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Government As Civilization
June 11, 2001
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 and service.

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.

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