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America (My Government, It's of You)

America is currently plagued with a unique and fundamental lie about the role of government, whether that be federal, state, local, or all of it. The roots of this particular lie can be traced to at least the early 1970s, but that’s a story for another day. Today we point to and reveal this lie for what it is: a primary reason for America’s self-inflicted national wounds, from infrastructure decay and income inequality to trade imbalance and most in-between. We want this blog post to mark the moment that America begins correcting and moving away from her belief and reliance on this lie. The basic version of this lie is that government is inherently bad or wrong and oppressive to freedom or liberty; and the smaller the government the better. Ronald Reagan, in his inaugural address as President of the United States shockingly asserted government is not the solution but the problem. This reinforcement of the lie, errantly planted by a popular if not revered voice, has helped spawn internal extremism. Just one current example is Grover Norquist, the founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform, who bared the depth of this extremism when he was quoted saying, “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” Both these Americans, no matter how influential or revered, and giving them a pass for the occasional brain farts like the references above (we’re all human), nevertheless revealed through their continued words and actions a striking ignorance about the role of government. Striking given Reagan’s role as President and striking given Norquist’s Harvard undergraduate and MBA. They and those harboring similar ignorance are either unaware or they have chosen to forget that it was America’s government (however imperfect) supported and respected by its citizenry that for so long created the relative safe space for so many millions of her citizens to prosper. How do we correct this shocking ignorance? How do we push back on the poisonous lie, at least enough to reduce it to the size where we can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub? How do we re-recognize that we need to protect that which protects us? We briefly introduce two perspectives and tools here now that help answer those questions, and further discuss the reality of “we are they” in our book Better Capitalism.

Photo Credit: Paul Knowlton

First, the title of this blog post is inspired by our national patriotic song “America (My Country, ‘Tis of Thee).” The song has an interesting backstory, and we invite you to learn about it as well as later variations such as the abolitionist version and poem by W. E. B. Du Bois. For now we focus on the meaning of the subtitle and the opening words. '‘Tis' is the old way of saying 'it's' for 'it is.' 'Thee' is old second person singular pronoun; the old way of saying 'you.' So, the plain meaning is, 'My Country, it’s of you.' The seamlessly logical link and our point here are the same, 'America (My Government, it’s of you).' When citizens attack and work to dismantle their government without legitimate basis, they attack and work to dismantle all of us. Whether you remember reading the words from Abraham Lincoln’s 1858 speech, Jesus in Matthew 12:25, or any number of other sources, the absolute truth is that “a house divided cannot stand.” America is no exception. Next, most adults, especially if college educated, are aware that Adam Smith wrote Wealth of Nations. In our experience, when we ask people to share their understanding of what is frequently considered the Capitalist’s Bible, they surprisingly jump to the concept of laissez-faire government. That’s when we know they haven’t read Wealth of Nations or didn’t understand it and have bought into the lie that government is inherently bad or wrong and oppressive to freedom or liberty, and the smaller the government the better. The phrase laissez-faire government doesn’t appear in Wealth of Nations, nor does any concept that could reasonably be construed that way. It simply isn’t there. We’re not asking you to take our word for the fact that it isn’t there, but neither should you take Reagan’s or Norquist’s word that it is there (as Reagan did correctly note, “Trust, but verify.”). Go verify for yourself. Meanwhile, Smith did write extensively and favorably about the roles of government. Two sentences of Smith’s we particularly like are from Theory of Moral Sentiments. “All constitutions of government, however, are valued only in proportion as they tend to promote the happiness of those who live under them. This is their sole use and end.” It’s patently obvious that governments, who are comprised of us, can’t perform their function of promoting the happiness of their citizens if those governments are falsely accused of being the enemy. It’s time to end this national lie that government is inherently bad or wrong and oppressive to freedom or liberty, and the smaller the government the better, with the corrective action of applying the principles of mutuality and mutual self-interest to the government – business – citizen triune, as we offer and discuss particularly in Part II of Better Capitalism.

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