Is there utility in viewing the government as a person?

It may seem a strange question to ask but, if one listens out for the linguistic clues, the inference can be drawn that some people do indeed imbue their national government with personality traits.

Specifically, discussing what the government “thinks”, “wants” or “owns” suggests some level of consciousness and self, over and above the visible collection of elected and unelected policy setters and administrators.

Clearly it can’t be true that a government has a single view on most matters; the many individuals involved will all have nuanced and differing perceptions of the solution to a particular issue or even the definition of the issue. Perhaps in cases of extreme threats to all, such as a war, there might be some level of consensus but, even then, opinions will differ on specific tactics and details.

The fact that a concept is not real does not necessarily mean that there isn’t utility in the universal acceptance of the “delusion”.

For example, we all accept the integrity of money, despite the fact that it’s just words and pictures written on paper. It’s more useful to us to believe that the $100 note in our pocket really is worth, say, about 13 hours work of an unskilled labourer (i.e. USA minimum wage) than to overly question the concept of paper money, or indeed, fungible transfer of labour to a stored value. Why is it useful? Well, if we all go along with the idea, the idea works!

A government clearly isn’t a single homogeneous living entity, but perhaps there’s some value to be had by treating it as such? This is the question we wish to address in this post.

What concepts might apply to our “new” person, Mr/Ms/Miss/Mrs/Xhe Government?

Here’s a list, by no means exhaustive, of concepts which might apply to the new higher form of life we’ve just created;

  • We could assign motive to its actions
  • We could assume no internal dichotomy in its statements and /or actions
  • We could presume every statement and action is internally logically consistent
  • We could assume every statement and action is part of a highly-considered plan

Stop laughing at the back…..

No, seriously, if we view our government as a single entity, we should have tangible evidence that the four statements are true, or at least generally true.

The fact that selecting any national or state government and a random issue would quickly show that our four “person concepts” apply so rarely as to be most likely random coincidence tells us that the idea of viewing our governments as having human aspects is daft and falls apart at first contact with reality.

So, back to our original question;

Is there utility in viewing the government as a person?

Like the idea of a fungible way of transferring labour called “money”, is there still a worthwhile reason for suspending reality and taking the concept of a single, thinking entity called “government”?

Try as we might, we can’t think of one. Feel free to offer suggestions in the comments.

This leads us to ask the obvious follow-up question;

Are there negative consequences in viewing the government as a person?

Taking our four concepts above, we can see plenty of problems;

  • We could assign motive to its actions

We’re going to be disappointed to learn that, even if an action had a motive behind it, the motive, or at least the individual who originally had the motive, is transient and highly temporary. It’ll be replaced by a different motive as soon as the individual concerned is replaced.

  • We could assume no internal dichotomy in its statements and /or actions

This runs the risk of misdirecting us when a range of government actions seem to be arbitrary and/or contradictory. “Why did the government give me a tax incentive to buy a diesel car five years ago and has now reversed the tax break in favour of unleaded petrol?”, for example. This could be quite expensive or worse on an individual basis.

  • We could presume every statement and action is internally logically consistent

Again, disappointment looms large for those of us who’ve fallen for the concept. It also risks us making regretful decisions based on what we might have thought of as an ethical position or moral compass. Joining the armed forces during a period of proclaimed non-intervention in foreign conflicts, for example.

  • We could assume every statement and action is part of a highly-considered plan

In a similar theme to the other points, we run the risk of taking personal actions (or not taking them, such as not saving for our retirement) based on an assumption that there is a credible and committed plan to provide for us.

Why on earth would you assume your government has any aspects of an individual person then?

Facetiously; because you’ve been poorly-educated and are unable to think for yourself?

More soberly, perhaps because the delusion is more attractive than believing the alternative? That is, the government is, at best, a collection of many thousands of individuals all with personal prejudices, agendas and varying levels of competence and incompetence.

Bill’s Opinion

The only utility in viewing one’s government as a person is mental comfort. It enables the believer to avoid confronting the possibility that practically nobody within the government has your best interests at heart and, even if they did, would be highly unlikely to have the competence or energy to do anything positive about it.

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

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