by Marcello A. Canuto
While listening to the debates in our Congress these past
few days, I have come to the realization that even the most
practical, specific, and even detailed debates in our government
- such as a tax-cut bill or an energy program - underpin one
of the greatest debates of our American present: the "role
of government." Phrased in such typical American practical
terms, this debate has often been cast as a battle between
big vs. small - let the people have their money vs. let the
government spend it for them.
I would like, however, to rake a different light upon this
debate in the hopes of placing into relief what the direct
and flat rays of illuminated American practicality have so
often washed out - institutional government is civilization.
Without a single moment's hesitation, most any historian,
sociologist, and anthropologist will abide by this equation.
But, what lies at the core of this statement is revolutionary
- and something that reminds us of the millennia of history
that humanity has had to traverse - as civilization, government
is above and beyond all else an achievement. Unlike the more
tangible effects of human progress, medicine, technology,
or art, institutionalized government should be heralded as
the greatest discovery, invention, innovation, and inspiration
of all humanity throughout the globe and through time. In
fact, its global ubiquity and its multiple independent creations
throughout history attest to its unique status as the human
race's most important common attribute, its greatest spatially
and historically unifying characteristic.
The achievement of "government" is the conviction of a greater
good - of a greater identity beyond that of the self, family,
property, and community. The development of the concept of
a citizenry is one of the most complex and almost inexplicable
identities any person can hold - yet we offer as tribute our
money, time, and even our lives to sustain it. And this type
of unselfish, civilized, behavior allows us some communion
with people from the past or from other parts of the world.
Because of this common achievement, we can understand the
lives, needs, wishes, and hopes of people from as remote a
past as pharaonic Egypt and as far away as modern China.
To be sure, much calamity has been wrought in the name of
civilization and progress - like war, genocide, or slavery.
But, in almost every case of such tragedy, it has been perpetrated
by empowered individuals - dictators, generals, demagogues
- who overtook small weak institutionalized governments and
made them their own by sheer force of will and charisma. For
instance, it was only strongest institutionalized government
of the world - the US - that could defeat the Nazi annexation
of Europe by those same means 60 years ago.
Conversely, positive concepts like education, charity, science,
military, and commerce are the direct result of strong thriving
institutionalized governments. If not for government as a
force of civilization would humanity have ever aspired to
step on the Moon? Would we ever have dreamt to will democratic
reforms throughout the world? Would we have ever been able
to eradicate diseases not only in this continent but half
around the globe? Inventions, ideas, discoveries all came
at the behest, expense, and prompting of institutionalized
government. These achievements, which make up the majority
of our identity today as American citizens result from people
who understand that there exists a common good outside the
self, the home, and the community that requires sacrifice
What therefore is the implication of the tired and cynical
practical attack on "government" by the conservatives of this
country if not an indictment of civilization itself? If government
were to become "small", "weak", and at best "local" then so
would civilization - we can only be as successful, revolutionary,
innovative, far-sighted, and utopian as we allow civilization
to be. And, the dismantling of "big government to get it off
the backs of our people" should only be seen as the curtailing
of the effects of civilization in our daily lives.
So, beware of any measure, law, bill, or act, however practical,
local, or even technical - such as a particular tax-cut or
energy plan - that reduces the role and reach of institutionalized
government. It is an assault on civilization, and as such,
an attack on progress and the future. The romantic notion
of a simpler tranquil government-free past from which we have
strayed is an illusion - there is only the troubled uncertainty
and random uncertainty that petulant, near-sighted, and localized
authoritarianism that the presence of civilization has mediated,
mollified, and mitigated for millennia.
It is civilization that defines us, that allows us our dreams,
that makes us Americans. Without it, we would not be whatever
we are today. But, if we hold this to be true, we must also
realize that the smaller our government, the less we will
achieve. The smaller our government, the less meaningful our
citizenship. The smaller our government, the more banal our
dreams. The smaller our government, the less we are civilized.