Remember high school English? That’s where you might have learned about metaphors. They’re figures of speech that compare something you know with something less familiar, or paint a picture through comparisons that surprise and delight. They show connections you might not have thought about, and encourage you to think differently about something. Good teachers use them to explain complicated concepts.
Politics are among the most complicated of human institutions, which is why they’re full of metaphors. Politicians use them on the campaign trail all the time. Most often, they’re not stated explicitly. They’re simply implied and accepted without question.
This would be fine if elections were English classes. But they’re not. Metaphors are never perfect, and in the real world bad political metaphors have bad consequences. Right now, we’re stuck with a doozy: Government as “problem solver.”
The basic idea here is that problems happen; electing the right people will solve them. Last month’s Time cover of Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Elizabeth Warren is a classic example. With her Harvard Law credentials and bookworm glasses, she proudly proclaims “I’ve got a plan for that.”
Warren is not the only Democratic candidate to play this role. Nor is the idea of government as problem solver exclusively Democratic territory. Anybody remember “Jeb can fix it?” How about “Make America Great Again”? That’s absolutely a problem-solving slogan. America was great, but isn’t now. We can solve that problem if we make a certain person the most powerful human being on the planet. Which apparently, we did.
On the one hand, arguing against government solving problems is like arguing against motherhood: You can’t possibly be against it. After all, what’s the alternative? Government should ignore problems? Government should cause them? Sure, like most metaphors, it has a grain of truth. There are some problems that can only be solved through government. But are there really as many as we think? There’s a lot we miss if we think that’s primarily what government is for.
Yes, America has problems, many of them serious. But understanding the causes of those problems is both essential and neglected. Every major area of American civic and economic life takes place within the confines of laws currently on the books, enacted by administrations long forgotten. We live with decades-old solutions to problems every day, many of which are now making things worse.
But this is never considered, because the metaphor doesn’t permit it. Problems can happen for any number of reasons, but never because of anything government has done. If we seriously consider that possibility, we have to question the metaphor itself. Maybe government isn’t actually that good at solving problems. But saying so is not going to get you votes.
Nor is government a fine-tuned instrument for making subtle improvements and nuanced decisions. All it can do is pass laws. Governments can either compel or forbid. That’s pretty much it.
It’s important that a democratic government have that power, and that it be the only institution that does. But if I might make a metaphor of my own, that power is not a scalpel. It’s more like a sledgehammer, or a nuke. Sometimes it’s what you need, but it’s not the right tool for every job. Use it where you shouldn’t, and there will be a lot of collateral damage.
Furthermore, who decides what counts as a “problem”? Is inequality a problem? Unfairness? Cultural degradation? Sinful behavior? Spiritual weakness? Country X? Country Y? What really counts as a problem that government needs to solve? Without a better metaphor, the discussion degenerates into whatever inflames the passions of voters. I think we can do better.
We can do better, because there are better metaphors out there. They involve asking what rights human beings have and what government is for. They help us talk about the reality of government as it actually is: A necessary but limited human institution, for accomplishing necessary but limited tasks, run by flawed human beings, elected by flawed human beings.
If only there were some documents that relied on those metaphors, and if only we were more familiar with them, the character of American political discourse might be fundamentally different. We might find ourselves living in a more prosperous and flourishing society. Hmm. I’ve heard rumors of them lying under glass somewhere in Washington, D.C., with copies floating around the internet. Maybe we should check them out.
Barry Fagin is senior fellow at the Independence Institute in Denver. His views are his alone. Readers can write Fagin at firstname.lastname@example.org.