Some Truth(s) About the US Government
Among the many truly awful narratives running around in the US today, there are few worse than this: “The government doesn’t do anything but screw up and take your money.” It’s right up there with “All politicians are lying bastards” as a pernicious falsehood that really ought to be put to sleep, but keeps on living because it gets traction. It gets traction partly because how we think about the federal government is usually wrong.
Almost all of us tend to think of the US federal government as a thing. A singular thing. A monolithic entity. A collected whole. It’s easy to think of the government as one big thing if we’ve never had to deal with it, or even when we’re just talking about it in common speech (I can’t even get away from using singular forms of speech in this article). The truth of the matter is, it’s just not like that.
Because, you see, the truth is that the “US federal government” doesn’t exist. Not really. What does exist are the Department of State, the Department of Agriculture, the US Patent Office, the Treasury, the US International Trade Commission, the FBI, the CIA, DOT, OSHA, OMB, NASA, and about a thousand other departments and agencies with their own varieties of alphabet soup names. They all have their own agendas, sponsors, problems, sources of funding, and issues, and they sometimes work in opposite directions. They all have people — often very select groups of people — who are interested in (and benefit from) what they do. And for better and worse, they are almost all useful for something.
And that’s just the executive branch (not to mention the White House staff, which you would think is an extension of the President, and you would be wrong more often than you might think). There’s also Congress (which isn’t a unified whole at all, what with different committees and sub-committees, not to mention political parties) and the Judicial Branch (which fights itself constantly with competing court decisions). It’s worth an afternoon’s time to just look at a list of all the different Congressional committees and try to figure out what they do! That’s just the federal government. I don’t have the time or space to even start talking about the states!
The point is that if you try to think about the government as one collected whole that moves in one direction, has a singular opinion, or even knows what its constituent parts are doing at all times, you’re just plain wrong. This idea of a unified federal government is one of the worst errors to come out of Schoolhouse Rock-level civics, right next to the description of how a bill becomes a law in terms of sheer inaccuracy.¹ In fairness, it’s not their fault, nor yet the fault of your civics teacher, who almost certainly perpetuated this myth. The idea of the government as a thing is what we might call a useful fiction. Like the classical model of an atom, it describes a phenomenon well enough to explain it simply… but the actual phenomenon isn’t that simple.
The bottom line is that the United States government is the most complicated system of governance in the history of the human species. Yes, really. And the truth, the real truth, is that statements like “the government is always wrong,” or “the government never does a good job,” or even “I don’t like the government” are absolutely meaningless in practice. It’s like saying every brand in the frozen food aisle is bad because you don’t like Green Giant peas, or complaining that you don’t like beer because someone fed you Natural Light at a frat party one time, or saying that you don’t like dogs because one growled at you when you were five. As soon as you realize this, it should change your whole view on how a large segment of life works. That’s a good thing — it means you have the mental space to start figuring it out.
Now, a cards on the table moment: I work for the federal government. I can’t tell you which agency or what I do, because the Hatch Act is a thing, but I’ve been in federal service for a decade. Take everything that I say from this point forward with a grain of salt, because I am biased. I also don’t think I’m wrong, but I am coming at this issue from the perspective of a federal employee.
I know four more true things about the federal government as a result of this work.
Most of the people in the federal government are there with the intention to serve the public, most of them do a good job, and the management ranks are staffed with some of the smartest people I’ve ever met. The vast majority of federal workers are reasonably smart, reasonably motivated, and very knowledgeable in their areas of expertise. To sum up, most of the time the government actually does good work. You just don’t hear about it, because who ever reports when things go well?
There are some slackers who work in the federal government. Everyone knows who they are, and they’re almost impossible to fire, because the government overcorrected in favor of protecting its employees. This is kind of part of the perk package: you won’t get rich as a federal employee, but you also won’t starve, your quality of life will be pretty good, and your job security is great.
However, the slackers are in the minority, and having had experience in multiple industries I can say with some authority that the number of slackers in the government is no greater than the number of slackers employed by any given large private company. Slackers are present everywhere, because slacking off is part of human nature. They just stick around longer in the government.
These people are balanced out by an unusually high number of “hero” employees who routinely break the law by working overtime for free. Yes, really.
Every single federal agency exists for one of two purposes: to save American lives, or to make life better for someone in America. That is the mindset of the federal government, and almost everyone who works for any agency or branch of the federal government knows exactly what impact their work has… even if they sometimes disagree with it.² If you want to get a feel for what this mindset is like in practice, watch an episode of The Office, an episode of Parks & Recreation, and an episode of The West Wing all in the same day. How you feel at the end of that is how it feels to work for the government.
Not only does the American public not know what the government does, most people don’t want to know. About half of the population, by my reckoning, doesn’t want to know because having that knowledge would compromise their ideology that more government is always bad. Another huge segment of the population doesn’t want to know because having that knowledge would compromise their belief that the government is evil (note that these are different, but not mutually exclusive, groups). Both of these positions are in error, and in combination they account for the majority of the American population in my humble opinion.
If we take these four points together, what we have is the following situation: the executive branch of the federal government, despite what you read in the news, mostly does a good job at executing its mission as best it can within the bounds of the law, for the purpose of benefiting the American public, and it almost never gets credit for this.
Because the truth is, most Americans are incredibly poorly educated about their own government, and tend to self-select out of knowing how it works.
This brings us back to the concept of survival in the modern world; you are reading The Modern Survival Guide, after all. And the truth is, getting some knowledge about how your government works (whether you live in the US or not) is incredibly important for your survival and quality of life. Even if you disagree with your government. Especially if you disagree with your government, because in all likelihood you really only disagree with a tiny part of what it’s doing, and it’s kind of important to avoid tarring everything with the same brush.
Remember this the next time someone tells you that the government can’t do anything right, and needs to have its funding cut. Remember this the next time that someone argues with you that taxes are too high, and we have to cut government programs. Remember this the next time someone tries to tell you that there’s a vast government conspiracy to take over some aspect of your life. These people are almost always full of crap. Or ignorant. Or both. It can be hard to draw the line.
Your modern survival, for better and worse, is dependent on your government, and the quality (and direction) of services it provides. That’s not hyperbole, and frankly it’s not a “modern” issue; it’s always been true. I’m happy to debate that point in the chat, but if you come at me with the argument that there ever was a period of recorded human history where a government of some sort didn’t determine peoples’ quality of life, I’m just going to tell you now, you’re wrong. The difference is that in a modern democracy, you actually have a say in how your government functions. You have a voice, and with modern social media, your voice can be very loud indeed.
So my advice, for what it’s worth, is to do your best to understand your government. If you’re going to shout things about the government on Twitter or Facebook, at least be correct. Read up on what Congress does rather than just complaining that it’s bad. Find out what the federal agencies are for rather than just saying they’re a waste of taxpayer dollars (you might still be right, but try to at least be specific).³ Discover what court cases mean rather than just complaining that unelected judges are making law (spoiler alert, it’s absolutely their job to interpret the law, because that’s what a system of common law is).
This is part and parcel of being a citizen, as opposed to being someone’s subject. A citizen knows enough to make decisions. A subject only knows enough to be controlled. As you value your life in the modern world, be the best citizen you can be… because there are plenty of people out there who want to make you their subjects.
¹They completely left out the part about how dozens of lobbyists cajole and threaten each Congressman in a complex dance of bribery and coercion. I can’t imagine why.
²Under certain administrations, the Americans who benefit from the government might sway more towards one side of the social spectrum or the other, and some administrations are just more competent than others. This can cause friction in the ranks of federal employees. The Trump administration, for example, precipitated the worst morale crisis in the federal service in living memory, because people simply couldn’t cope with how absolutely inept it was.
³Rick Perry was a classic case here when he argued for abolishing the Department of Energy back when he was running for President. He had no idea what it did. That’s not hyperbole, he literally didn’t know. Let me tell you what it does: it maintains the American nuclear arsenal. It also administers some grant programs and does some power-related research, but most of its funding and mission is centered around keeping the nukes functional. And that moron wanted to just disband it, because he didn’t know anything about it. DON’T BE LIKE RICK PERRY. Incidentally, he immediately changed his tune once he was put in charge of that agency in 2017.