The American Disease: Visceral Fear and Hatred of Government


Bernie Sanders is remarkably unique for an American Presidential candidate with substantial polling results. All American Presidents since Truman have voiced a desire to cut taxes. Senator Sanders has suggested some tax cuts of his own, but he has also spoken often and clearly about the need for some Americans to pay more taxes. By doing so he is pushing against the sub-rational anger and fear by Americans toward their government.

I always knew that attitude was powerful, but I never felt its pervasiveness and obtuseness as fully as when I was a guest speaker for an MBA class at an American university. I began by saying “And it may be the case that government action is needed to . . ..” My audience moved its heads and bodies as one to indicate their horror at the thought that government action could be motivated by anything other than the greed of the bureaucracy and its leaders or that its collective skills could be anything more than an impediment to a brighter day in America.  But I had not yet named the intended target of governmental action. In the eyes of these students there was no need to do so. Government as an abstraction was viewed as so malign and inept that the thought that it could do anything productive was unimaginable.

America is a diverse and divided country. So the views in the cartoon above are not shared by everyone certainly.  However, it is important to observe that with the exception of Senator Sanders, Presidential candidates are analytical enough to not say the G word when they make their promises to do an assortment of things that only government is likely to carry out.

Naomi Oreskes, the author of the important Merchants of Doubt  and the recent “How to Break the Climate Deadlock” in the 12-15 Scientific American is an important counter-voice to the atavistic detestation of government.

First, she points out that many human needs have no lobbyists for they are shared needs of such scope that individuals are unable to address them nor make profit from addressing them.  Roads, defense, mass education, clean air and water, defense, courts, mental health care, much research and development, and utilities are the standard list. Oreskes focuses on the large-scale development of alternative energy sources as her illustration.

Yesterday quite by chance, I stumbled upon just one small human need that requires governmental action. The drug industry has stopped making anti-venom for snakebites. There is no profit in continuing to supply that good. So what? Snake bites are the 2nd ranked animal danger to humans; only mosquitoes endanger as many human lives.  200,000 humans die each year from snake bites. Who speaks for these people and those who love them? Either we collectively speak for them or their numbers will accelerate.

Oreskes next points out that the issue is not “government, yes or no?”; instead, the question is whose interests will government advance?  Private sector entities are always actively making their pitch for larger subsidies and substantial tax breaks. The IMF points out that in 2015, governments will provide $5.3 trillion in fossil fuel subsidies. Anti-government rhetoric is a smokescreen behind which (1) large corporations argue effectively that helping them will create jobs that never seem to materialize in any magnitude comparable to the flood of jobs they persistently promise and (2) democratic regulation of their behavior is unnecessary and wasteful.

Let’s suppose that we are outraged that 1% of the world’s population owns 50% of the world’s wealth. What would be the instrument that we would want to use to attack that outrage? The corporate form? Government?

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