8/1/2008 7:23

Ants and Government

If you only see ants in your kitchen, said the man on TV, you will think of ants only as pests. Or, if you are only aware of viruses when they cause you disease, you will think of them as pathogens.

That same manner of thought applies to how we often think of government. People who do not notice the government except when it is collecting taxes will naturally conceive of it as a money-bloated entity.

Governments, like ants, have many functions besides taking food from your pantry. There is, however, a certain invisibility which is intrinsic to good government. It arises from the fact that good government is very much about the orderliness of life. If crime is being prevented and traffic accidents avoided because good order is being maintained, then the activities of the government fade into the normal background of daily life. So long as the monetary system is stable and waste is removed from the cities and children play safely in the parks, there is no reason to think about government. Even in the case of disaster, a well-prepared and resiliant government will have only a flicker of visibility before services are restored, alternate travel routes are designated, and the injured and displaced are cared for.

The problem is that people try to kill the ants. Ants in your kitchen are not providing you with any valuable ecological services, but while you are killing the ants you are not doing useful work, either, and you may be doing positive harm to yourself as by chemically disrupting your own environment. Killing the ants is mere wastage.

The question ought to be, "How can the ants and I work together to benefit us both and the rest of the world?" Too many people, I fear, might just dismiss that question saying, "There is no way." Some say the same about government, or of certain nations or ethnic groups, or indeed of almost any category of existence. And if you cannot ask the question, there is a high probability that you will not find the answer.