Beyond Fear of Government (12/99)

Looking at the behavior of many political leaders, it’s easy to conclude that government itself isn’t to be trusted. Whether the men (and occasionally women) in charge head regimes dominated by military cliques or ethically-challenged bureaucrats, they rarely inspire much faith that the State will consistently promote fairness and protect individual rights in exchange for the power it assumes and penalties it imposes.

In the US, this suspicion dates back to the colonial secession from England – a primal rejection of illegitimate central authority. Since then, distrust and fear of government has fueled many forms of resistance – from Daniel Shays’ 1786 tax revolt to Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building. But as Gary Wills argues in his study of government distrust, A Necessary Evil, the real victims of this attitude "are the millions of poor or shelterless or medically indigent who have been told, over the years, that they must lack care or life support in the name of their very own freedom. Better for them to starve than to be enslaved by Ă”big government.’ That is the real cost of our anti-government values."

In the late 20th century, this distrust – often buttressed by specious constitutional arguments about state’s rights, individual freedom, and the sanctification of private enterprise – has fueled a global crusade to privatize services, shred safety nets, and turn management of the planet over to a corporate and bureaucratic elite with its own rules. Since Ronald Reagan successfully redefined the US federal government as "the problem, not the solution," we’ve been told that government is basically wasteful and ineffective – if not crooked – while business is dynamic and effective, the best way to protect liberty and produce wealth.

As I’ve mentioned in TF over the years, anti-government attitudes make people susceptible to reactionary, often isolationist appeals. Even though they may understand that no single nation can control violence, reverse environmental destruction, or protect basic rights around the world, many also believe that any form of "global management" is either fantasy or a potential nightmare – the dreaded One World Dictatorship.

Only one problem: it’s already here, operating behind closed doors and accountable only to those managing its administrative agencies. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund virtually run the economies of many countries, primarily in the interest of transnational industries and global financial interests. Sure, the UN plays a small role, as a forum for dialogue and a convenient place to dump problems. But even there, the real power lies with the five permanent members of the Security Council – the US, Britain, France, China, and Russia.

Meanwhile, the World Trade Organization (WTO) continues the transfer of economic decision-making to the global level, turning human beings and the environment into tools for expanding trade and commerce. Rather than worrying about secular humanists or black helicopters, those concerned about the New World Order might want to consider the open conspiracy to create a Corporate World Order.

Some suspicion of government’s potential power is certainly legitimate and relevant. Yet, the form of centralized power that most threatens us today isn’t public, it’s private: the negative power of big business and elite financial institutions. These interests, influencing and sometimes even determining the actions of governments, ought to be the main focus of scrutiny and action. Conveniently, the same interests lead the campaign to convince us that freedom means "me against the world" or "me against the government." Appealing to fears of government intrusion is a convenient way to derail intrusions on the "right" to profit at the expense of the general health and well-being, and exploit in the name of freedom.

One step in the right direction is certainly the emerging movement to challenge our de facto world government, the "mobilization against globalization" that protested the recent WTO ministerial meeting in Seattle. More accountability, as well as consideration of environment, labor, and human rights impacts, is the least we should ask. Beyond that, however, we need to move beyond fear of government and work for democracy at the world level.

Clearly, we need some planet-level guidance, to ensure health and freedom for all, and deal with arms proliferation, malnutrition, toxic materials, and genetic engineering, among other problems. Rather than continuing to accept the myth that government is inherently evil, let’s begin the new millennium by working for effective and participatory global governance, a high authority that nurtures children, helps poor regions develop along sustainable lines, and defines and enforces global standards of human rights.