Don't Love the Government

Brian Gongol

Love. It's the secret ingredient inside Grandma's chocolate-chip cookies. It is, according to the Beatles, all you need. It is, we are told, what makes a Subaru a Subaru.

But there is one thing which love is not, and never will be: Something you exchange with your government.

You can have a love of your country. You can have love of liberty. You can even love certain things about your government (like, say, the Thunderbirds of the US Air Force).

But you cannot love your government, and it cannot love you.

I didn't think this was a matter of debate or even the most remote consideration before I heard the 2018 State of the Union address. But there it was, when President Trump declared: "Americans love their country. And they deserve a Government that shows them the same love and loyalty in return."

Now, you might think I'm being picky when I object to this line. But I believe in a couple of principles on which I think one must consistently hold the line: One of those is the very well-established conservative belief that words and ideas matter. Another, as Calvin Coolidge wrote, is that the words of the President carry an enormous weight.

So the reason I object to the turn of phrase that suggests that the government can "love" us -- or that it is the same thing for Americans to love their country as it is to love their government.

Just because something looks like a thing or reminds us of a thing doesn't make it that thing. For instance, Facebook may be where many of us go to "see" our friends -- but Facebook isn't our friend. It isn't anyone's friend. It is a very large company with a perfectly legal agenda, but that doesn't mean we should give it any greater leeway than we might give to any other company -- from to Boeing to Caterpillar.

But Facebook often manages to work its way into a special place in our heads because we so often see it when we're seeing pictures of people we like (and even love). That doesn't mean we should like Facebook, especially. In fact, it means we ought to be more cautious with Facebook than we might normally be -- because it has the advantage of taking that shortcut in our brains to the happy place where thoughts of our friends reside.

The fact that the relationship we have with Facebook inherently tends to makes us gullible is exactly why we should be deliberately more cautious with it, rather than less.

What goes for Facebook goes double for the government. The government gets to use the trappings of the country -- the flag, the anthem, and all of the pomp and circumstance that go with it. But just because we love those symbols of the things we should really love -- like our rights and our liberties -- does not mean the government itself deserves a free pass to put a claim on our love, too.

In fact, the government is the entity that has the most capacity to do great damage to those things we, as Americans, love most. That's why, if you immerse yourself in the words of the Founders -- especially James Madison -- you'll find that the operative feeling that overshadows the relationship between people and government is one of jealousy, not love.

Checks and balances operating between the three branches of government -- and between the Federal government and the governments of the states, counties, and cities -- are built not on affection but on jealousy. And, just like a net under a high-wire acrobat, the system only works under tension. If each part isn't pulling in its own direction, then the whole thing could fail.

Jealousy may not be a virtue, but it's a reliable instinct of human nature -- that's why the Founders were smart to rely on it rather than on love to keep the idea of a democratic republic alive in our form of government. So when the President says, "Americans love their country. And they deserve a Government that shows them the same love and loyalty in return," he mixes up the emotions as well as the objects of affection.

Americans love our country, but we should be eternally suspicious of our government, jealous of our rights and liberties, and quick to turn on anyone who would use the symbols that represent values we love to try to roll back those values themselves. The government shouldn't love us; it can't, and it shouldn't. It should only seek to serve us -- and our values. That's all it's capable of doing, anyway.