All Commentary
Monday, February 1, 1965

The Government Is All of Us

A renowned and respectable soci­ologist once wrote, “The Govern­ment is All of Us,” and a Presi­dent of the U.S.A. voiced the same idea in another of its several ver­sions, “The Government is the People.”

How this notion, so at odds with American concepts of limited gov­ernment, ever insinuated itself in­to our folklore is a mystery. It may have had its start—who knows?—with a misinterpretation of the Preamble to our Constitu­tion: “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union…” Semantically, this is tricky: a correlation of two collective terms, “People” and “Union.” Instead of being con­strued as intended, namely, that All of Us should support the idea of a government of limited scope, many have misread this as saying that “the Union is the People,” which is to say, that the Govern­ment is All of Us.

Regardless of the esteem in which we may hold the authors of a concept, we are in no way ab­solved from thinking the concept through for ourselves—especially if the inferences drawn from it lead to mischief. We must never commit the present to errant ways because of a sanctimonious regard for the past. If we let our ances­tors do our thinking for us, we shall do no thinking for ourselves, nor will we ever really understand what their thinking was.

Anything That’s Peaceful

In an ideal free society each in­dividual may do anything he pleases as long as it is peaceful. The role of government is limited to keeping the peace. There is a principled justification for All of Us to support a government thus limited; but it is absurd to con­clude that this commits everyone to support everything a contempo­rary Government may undertake in the name of All of Us! This perversion would virtually ac­knowledge that we count for noth­ing as individuals. It would iden­tify Government with All of Us, and imply that the regulation of every detail of our lives is a proper function of Government—because “we are doing it to ourselves!” A comparable perversion would be to suggest that a company, having employed and given its backing to a group of company guards, there­upon becomes a company of guards, and nothing else!

The dictators headquartering at Moscow and Peiping are not the People—far from it. And in de­mocracies where majorities have the political say-so, the Majority is not All of Us, for there is the Minority! Indeed, there is no con­ceivable organization of society in which the Government is the Peo­ple.

How, then, can mischief grow out of such a silly idea? An idea prevails because someone believes it. Ideas rule our lives. People are led in wrong as well as in right directions by ideas. Ideas, in turn, are sometimes clarified and some­times confused by the words and phrases in which they are ex­pressed; all of us are under se­mantic influences. Americans, by and large, favor the idea of democ­racy, that is, they would decide on the proper scope and functions of government by majority vote. Rightness and wrongness, to most citizens, turns on what the major­ity decrees. If the majority ap­proves social security, or sending men to the Moon or Mars, or pay­ing farmers not to farm, or what­ever, then such is within the proper scope of government! The majority does not fret about—or even discern—the dire conse­quences of these policies, and this explains, in part, why majoritari­anism is satisfactory to most Americans as a means of deciding on right and wrong. “We voted for it!” That’s their shallow political way of testing morality!

How Schemes Develop

It matters little that the Ameri­can people, for the most part, have not initiated these schemes which take government out of bounds. It wasn’t “The People” who de­manded federal urban renewal or the Peace Corps or going to the Moon or social security. These—the whole kaboodle of socialistic antics—were the inventions of the political Establishment or of the few who are able to maneuver the Establishment and then, after the fact, drum up majority approval for their schemes.

Except in unusual circum­stances, individuals in Government are bent on enlarging the Estab­lishment, that is, on extending their control over the rest of us. If the point once be accepted that the Government is All of Us, it follows that whatever the individ­uals in Government favor—going to Mars or whatever—is the will of All of Us. This is how this cli­ché—an absurdity—leads toward the total state: socialism.

I am not suggesting that the trend toward all-out statism is a conscious objective of all who fur­ther the trend. I am insisting that some in Government, no less than some among All of Us, can be and are being victimized by loose and erroneous concepts, one of the worst being “The Government is All of Us.”

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Double Standard

If we had the money, we could get a “cease-and-desist” order against every businessman in the United States who is engaged in interstate commerce. The businessman has nothing to say. He can only hope the law of averages will keep him off the wrong end of a complaint.

As an administrator of two antitrust laws diametrically op­posed to each other, it was not difficult for me to accuse everybody at a trade convention with being some kind of a lawbreaker. Either they were all charging everyone the same prices, a circum­stance indicating a violation of the Sherman Act, or they were not charging everyone the same price, a circumstance indicating a violation of the Robinson-Patman Act.

LOW ELL, B. MASON, Former Federal Trade Commissioner

  • Leonard E. Read (1898-1983) was the founder of FEE, and the author of 29 works, including the classic parable “I, Pencil.”