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Guest Commentary

Mirror, oh mirror, upon the wall, who is the government, after all?

2/11/2015

Some people can’t take a joke.  Like me, for instance — even when the joke is about a faceless government or government agency. And that’s a timely topic now, as Congress and state legislatures around the nation got under way this month.

The particular government joke I’m thinking about is God telling a 21st century Noah to build an ark. Jehovah is psyched for a sequel to Genesis, Chapters 7-9.  But when God asks Noah how things are going, Noah ticks off a long list of obstacles to ark-building these days — like zoning regs, building permits, equal employment opportunity, etc. So, the Almighty backs off on His plan to destroy the world because — the punch line — “The government beat me to it.”

Hah, Hah! from much of the crowd.

But if you want a good look at what’s wrong with government these days as the Iowa legislature tries to get its act together, look in the mirror. The reflection you’ll see may well be of the person Abraham Lincoln had in mind when he highly resolved “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

From a humorless perspective Lincoln’s Gettsyburg address, Nov. 19, 1863, as a philosophy of government is preferred over a line from Ronald Reagan’s inaugural address of Jan. 20, 1981: “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

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A lot of people laughed and applauded that line, too, and still invoke it because it conveniently blames someone else for today’s problems, other than the person in the mirror.

(In a Sioux City election last fall, 9 percent of the people in the mirror turned out to decisively vote against proposals to fund capital improvements in the school district. To digress, it might not be bad if a government of 9 percent of the people did perish from the earth!)

Besides revisiting Lincoln and Reagan, it’s useful to review other perspectives on government and the people. For example, consider Edward Hume (1729-1797), a member of Parliament, who emphasized the importance of the past and of moderation in shaping what our government does, and Thomas Paine (1737-1809), the so-called poet of the American Revolution, who was more interested in shaking up, than in shaping government. Paine likely would be close to Lincoln, but would have it a government of reason, by reason and for reason.

Their takes on how we are governed are well discussed in a recent book, “The Great Debate” by Yuval Levin, a sharp GOP staffer for many years in Congress. Here’s what is nice about Hume and Paine and their insights:

What a relief to read philosophy by activists, who did not spend millions on TV ads but worked for months in shaping what they wrote.

How bizarre to think there once were “great debates” about the purposes and structure of government, even with the acrimony not totally absent.

Believe it or not, neither Paine nor Hume argued that his approach to government would create more jobs than the other guy’s.

Their arguments resonate today, although Hume likely is too moderate for the current GOP to stomach and the firebrand Paine puts too much emphasis on reason to be tolerated by the Tea Party or the far left.

Where their views might be welcomed for guidance is in some of the conversations about “engagement” — like those being emphasized by the relatively new Harkins Institute for Public Policy and Citizen Engagement at Drake University and by the also non-partisan No Labels group, as well as groups we should have been listening to all along, like the League of Women Voters.

Really, it is time to look in the mirror when it comes to complaints about government.

Legislators and other decision makers are more likely to listen to someone who has their own act together rather than someone with a clever line about government beating Jehovah to inflicting pain and stupidity upon our communities.

Mirror, oh mirror, upon the wall, who is the government, after all? (Hint: The U.S. Constitution begins with “We the people…” CV

Herb Strentz is a retired administrator and professor in the Drake School of Journalism and Mass Communication and writes occasional columns for Cityview.

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