2014-03-14

The Omnipotent Ones

Way back when the original passage of "Obamacare" was being debated, the cynics liked to suggest that the legislation was so bad that it was specifically designed to fail. The logic was that if Obamacare fails, the American public would run screaming toward "single payer health care."

It's the kind of nefarious theory that plays well with the conservative and libertarian crowds, but - like the 9/11 and Iraq War conspiracies before it - it assumes that the US government is a highly coordinated, intelligent, and frankly omnipotent entity that actually has the power to pull something like this off. My experience with government, however, is that it simply isn't capable of that degree of coordinated effort.

Simply Not Capable
There is a great deal of counter-evidence for the assumed "awesome power" of government.

For example, think how long it took to capture Osama bin Laden, despite the fact that he was "hiding out" in a house in Pakistan. No matter who or what you might choose to blame for the fact that it took so long to catch him, the fact remains that it did. None of the possibilities you might suggest support the idea that the government is a highly efficient and capable entity.

Or, consider the fact that, despite having waged "wars" on both drugs and poverty, the US government is still a long way away from solving either problem. Consider the fact that the number one gripe of school systems is that they are under-funded, despite the fact that funds to schools have been increasing for decades. Consider the fact that tax revenues never change no matter how the tax rates happen to be set. Consider the fact that, in order to catch the alleged Boston Marathon bombers, the entire city of Boston had to be placed under house arrest, and even then it took days. Consider the fact that the government cannot even prevent people from smuggling bombs onto airplanes without creating a massive surveillance system that involves microwaving our luggage and taking x-ray photos of our naked bodies, and even then people still manage to bring explosives in on their shoes.

The list goes on and on. Add it up, and the picture of the US government is not one of an extremely capable entity like you see in the movies. It's one that bungles its way through our lives, barely managing to meet its lowest expectations.

Libertarians And Statists Alike
But the misguided belief that the government is awesome and omnipotent is the kind of belief that's necessary to both fans and foes of government.

Statists and moderates who favor a significant role of government in our lives simply must believe in government's omnipotence because, were the government a collection of bumblers, none of the logic behind government intervention would stand up to scrutiny. How can you argue for a Medicare expansion, for example, if you already know in advance that the government isn't capable of really solving any of the problems it attempts to solve? Thus, interventionists instead say, "Yes, we can!"

I'd be inclined to stop there and score some points with "the political base" if such things mattered to me. After all, many libertarian criticisms are founded on the notion that the government will never succeed in whatever it attempts. But how do libertarians reconcile that belief against their insistence that, for example, Obamacare was designed to fail in order to bring about single payer health care? Such a strategy would require such a coordinated effort across so many thousands of people for so many years that it very nearly would have been easier to simply get health care right the first time. Once again, even the libertarians assume that the government is too capable.

So this is an illusion embraced by everyone.

Incomplete Other
This is from the Wikipedia entry on Jacques Lacan:
"It is the mother who first occupies the position of the big Other for the child," Dylan Evans explains, "it is she who receives the child's primitive cries and retroactively sanctions them as a particular message".[8] The castration complex is formed when the child discovers that this Other is not complete because there is a "Lack (manque)" in the Other. This means that there is always a signifier missing from the trove of signifiers constituted by the Other. Lacan illustrates this incomplete Other graphically by striking a bar through the symbol A; hence another name for the castrated, incomplete Other is the "barred Other."[42]
Very early in child development, of course, the child does not fully understand that the mother actually is an other. So she merely plays this role for him without his actually knowing it.

Next, the child learns to differentiate himself from his mother, and soon thereafter discovers that there are things outside of mother's control. He can keep small secrets from her, he discovers things that don't directly involve her. Thus, his original "Other" is discovered to be "incomplete." None of us remember going through this stage of development, but it must be quite a revelation for someone who started out literally inside of his original Other.

I assume this is when the "terrible twos" really begin. Now that he knows that his mother isn't god, he begins to test the limits, to find out the extent to which she is not a complete Other. And then the rest of childhood happens, and his concept of the Other morphs into something more grandiose.

The reason I bring this up is not to suggest that Lacan's theories were faultless, but merely to point out that this is a useful way of conceiving of a common problem of human existence. I don't think it's a perfect way to describe things, but we can learn from the paradigm nonetheless. (And remember, paradigms are good for learning, and only good for learning.)

The Incomplete
So what we learn from Lacan about government is that it simply isn't as "complete" - as capable or as powerful - as we are originally taught to believe. After all, "the government" invented the internet and the atomic bomb. "The government" walked on the moon. "The government" teaches us about science and history. To think that it's only barely managing to accomplish these things - or even more accurately, to think that whatever "it" manages to accomplish is actually the work of specific individauls, not the government as a whole - is sure to open up a bit of an existential vacuum for anyone not accustomed to understanding the basic flaws of government activity.

Economics can help some of us learn about the basic shortcomings of failed government initiatives, but there is always a risk that we remain unconvinced. There is always the risk that we will simply acknowledge that past policies failed due to policy imperfections, that anOther, more superior policy or government will be able to rise to the challenges we've imposed.

In short, we have to learn that the government is an incomplete other, and hence not an Other at all.

And once we learn this, we also come to learn that there is "fixing" government except to scale it back and replace it with other human institutions, however fallible they might be.

Yes, even though they are fallible. Why? Because a fallible thing that is under your control will always be more manageable than a giant, faceless, flaw for which every attempt to improve it becomes a pointless set of competing arguments for a flawlessness that does not actually exist. Sort of like arguing over whether your C-student child should seek to be a CEO or a brain surgeon when he grows up, we'd be ignoring the facts of the universe and depriving us a viable solution to our problems. For heaven's sake, let the kid get a business degree and become a happy middle-manager somewhere.