Is the Government a Machine?

I’ve had a running argument with a coworker on the subject of qualifications.  We both are or were Bernie supporters (it is a long time until November), but he likes to point out that Hillary Clinton is one of the most qualified candidates in recent memory, and I always take issue with that.  Then the other day the great Louis C. K. weighed in with a bit in which he compared Hillary to a qualified airline pilot, Bernie to the guy who wants the plane to stop at every house, and Trump, I guess, to the random asshole who wants to grab the controls and do barrel rolls.  I’m honestly interested if anyone wants to help me with my problem understanding qualifications.

First of all, when someone says that Hillary’s qualifications are the best, I have a hard time seeing how that’s not the same thing as an endorsement.  Yet my friend maintains that it is not the same thing, and that I should recognize her qualifications despite supporting the other candidate.  We’ve argued round and round about how years of experience in the Senate should be weighed against executive branch experience in the Department of State and in the White House.  It doesn’t help that I don’t actually know much about what the Secretary of State does.  In any case, it seems to me like the notion of qualifications is, in this case, so subjective that it makes as much sense to choose a president based on ideas as on years spent in various branches of government.  It makes sense to choose someone with a DDS to work on your teeth.  The notion of particular qualifications in politicians makes less sense to me.

Louis C. K.’s bit included a phrase that, I think, clarifies some of what I am concerned with.  He said that the government is a “dangerous mechanism”.  A plane, no doubt, is a dangerous mechanism.  But is our government a mechanism?  A plane is something that takes off and goes to a certain place.  Is that what our government does?  The government is powerful; the government is dangerous.  Where is it going?  Others (Calvin Coolidge?) have compared the government to a business. Perhaps what the government does is too important, too much its own thing, to compare in such a cavalier way with a plane or a grocery store. 

Unfortunately, I have to use analogies to back this up.  The notion of a government as an airplane, or a ship, to use an example that surely goes back at least to Plato, reminds me powerfully of arguments over the mind and the brain.  Is the mind like a clock, a piece of biological mechanism, evolved in a clearly material way, and no different from the dead matter surrounding it?  From certain directions this notion seems incontrovertible, and yet we always seem to lose something when we stop talking about souls and ideas.  Perhaps a countervailing and equally distorting tendency exists in descriptions of the world in terms of mere information.

I want to resist the tendency, which seems to me inherent in the notion of qualifications, to deciding political matters in a reductive, mechanistic way.  This reductiveness could manifest itself in checking boxes like “Department of State, worked in”, or in drawing lines that say “it’s over, time to support x candidate”, or in drawing conclusions like “taxes up, bad”.  What suggests itself to me is a Tocquevillian vision of American greatness resting upon the combined efforts of millions of mediocre, unqualified citizens participating equally in the business of running the country.  Yet how are millions of engaged citizens different from a bureaucracy?  This post is really not about who to vote for, but about how we decide, and about what analogies help us make our decisions.  I want to know what people think about this highly appealing and funny idea of the nation as a machine.

Democracy in America

My latest big reading project has been Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.  I picked it up because I felt obligated to get serious about American history and I wasn’t able to think of a better place to start.  A fabulous library can actually be an embarrassment if you haven’t read the fundamentals.

Tocqueville is not really writing American history at all.  He is as interested in understanding the continual revolutions in France (this was published in 1835 and 1840).  Furthermore, he sees France and America as instances of a growing equality which is irresistable and even providential.  Hence Democracy in America is a work of political and social theory, and many times I wished he would include just one example of the (very plausible) generalities he was expounding.

It should be impossible, but I have the nagging sense that Tocqueville’s thought has such a distinctive bent that it might be possible to sum up this long book.  He seems to see in everything American a kind of golden mediocrity.  American education was not sophisticated, but it was widespread and suited to American life.  American laws were not particularly inspired, the leaders not particularly powerful, but many, many Americans took energetic part in making and remaking them.  Perhaps most importantly, the United States, though not long independent, had a long tradition of local government to counter the dangerous centralizing tendency of democracies.

Of course it’s hard to refrain from comparing Tocqueville’s often awed perceptions of America with our own.  (I wish I knew what to make of the idea that 170 years later, these perceptions should still carry some weight.)  He thought that individualism was a danger to a country in which people are generally alike and no hierarchy exists to connect people step by step to society at large.  If Americans are no longer civically engaged to the degree that so astounded him, then we may have lost a great bulwark of freedom.  This is probably the strongest impression the book left on me.  We also can’t take the ever increasing equality Tocqueville saw for granted.  He saw industrial labor as the one (then exceptional) factor against rising equality; I have no idea what he would have made of the service economy.

Tocqueville seems to have gotten the Civil War almost exactly wrong.  He believed that the North was indifferent to slavery, that race war would inevitably follow any emancipation, and that the question was to what degree the North would aid white southerners in the event of a slave rebellion.  I suppose it isn’t strange that misconceived fears would play a big part in the build up to disaster.

What will I read next?  To me there are few obvious classics of American history per se; I suppose this says more about how the canon is formed than about Americans or history.  Thucydides and Herodotus are the classics, but they are also simply the earliest long narratives we possess in the West, and it’s not even clear to me that the events they describe are as unique or self contained as I sometimes imagine.  What classics of American history am I missing?  Does Common Sense count?  The Federalist is surely too narrowly focused?  Is it necessary to widen our scope a little?  What about novels like The Red Badge of Courage?