“Healthy Government Is Strife”

Playwright and screenwriter David Mamet caused a stir a few years back by coming out as a conservative, which is way more controversial in Hollywood than any other kind of coming out.

Unfortunately, Mamet embraces conservatism for the worst reason: his belief in the inherent depravity of man (which, come to think of it, has been a recurring theme of his work). He adopts the old conservative line that man is too evil to be trusted with power. (I disagree. I focus instead on man’s inherent capacity for reason—which is too good to be limited by force.)

But Mamet’s approach is nevertheless thoughtful and at times original, and in a recent article opposing gun control, he made two observations that stood out to me as particularly interesting.

First, Mamet offers one of the best summaries of Communism that I’ve ever heard:

Karl Marx summed up Communism as “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” This is a good, pithy saying, which, in practice, has succeeded in bringing, upon those under its sway, misery, poverty, rape, torture, slavery, and death.

For the saying implies but does not name the effective agency of its supposed utopia. The agency is called “The State,” and the motto, fleshed out for the benefit of the easily confused, must read “The State will take from each according to his ability: the State will give to each according to his needs.” “Needs and abilities” are, of course, subjective. So the operative statement may be reduced to “the State shall take, the State shall give.”

We then have to endure Mamet’s version of conservatism and its view of the Founding Fathers.

The Founding Fathers, far from being ideologues, were not even politicians. They were an assortment of businessmen, writers, teachers, planters; men, in short, who knew something of the world, which is to say, of Human Nature. Their struggle to draft a set of rules acceptable to each other was based on the assumption that we human beings, in the mass, are no damned good—that we are biddable, easily confused, and that we may easily be motivated by a Politician, which is to say, a huckster, mounting a soapbox and inflaming our passions.

But that leads us into a second passage that made an interesting observation about the American system of government.

Healthy government, as that based upon our Constitution, is strife. It awakens anxiety, passion, fervor, and, indeed, hatred and chicanery, both in pursuit of private gain and of public good. Those who promise to relieve us of the burden through their personal or ideological excellence, those who claim to hold the Magic Beans, are simply confidence men. Their emergence is inevitable, and our individual opposition to and rejection of them, as they emerge, must be blunt and sure; if they are arrogant, willful, duplicitous, or simply wrong, they must be replaced, else they will consolidate power, and use the treasury to buy votes, and deprive us of our liberties. It was to guard us against this inevitable decay of government that the Constitution was written. Its purpose was and is not to enthrone a Government superior to an imperfect and confused electorate, but to protect us from such a government.

That formulation, “healthy government is strife,” is a perfect answer to all of the complaints we hear about how Washington is broken, and how everyone is too “polarized” and antagonistic and there’s too much gridlock. To which we should answer: thank goodness. Life in Washington, DC, is not supposed to be harmonious. It is supposed to be a constant battle against ideological opposition in which counter-posed interest groups largely balance each other out and prevent much of anything from getting done.

Healthy government is strife.


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