I’ve been thinking that there is another way to look at the problem outlined in my last post, which is perhaps more generous to my Washington neighbors. I mentioned that some of the issues facing government and private businesses are the same, and one similarity is that government, like business, is filled with full-time professionals at it. This number gets even bigger when you count the various people who aren’t actually in government but whose job is to think about government all the time, such as political journalists, commentators, and academics. And while a more libertarian government would employ far fewer people, I don’t see a way to get around the existence of this class. Even the ancient Athenian all-citizen democracy had women and slaves doing the scut work. And if you got arrested, would you really want your case argued and judged by part-time legal experts?
I think that any activity, no matter how frivolous it may seem, that people do full a full-time living develops some heavy philosophical demands. In a recent discussion about Christianity and sports on Jesus Creed, a few commenters objected that sports are just for fun, so why do all this hand-wringing? But when sports put bread on the table (or money in the endowment), they can’t help but be serious.
What makes government special this way, though, is how modern Westerners seem to assume almost unconsciously that it must be self-giving — even self-sacrificial. People in almost any other profession are allowed to talk about how they profit from their jobs, financially or otherwise, but for politicians this is taboo in public. (This is why we are constantly disappointed in how they actually behave.) Jurists have to resist bribery and the social advantages of favoring certain people and groups. And on the ground level, government employees such as soldiers and police officers may sacrifice themselves in a much more complete sense.
So what, then, motivates this self-sacrificial ruling class? It’s here, in my view, that the various less-government arguments run into trouble, because a skeptical, mistrustful view of a profession is not very inspiring to sacrifice. Longtime readers may recall that that was my major beef with Yoder — he didn’t really think anyone should die for a government, but rather than trying to save them from this condition he seemed bent on directing it. And this is one thing I don’t get about libertarian and/or localist thinking (and maybe some readers who know more about this stuff can enlighten me). If you take it as the natural and desirable condition that most people are going to pursue their own interests and those of their in-groups (however they might define them), where do you get the people who are going to selflessly and impartially guarantee that everyone is able to do so? It seems more likely that what would happen is what, in fact, happens in countries with relatively weak central states — the government simply becomes another tribe interested mainly in its own survival and propagation.
This is why I tend to agree with Russell that a government, if it exists at all, needs a telos, even though some of his commenters seemed to object to the very idea. The U.S. system seems to be based on a sort of divide-and-conquer strategy, based on the theory that if power is split up among enough quarreling factions than it can’t get too concentrated. But why would anyone want to work in that? I don’t completely understand it, but it seems until we answer that question, al the theorizing in the world about the ideal self-abnegating government isn’t going to move the reality.