As the U.S. stumbles toward addressing COVID-19 concurrent with economic concerns connected to the pandemic as well as unrelated international events, such as oil futures, Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience,” with its focus on slavery and 1840s America, may seem even less relevant than when many of us were assigned the essay in high school.
But Thoreau’s first few paragraphs capture well the problems with public discourse, notably on social media, about the role of government during a time of national emergency spurred by a pandemic.
Immediately, Thoreau lays out the libertarian grounding of his argument:
I heartily accept the motto,—“That government is best which governs least;” and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe,—“That government is best which governs not at all;” and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.
It is important to recognize here the essential idealism in libertarian thought (and to admit this idealism is little different than the idealism of Marxism/communism that libertarians and other conservatives point to in order to discredit the Left).
In the U.S.—and emphatic on social media—there remains a powerful urge to shout “Damn government!” at every turn. The American narrative includes a blanket demonizing of government (always the Bad Guy) and an uncritical and idealized view of the free market (always the Good Guy).
This is lazy and cartoonish, but an enduring way to navigate the world in this country.
Yet, just a couple paragraphs later, Thoreau makes a key clarification that drives the rest of his essay:
But, to speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call themselves no-government men, I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government. Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.
While I have little patience for “no-government men [sic],” Thoreau’s practical call here is compelling across larger political and economic ideologies. I suspect that most of us recognize that humans have yet to reach the level of enlightenment that would allow no government and that since the free market unchecked proves time and again to be at least amoral if not guaranteed to be immoral (tending toward Social Darwinism), we can admit the necessity of government.
The history of the U.S. has also shown that neither local control nor federal control in the workings of government is uniquely effective; for government to be that “better government” a free people likely need tension between local and federal control as well as tension between government and the free market.
As Thoreau demonstrates, we would all be better served with some nuance in how we discuss our expectations not only for better government but also better market dynamics.
In this time of COVID-19, two sets of choices about wording seem particularly important: preferring “publicly funded” to “free” and clarifying criticisms of “this administration” instead of “government.”
Here is one example of how word choices misrepresent the sort of ideological and political choices a free people should make to attain “better government” directly and then a better quality of life for all people: South Korea’s Drive-Through Testing For Coronavirus Is Fast — And Free.
Many experts believe South Korea has responded well to COVID-19, and that response is the work of government. But there is nothing free about the response.
What this situation in South Korea highlights is that publicly funded government can (and should) work well in the service of the people who are providing the public funds.
In democratic countries that draw tax revenue from labor and commerce, the choice for those people is how that public funding is allocated, in whose interest that public money is dedicated.
For the U.S., we as a people generate a tremendous amount of public funding, but political leadership tends toward cavalier spending on the military and the economy (banks, the stock market) while mostly balking at serving the public directly (health care for all, basic income). This is a choice, an ideological one that is countered by the South Korean example above.
One of the lessons of the 2016 election is that voting has consequences; the COVID-19 national emergency exposed Trump’s dismantling public agencies as well as how political leadership is willing to allocate public money.
But the pandemic has also exposed the consequences of not having health care for all, not protecting hourly workers who must work to be paid (even when sick), of not having robust infrastructures that can survive when stressed.
These lessons are about administrations since they are about how government works as a consequence of these administrations.
For 8 years, I criticized almost daily the education policy and discourse during the Obama administration, practically speaking little different and even often worse than the George W. Bush administration.
That criticism was never about “government schools,” but I was often acknowledging that political and public policy has mostly failed public education—not that public education is itself an inevitable failure.
I would resist a Thoreau version about public education writ large: that when people are ready we will have no public education. But I am in the camp of this version: I ask for, not at once no public education, but at once a better better public education.
Scholars and academics are often seen as “merely academic,” pointy-headed intellectuals who serve no practical purpose. Often, this may be a valid criticism.
But we do have one practical and valuable skill—taking care with the words we use to make nuanced and complex examinations of the world around us.
Especially in the early stages of a pandemic, and then once we reach the other side and begin to reflect on how to build not just a better government but a better world, we must be more precise with our words.
Say “publicly funded” and not “free” to describe the workings of government.
Say “this administration” and not “government” when the criticism is focused on policy changes directly controlled by a specific administration.
We must resist being simplistic, but this is a simple truth: Words matter.