grow out of such a silly idea? An idea prevails because someone believes it. Ideas rule our lives. People are led in wrong as well as in right directions by ideas. Ideas, in turn, are sometimes clarified and sometimes confused by the words and phrases in which they are expressed; all of us are under semantic influences. Americans, by and large, favor the idea of democracy, that is, they would decide on the proper scope and functions of government by majority vote. Rightness and wrongness, to most citizens, turns on what the majority decrees. If the majority approves social security, or sending men to the moon or Mars, or paying farmers not to farm, or whatever, then such is within the proper scope of government! The majority does not fret about — or even discern — the dire consequences of these policies, and this explains, in part, why majoritarianism is satisfactory to most Americans as a means of deciding on right and wrong. “We voted for it!” That’s their shallow political way of testing morality!
It matters little that the American people, for the most part, have not initiated these schemes which take government out of bounds. It wasn’t “The People” who demanded Federal urban renewal or the Peace Corps or going to the moon or social security. These — the whole caboodle of socialistic antics — were the inventions of the political Establishment or of the few who are able to maneuver the Establishment and then, after the fact, drum up majority approval for their schemes.
Except in unusual circumstances, individuals in Government are bent on enlarging the Establishment, that is, on extending their control over the rest of us. If the point once be accepted that the Government is All of Us, it follows that whatever the individuals in Government favor — going to Mars or whatever — is the will of All of Us. This is how this cliche — an absurdity — leads toward the total state: socialism.
I am not suggesting that the trend toward all-out statism is a conscious objective of all who further the trend. I am insisting that some in Government, no less than some among All of Us, can be and are being victimized by loose and erroneous concepts, one of the worst being, “The Government is All of Us.”