November 2, 1997 in City

It’s Important To Say What’s Good

William J. Bennett Special To The Los Angeles Times
 
Tags:column

Reasonable people can dispute the proper side to take in such political battles as those over campaign finance reform, but one consequence of them is indisputable: They will feed the ever-growing cynicism of Americans about the political process.

Government bashing has become a one-size-fits-all suit for political commentary. Without looking very hard, one can find liberals who think that the government is responsible for furthering the spread of AIDS and crack cocaine among minorities. Many mainstream journalists ascribe only narrow and self-interested motives to public officials. Massive government conspiracies have become a prevalent theme in movies and television.

During election season, politicians routinely produce ads that distort their opponents’ records, impugn their character and degrade public discourse. And many people now view government as merely an instrument to satisfy their every desire instead of something that deserves their allegiance. All of this has turned a proper skepticism toward government into unremitting cynicism.

Conservatives also have played a role in furthering cynicism. A compelling case can be made against the damaging effects of big government. But too often what we hear from conservatives is unceasing and reckless rhetorical attacks against government itself.

The founders of America, who pledged to one another “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor” on that hot July day in 1776, understood this. At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Benjamin Franklin reminded his colleagues that “when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected?” And yet he knew that the strength of the nation depended “on the general opinion of the goodness of the government.”

Contempt for representative government is corrosive. You cannot be cynical about government without becoming cynical about America. The government we have is in large measure a reflection of public preferences. Americans may be rhetorically against “big government,” but they are operationally quite willing to accept its size, its reach, its responsibilities. This has been shown over and over in public opinion polls and elections. You may believe, as I do, that in a free society there are some tasks that government should not do. But this argument should be made in measured and responsible ways. You shouldn’t trash government; you should fix it.

Moreover, some of today’s anti-government rhetoric is contemptuous of history and not intellectually serious. If you listen to it, you would come away with the impression that government has never done anything well. In fact, government has done some very difficult things quite well. The government of the United States has defeated fascist empires with its armies and a communist empire with its ideas. It substantially reduced the number of elderly in poverty, landed a man on the moon and passed civil rights legislation. It builds interstate highways, insures bank deposits, ensures that air and water remain clean.

One can recognize these achievements and still believe that government needs to be downsized, market-oriented reforms need to be made, subsidies to agencies like the National Endowment for the Arts need to be eliminated, more functions need to be returned to states, localities and citizens.

Love of country does not require us to love every government program.

Disdain of representative government, however, makes it virtually impossible to instill in citizens a noble love of country.

America’s founders expressed this love as a palpable object of the heart, a passion for what James Madison called “the last and fairest experiment in favor of the rights of human nature.”

Today, sadly, many people have fallen out of love with America, and part of the reason for this is because of the utter contempt some have directed against government itself.

It was Lincoln’s lament that the deeds of the founders would “grow more and more dim with the lapse of time.” We must revivify their heroic deeds and rekindle one of our most majestic sentiments: “amor patriae,” love of country.

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