Neil Tambe

I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

Why do we distrust government?

I have been reminded that I Haven't followed through to much on blogging, and I think it's time to get started again.

Why do we distrust government?
Though, before beginning on this line of reasoning, I'd like to elaborate on government. What is it and what isn't it, (in ways relevant of whether or not we should trust government)?

What isn't government?

Government is certainly not a physical entity. It has physical manifestations like money, buildings or documents, but in itself is not something physical as is a tree, a mobile phone or a book. Also, government is not the laws that are represented in the United States Code, Constitution or Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Rather, those laws are government's footsteps in the snow, the echoes of government, the reflections of government. But, laws are not government.

Also, government is not simply an idea. It has moved beyond conception, it is in existence. Plainly, government exists...I won't spend time fleshing the obvious. But, since it does exist, what is it?

What is government? Obviously, what government IS must lie within the set of things that government COULD be. Most accounts that I can come across, on the "define:government" Google command and anecdotally, seem to shake government out to one of two things: an organization or a system. So, lets entertain the idea that government is either an organization or a system.

The way I think of a system is that it's static. In the words of my friend Ashwin, you can "turn the crank" on a system. A system has inputs and outputs. A system is a method, it has more to do with process and flow of operations. A system is used by people, but its definitive quality is orchestration not the orchestrators. A system is kind of like a computer program, whether a really cool, uplifting game or a virus.

The way I think of an organization is that it's defined by its smaller components. An organization is a more active entity. It has an element of dynamism...as in, it's a changing growing entity whether it has the effect of a cancer or a church.

To summarize, government is either a system or an organization. And, that classification has nothing to do whether we view government as a "good" or "bad" thing. But, a more interesting question is crucial to answer before moving forward. Is government more like a system or more like an organization.

This question is much like trying to distinguish something like Tropicana Orange Juice from Minute Maid Orange Juice. I'll advance that government is more like an organization. Why? Because the system doesn't use people, but people create and use systems, I hope. The defining feature of government, as we know it, are people; leaders, employees, volunteers included. Government is changing, at present, to better equip itself. Government has a collective intelligence and skill-set.

I think in the past government was more like a system...used by a select few to govern. Now, citizens can be active participants in governing. Now, government has adaptive problems instead of allocation problems. So, I think there could have been a metamorphosis of government, completed or ongoing, from being a system to being an organization. I'm sure this continues to be an openly disputed assertion--lots of people view government as a system, no doubt. Government seems like it's abstract and a self-driven entity sometimes, but I think it's still more like an organization because pockets of government have reinvented themselves. And, I strongly believe that the work that is done in government is not akin to turning a crank. The process by which government makes decisions, whether legislative or executive, are debated and collaborative. So, if outputs of government have some resemblance to inputs, government is more like an organization because the inputs are dynamic.

[Perhaps this distinction is also where dispute about the value/trust of government is rooted, more explanation to come].

If government is an organization, and an organization comprise of people at that, who are the people that comprise government?

Of course, there are the usual suspects: elites, the staff of elites, civil employees and to some the military or interest groups, perhaps. But, I'd like to draw a strong connection (or at least suggest that it's possible, or that it might be prudent to do so) between government as an organization and one other category..."the public". Not as a constituency of government, but as a component of government.

Why people are part of government or are benefited by acting in a way that warrants such classification
There are a few direct links to people being a part of government, that is to say a part of the governing process. Of course, indirectly, people are part of the other governing categories (elites, civil employees, etc.). Yes, the President of the United States and/or Senators and/or mayors are, in fact, human. But, there are more direct links that people are part of the governing process. Take the example of ballot initiatives, people (in aggregate) can make direct changes to our governing systems. Large ones, like Prop 2 in Michigan which radically changed affirmative-action programs in Michigan. Also, people are government in the sense that their pressure causes political elites to act in a certain way. So, in this way people participate in government. But, we know this already.

More influentially, I think, people enforce government. People are the ones who call the police, who bring suit in the courts or make claims of their representatives or fellow citizens. People buy-in to government...it's not like we constantly have farmers rebellions in the United States. In other words, people enforce (or reinforce?) government because they use systems of government as means to some end in everyday life. Without these actions, a civil government (as opposed to an authoritarian, militaristic government) would not exist. There simply would not be a government if the governed did not consent, participate or enforce and inform the principles of their government.

Government should be this way because it leads to stability. When people govern, it conforms to the features of the people governing, roughly. So, as long as governing populace doesn't change radically, government stays stable and consistent. Which is a good thing, especially if government dramatically affects day to day life, because government acts as such...just try getting through an hour of waking life without interacting with some area of government.

This method of popular government is also useful because it allows for signaling. Members of the governing populace have mechanisms for alerting the ultimate decision makers--in this case political elites--to their needs/wants. These opinions are aggregated and government is so ordered. This is efficient. This method of signaling leverages the wisdom of crowds, but also incorporates the stupidity of groupthink.

Overall, there are a few direct and/or indirect links that allow for government to be done via a coalition of elites and the governing populace. Also, there are advantages for this method. It provides for stability--via the actions of government crudely conforming to the aggregate needs of the people--and efficient signaling, by which the action of government can be aggregately informed.

Notice however, the way that the governing populace governs is through "course corrections" and not original creation. In other words, the governing populace takes the actions/ideas of elites and accepts or rejects those actions. If they reject the actions of elites, then they choose whether or not to intervene. Then, the intervention is accepted or denied by the governing populace at large. This amounts to a course correction model of participation. The people do not view themselves, on balance, as the creators or even the mentors of government but only the defense of last resort.

Advancing the discussion, why do we distrust government?
So, now that the underlying theory has be laid out, crudely, lets move on a more interesting discussion...why we might distrust government.

I think the conflict of distrust comes for a misalignment of expectations. We expect government to have the impact, reach and conduct of an organization but treat it and/or participate in it as a system. Of course, I'll give due diligence and explain further.

Take the regulation of financial markets, provision of healthcare, defense from terrorism (domestic or otherwise) or numerous other examples. These are the tasks we expect government to take, of course some libertarians would refut this point but the fact of the matter is government continues to take most if not all of these issues, head on. These are issues that require an organization to address because they require constant adaption, reorganization and resource/strategy reallocation. In short, these are considerations that need more than "turning the crank" they take more than a system, they take an organization to address.

While the demands of modern government are high, it is not managed as an organization but managed as a system. It takes more than money to function a government. Like a garden, governments take management, not simply the provisions of water and sunlight. And, because we look at it simply as a system government constantly underperforms and is easily manipulated--as systems are often manipulated.

Continuing the comparison to a garden, as a governing populace, we allow government to have its course corrected, but often government needs to be managed. We simply reap what we sow when it comes to government. We don't nurture government to grow and prosper, we treat it as an entitty that needs more or less money, more or less procedure or legislative guidance. But, government is about people. We need to grow the best people, with the best ideas, with the freedom to act boldly. Growing often involves growing pains.

But, instead of placing blame on ourselves for treating government as a system instead of an organization, and getting results as such, we distrust government and claim it doesn't to do the job that it should do...the job that an organization should do. Whether or not government--conceived as an organization--could do the job is an unanswerable. We treat government as a system, so it behaves as one. Because it behaves as a system and we are expecting it to behave and show results as an organization, we begin to distrust government. The longer this goes, the more we distrust government. So, how are we to know if government can function as an organization if we don't treat it as one?

Also, I think it's also important to complete the transformation of government from a system to an organization. There's probably discrepancy among the various participants--notice the use of the word 'participant' instead of 'stakeholder'--as to whether government is a system or an organization. How do we do this? I think by motivating elites to be 'creative' (meaning ingenius as well as moving to create resources/ideas instead of allocating or extracting them) and getting the governing populace to be creators as well. By doing this, government will have to move towards being an organization because assuming the governing populace is essential in the creative process, the governing population will not want to treat itself as a system rather than an organization.

Of course this raises larger concerns: does the governing populace have the efficiacy do involve themselves in creative processes? Does the governing populace have the capacity to be creative? Would the governing populace even trust itself if it was to act? If so, great, but if not, what would that mean for governance in general, would we even be able to government without a basic trust between the governing populace and elites or even within the elites or governing populace?

More immediately: What will Obama do? Does it even matter what Obama does, what will we do?