Monday, January 31, 2000

Week of 01/31/2000

The Lullaby of Government
- by David Matthews 2

I wonder how many people even bother to watch the State of the Union speeches.

For my international readers, this is what happens: Every year around the end of January, we’re all entertained by having the highest elected official in America stand before the assembled members of both Congress and the US Supreme Court, and tell the rest of the country where America stands. I say "entertained" because the big three networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) and the cable news channels have that time period booked solid just for this speech.

Of course, this all started back when such things mattered, when we had officials we could look up to and trust. Back in the days when a president’s word was bond, and even when we thought that a politician had questionable motives, never did we expect their corruption to be so great that they would blatantly lie to us.

In other words, back before the days of President Bill Clinton.

Now, for those who missed out on Clinton’s final State Of The Union speech, here it is in a nutshell: The country is going along just fine, but in wouldn’t be this way without government in your lives, and to fix those rough spots in society, we’ll have to get government more involved in your lives.

There! Two hours just to say that one sentence! Of course, if Bill Clinton was ever honest enough to simplify things that well, he wouldn’t need two hours to convince us that somehow life after the "era of big government" would require even more government than ever before.

Then again, if Bill Clinton simply told us we needed more government involvement in our lives, we wouldn’t buy it, would we?

Did you ever wonder just HOW we let government into our lives in the first place?

A good portion of us spend the first eighteen years trying to break free of our first authority figures --- our parents. We strive to be ourselves, to make our own decisions, and to choose our own path in life. And yet, somehow, we end up with another authority figure --- government. And this one not only doesn’t want us to break free from it, but rather it is determined to weave itself into every aspect of our lives. Everything from the money we spend, the cars we drive, the houses we buy, and the shows we watch are all monitored and scrutinized and regulated by some government agency. And it shows in the higher and higher taxes we have to pay for it all.

So how did we get this way?

Well, the first way is the direct approach. Much like the narrator in the "Outer Limits" series, those in government simply assumed control.

The direct approach is government at its purest form, as an instrument of force. There is little debate, if any. A decision is made, those in power make it, and then use force to execute it.

Unfortunately, this kind of naked aggression also invites opposition. A government that acts that way in all matters would quickly be deemed a tyrannical one. That’s why the direct approach is usually reserved only for those cases where they know opposition will be light. Censoring out unpopular material like books, movies, or certain T-shirts, for instance.

So how else does government gets ingrained into our lives?

Well, let’s get brutally honest here… we let them. Sure, sometimes they sneak themselves in with stealth laws and regulations, but more often that naught, we are convinced to let government take over.

And that’s where smooth-talking politicians like Clinton come in. These masters of the spin would tell a tale so convincing it would make Baron Munchausen look like Edward R Murrow. They’re the only ones that make spam mailers look good in comparison.

Perhaps the most subtle approach is the Busy Citizen argument because it plays upon our own hectic lives, and is the hallmark to the Big Babysitter style of government. The notion is simple: you’re too busy doing everything else in your life that you can’t handle some of the little things that need to be done. School lunches are one example. We’re told that as parents, we just don’t have the time to take care of these things for our kids, so government asks if it can step in and do that little chore for the parents. What would a busy parent say? No? Of course not! They’d accept it, not knowing what the price tag would be for it.

A more perfect example of this Busy Citizen argument comes in paying our federal and state taxes. Once upon a time, we used to pay our taxes when we filed our tax reports to the IRS. Then in the middle of World War II, that changed because the government needed to get their hands on our tax money faster to fund the war effort. So Uncle Sam came up with this idea to start taking money out of our pay before we even get our paychecks. Their rationality was that it would be a whole lot easier for the taxpayers to have their employers deduct the taxes than having to worry about paying it all in bulk on April 15th. And we as taxpayers bought it, because it was damned too convenient.

Now, because of that little bit of convenience, most of us don’t realize how much we’re really paying in taxes. If you want to figure it out, you have to get your pay stub and so some math. Try it. You’d be surprised to know how much of your money is disappearing every payday.

Another argument that people in government use is the Inept Citizen approach. Under the Inept Citizen argument, government assumes that only THEY can handle a certain task.. that the individual citizen is too incompetent to do it themselves.

Take home schooling, for instance. Before public schools, parents used to bear the responsibilities to teach their children how to read and write. Now with thousands of families dissatisfied with this bastion of the Industrial Society, home schooling is seeing a resurgence in interest. But educators are ever eager to nix this idea, simply because they believe that parents lack the tools and the skills to educate their own children. To in effect tell parents "We are trained professionals, don’t try this at home."

The best example of the Inept Citizen argument came in January of 1999, the day after President Clinton gave his State of the Union speech. After announcing that the federal government would be operating under a budget surplus for the first time in decades, there was some talk by Republicans to give some of that money back in the form of a tax cut. Clinton, however, told a crowd of people in Cincinnati that he felt that the American public, quote, "would not invest that money wisely."

In other words, Bill Clinton thought the American public was too inept to handle their own money!

Of course, since then, Bill Clinton and his acolytes have changed their tactics, and now refer to a tax cut as what Vice President Al Gore loves to call a "risky tax scheme." But this belief that the people could not handle an additional surplus of their own money is the hallmark of the Inept Citizen argument.

If the direct approach is government at it’s most tyrannical, then the Inept Citizen argument is government at its most arrogant.

Then there’s the house special, the Scared Citizen approach. The Baltimore sage H. L. Mencken best summed up this approach almost a hundred years ago when he speculated that government seems to thrive off of creating all sorts of things for people to fear, and thus require their protection.

Certainly when it came to the Cold War, Mencken was right on the money. Between the nuclear tests in Russia and Senator Joe McCarthy running his "Red Scare" antics, people were scared of Soviet aggression in the 1950’s. Thus, the US government was given the green light to do anything in the name of national security.

Even more recently, the American public has been scared into giving up their rights to be protected from other bogeymen.

In the name of protecting people from terrorism, those in government have convinced us we need to bring identification with us at airports, and to be there up to an hour before our flight even leaves.

In the name of protecting us from drug kingpins, those in government have convinced us to surrender our Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure.

And now in the name of protecting us from violent kids, those in government are trying to convince us to surrender our First Amendment protections.

Of course, the Scared Citizen approach is the preferred method for those in government because it fulfills their obligation to protect the public, and because it doesn’t take too much effort on their part to convince the public to surrender their freedoms… the people would surrender them willingly! The only downside to this tactic is that you either have to wait for the right crisis, or manufacture the crisis yourself - i.e. Time Magazine’s "Cyberporn" issue - and risk having the public see through your deceptions.

No matter which tactic they use, those in government have a vested interest in trying to get involved in as much of our lives as possible.

The more government gets involved in our lives, the more government overhead that is needed. More laws are needed, a new layer of bureaucracy is needed to oversee those laws, more tax money is needed to fund our so-called watchmen, and, somewhere in the midst of it all, Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia gets yet another brand new federal building in his district.

The key thing to remember, though, is that in each of these instances, government has gotten this way because WE allow it. Sure, smooth-talking con men like Clinton may be convincing, but they wouldn’t be able to sell us a single thing if we treated them like we do telemarketers. And that is really the only way we can stop the surge of government into our lives.. to start treating our politicians like we would telemarketers. We need to tell them "no thanks" and hang up on them once they start their sales pitch.

We can’t blame the soothsayer for the sweet lullaby of government, because that is their nature. We can only blame ourselves for choosing to be swayed by it.

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