“The government is the other”

Posted: 28 September 2011 in Uncategorized
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Theodore R. Marmor and Theodore R. Marmor are, I think, onto something: our language concerning the state has fundamentally changed.

Today the government is the other — not an institution for the achievement of our common goals, but an alien presence that stands between us and the realization of individual ambitions. Programs of social insurance have become “entitlements,” a word apparently meant to signify not a collectively provided and cherished basis for family-income security, but a sinister threat to our national well-being.

The state has become an alien other at least in part because government programs since the fall of 2008 have focused on bailing out banks, both foreign and domestic, and not on helping workers without jobs and homeowners who are underwater.

But the idea that the state stands between us and the realization of our ambitions goes back further, at least to the Reagan years, when a neoliberal discourse of government programs was consistently produced and disseminated. The result is that collective responsibilities, such as social security, are now perceived to be individual entitlements that should be cut in order to maintain fiscal balance and save the economy.

That language was developed in many places, including within the discipline of economics. Neoclassical economics is responsible for the growing emphasis on “individual choice, agency and preferences.” It is that language, perhaps even more than the policies themselves, that may be the true legacy of mainstream economics.

Clearly, we need to challenge the hegemonic language concerning government programs in order to salvage some sense of collective responsibility. But we also need to recognize there are real reasons in recent history for people to perceive the state as an alien other.

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