My wife and I recently watched a movie ("Love, Actually," 2003) in which Hugh Grant plays a newly-elected British prime minister. Early in the film, he tells his staff that it's time for him to start "running the country." While there is little content of a political nature in this story, the offhanded manner in which this character uses the line reveals an interesting fact of modern life. Very few individuals today think twice about the appropriateness of uttering those three little words.
Politicians from a variety of nations routinely boast that they are the "best qualified" to "run the country." Citizens of many political persuasions worry to various degrees about who they should elect to "run the country." Complaints abound from those out of power about who is "running the country." If only we would elect the "right" people to "run the country," all our problems would disappear in a puff of smoke...
Perhaps such an ingrained, not-to-be-questioned attitude is unsurprising given a century of government schools "educating" children in the wonders of the State as provider-for-all, the ultimate Solomon resolving every tough and intractable question facing society. Whatever the origins of this present viewpoint, one stark fact stands out: the belief that some politician can -- or should -- "run the country" is dangerous in the extreme to the liberty that is our birthright.
The idea that any person or set of people should "run the country" in anathema to the principles established at the beginning of this country. Thomas Jefferson frequently expressed his opinion that individuals are qualified to make their own decisions on how to live their lives. Indeed, Jefferson made no secret of his general distrust of government and those too eager to seek the power wielded by the State.
Ideally, of course, politicians, are not supposed to obtain office for the purposes of "running the country." In reality, a "country" is nothing other than the individual citizens who comprise the society -- the network of interpersonal relationships -- that is the essence of a nation's identity. In a very concrete sense, "running the country" equates to "ruling the country." Ultimately, this translates into "ruling the citizens." Down that twisted road lies dictatorship. How else to "run" the lives of the people without dictating to and forcing them to act as the "rulers" deem best?
Here is the tragic "fatal conceit" of which Friedrich Hayek wrote: that politicians -- strangers to nearly all of us -- can possibly know or understand the details of our individual contexts and make choices for us better than we can ourselves. Only vast ignorance or vast arrogance can explain how any person could accept such a gross fallacy.
Sometimes politicians tell us they must "make the hard choices" because of a "compelling governmental interest" in a particular issue. (This was one rationale offered by the United States Supreme Court in the recent Hiibel decision in which the majority ruled that an individual has no right to anonymity in the face of a police officer's request, even if that person has done nothing wrong nor been charged with a crime.)
But a valid government properly has no interests of its own. A government's sole reason, its only justification for existence is derived from the interests of the citizens who desire to protect their personal rights from the coercive actions of criminals (of whatever stripe or origin). In Jefferson's words, "...a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government..." (First inaugural address, March 4,1801.)
In keeping with the appropriate function of the State, we do need politicians to run the government. But given Jefferson's description, this extremely limited role for our legislators, executives, and judges means nothing more -- and nothing less -- than managing the mechanism for guaranteeing and enforcing our right to life, liberty, and property in the face of those miscreants who seek to deprive us of such, whether via the ballot box or the ammo box. Politicians and their bureaucratic underlings are supposed to be nothing other than managers with a severely delimited sphere of authority and responsibility.
Just as the aftermath of Abraham Lincoln's unconstitutional acts during the Civil War resulted in the curious inversion of a national government established and funded by individual states asserting that this derivative federal system was and is now the primary one with final political authority over the entities that created it, so too have today's public servants -- those hired and paid only to administer the defense of our rights -- those politicians and bureaucrats now view themselves as "running the country" (i.e., us, our lives) and have lost sight of the fact that they should be doing nothing other than "running the government."
Rather than governing the State, the politicians seek to govern us. Instead of controlling and directing the minimal agencies necessary to accomplish their tasks, the politicians want to control and direct us. In lieu of guiding and shepherding the police and our soldiers, the politicians tell us they must guide and shepherd us.
But I neither need nor desire to be steered, bossed, overseen, or dominated...and especially not by those who are supposed to be my underlings.
In Jefferson's words, "Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others?...Let history answer this question."
And answer it history has, loudly and definitively, with a resounding, "No!"
In more contemporary words, Jefferson's insightful sentiment finds continued affirmation:
"Some man's come, he's trying to run my life; Don't know what he's askin'... He can't even run his own life, I'll be damned if he'll run mine..." (Jonathan Edwards, "Sunshine," 1971.)