When Ronald Reagan said in 1981 “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” he was tapping into a long history of American suspicion of government.
UCLA political science professor Brian Walker has a theory about where that suspicion came from. He lays out his ideas in the Oct. 10 lecture (download link) of his current course Citizenship and Public Service (feed).
Americans see the government as “essentially vampirish,” Walker thinks, because in the very earliest days of colonial history, Britain viewed the colonies as a resource to be exploited for the benefit of the mother country. Thus, edicts from London were always suspect and to be avoided if possible.
In the same lecture, in which he talks about republican traditions in Britain, France and America, he talks about public attitudes towards government. In other industrial countries he says, the public is much more favorable towards government. As an example, he cites France, where the civil service is a profession held in high public esteem as the provider of essential public services.
This lecture is part of Walker’s larger survey of the political philosophy of public service, from the ancient Greeks and Chinese to the present. Walker has a gift for explaining sometimes dense and difficult philosophic ideas with concrete and often entertaining examples. While some of this material is tough slogging, it’s worth the effort for the ample food for thought it provides.