Magic When We’re Together

Melissa Harris-Perry, poli sci prof at Tulane, explains to Rachel Maddow:


When your government is a free and fair democratically-elected-in-regular-elections government, then it’s not some scary thing outside of you. It is you. It is, in fact, that we, by being together in communal space, we say: okay, look, there are these community assets, air, water, land, national defense. And we know that individually we always have short time horizons. Not malicious or bad or evil – we can only see so far, only see our own good; so we come together in government – freely elected, not all governments – that say: look, we will protect our common good, our inner child that can’t speak for itself. Our job as a government is to protect that, and so government regulations, particularly federal government regulations, are precisely the interest groups that these sorts of common interests are to have.

So let me get this straight. We’re a bunch of self-centered, short-sighted individuals. And government isn’t something different from us; it’s just us. And yet government decisions are not similarly self-centered and short-sighted. Gee, I wish she’d explain what the mechanism is.


10 Responses to Magic When We’re Together

  1. Black Bloke August 5, 2011 at 7:36 pm #

    Prof. Perry might like this one:

  2. Matt August 6, 2011 at 11:27 am #

    We need enlightened philosopher kings.

  3. Jonathan August 6, 2011 at 12:17 pm #

    Knowing that the violence and repression of the State is in fact really the mystical (and mystically purified of all selfishness) expression of our common will, summoned forth to protect our voiceless inner child- knowing that, it all makes sense to me now, and I will renounce my misguided anarchist beliefs and embrace the magical power of the State. Man, I feel better already. I’m pretty sure my inner child is leaping for joy.

    • Roderick August 6, 2011 at 1:36 pm #

      Or it might just be indigestion.

  4. Jared August 7, 2011 at 2:44 am #

    So let me get this straight. We’re a bunch of self-centered, short-sighted individuals. And government isn’t something different from us; it’s just us. And yet government decisions are not similarly self-centered and short-sighted.”

    Well not defending his views, it’s interesting to point out that Hans-Hermann Hoppe actually is consistent by arguing that under a democratic system, political decision makers are more short sighted and selfish and this works it’s way into the culture as well under democracy.

    • Roderick August 7, 2011 at 3:24 am #

      Sure. Though Hoppe doesn’t say that democratic government is us.

  5. js August 7, 2011 at 3:40 pm #

    I think she is trying to get at some kind of answer to prisoner dilemma/tragedy of the common problems via government. Which isn’t a new argument and isn’t terrible in theory. It just has nothing to do with the actual reality of the current U.S. government (under either party). BP was allowed,defended, and covered up for in destroying the gulf under this government.

    • Matt August 7, 2011 at 8:29 pm #

      I expect that prisoner dilemma kinds of arguments are informing her thinking. But I think that her position her is best described as:
      1. We have impulses that pull us in different ways. Some are towards the common good (clean air, etc.). Others are toward ourselves and short-sighted (cheaper processes that push up profit margin but ulimately hurt ourselves due to pollution).
      2. We recognize that we are unable to consistently act on our ‘common good’ impulses (because we have those contrary interests that are selfish and short-sighted that guide our day-to-day decisions made as individuals).
      3. So we elect representatives to act on behalf of our ‘common good’ impulses.
      4. In this way government ‘is’ us (or at least the non-selfish angelic part of us that wishes for common goods). And because it is acting for these sorts of goods (which are common to all and long-term in nature), it beneficiently acts in impartial and far-sighted ways.

      So government is our defense against a kind of irrationality. Deep down, we (i.e. as our inner child) want clean air and water. But we are weak (i.e. short-sighted and selfish) and so don’t follow through on those aims. (We don’t want expensive pollution controls, so we ditch them to boost margins for the quarterly report.) So we need our sober friend government to advocate for those goods. Government is us in the sense that we ourselves want those goods too. But we’re just too irrational to effectively pursue them without government.

      The mechanism is that we magically vote only for people who will help us with our inner child’s wants, not our ‘selfish, short-sighted’ wants. And the people who are elected magically defend only those wants and aren’t swayed by the lobbyists that we also send to Washington to speak on behalf of our outer child (i.e. weaker pollution controls since they are expensive). So although government would be selfish and short-sighted if it represented all of our interests, it isn’t, because it comes about as a representation of the long-term, common good subset of those interests.

      So it’s still a position that relies on magic, but I think the above elaboration makes it at least a tiny bit clearer how it’s supposed to be that selfish, short-sighted individuals come together to form a government which is both ‘them’ but also not similarly selfish and short-sighted. Government is us in the sense that it represents a subset of interests that we really have (not just in the sense that they are in our interest but also in the sense that we want these goods). But because the interests that government acts to protect are good for everyone and also long-term in nature (i.e. it’s not just clean air for tomorrow that we want, but also clean air for the day after that, and the day after that…), government’s actions will themselves be impartial and far-sighted.

      • Jared August 10, 2011 at 9:59 pm #

        It makes the explanation clearer, but I don’t think that negates any of what Roderick said and I would argue that the problems with lack of far-sightedness among individuals are just as present in a democratic government. Also, I am more than annoyed with the use of “we” by these liberals. Who says for that matter that “we” want clean air, water etc.

        I suppose these types would argue that when I cop is beating someone with a club, that person really wants that and it is really himself doing the action in some bizarre way because “we” are the government.

  6. Anon73 August 7, 2011 at 6:16 pm #

    It’s a lot easier to go along with government if you convince yourself that everybody got together and said “Look, we have to provide for the common defense and have magically clean air and water so let’s agree to have the State”. At least it sounds better than “Look, some politicians got together in Pennsylvania and decided they were in charge, and companies like GE that get tax breaks or militarized police forces that kill people with stun guns are all ok because we somehow agree to it”.

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