All of America is subject to the same government, right? We all enjoy the same rights and privileges as our neighbors, don’t we? The Constitution reads the same in downtown Baltimore as it does in downtown New Albany, Mississippi, right?
Perhaps at a theoretical level the answer to all those questions is “yes” – but at a realistic level, I would submit the answer is something quite different.
It is an honest mistake to believe that all Americans experience government the same way. We want to believe that. That’s the way it is supposed to be – but the fact is we don’t…and I’m not referring to the idea of government – the principles enshrined in the Constitution. I’m not ever referring to the institution of government – the departments and structure of the various governmental units…I’m referring to the forces that truly control their day to day behavior, the real government that the people experience and how they relate to it.
For example, I grew up in a rural area on a farm outside the small town of New Albany, Mississippi. For years, the billboard at the city limits said “Welcome to New Albany – the Fair and Friendly City. Population 6,500.” Our interaction with government was few and far between. The only time I ever even saw law enforcement was the rare times a Union County Sheriff’s Deputy patrolled the gravel road that ran by our house. We bought tags for the vehicles and paid property taxes at the County Court House. We got our driver’s licenses renewed at the local Mississippi Highway Patrol station.
We raised livestock, we had a large vegetable garden – so we produced better than 70% of our own food. When I was growing up, we didn’t have disposables – we ate off real plates, dish towels were made of cloth and Coke bottles were returnable, so we didn’t generate a lot of waste, what we did was burned in an incinerator my dad built and once every few months, we hauled the ash to the county dump. My mom and dad voted at the local volunteer fire station. My little brother and I walked about a half a mile to catch the school bus and that was pretty much it. Government was something we watched on TV (the Watergate hearings were a big happening when I was a freshman).
Based on these interactions, I grew up not believing I had to have government in my life 24/7/365.
Compare my reality to the reality of growing up in the inner city. City services, street cleaning, garbage pickup and police are a constant presence. In some of the tougher areas, the police can’t be present constantly, so gangs substitute for enforcement bringing a perverse sort of “order” to the community. The police are seen as ineffective and unreliable. People are stacked in apartment buildings like bees in a hive. Even if they have space to grow a little of their own food, city zoning ordinances forbid it. They don’t own the places they live, so there is no incentive to keep them up or take pride in them because they will just be rented to someone else next month. Schools are a joke, looking like something out of a Mad Max movie. Prevented from being self-sufficient even if they have a job, so they are forced to seek help – from the government.
Kids are and young adults turn to dealing drugs – an economic consequence of the lack of education and jobs. They wind up in jail and the police get the blame because the community accepts the proposition of “what else could they do to get by?” In essence, the people come to have a dichotomous and diametrical relationship with government because the same omnipresent hand that lifts them up is also the one that slaps them down.
Based on these interactions, it is not difficult to understand how someone could grow up thinking that government presence is ubiquitous, necessary and yet somehow repressive and oppressive – and all at the same time.
All Americans are subject to the same basic theories of governance, thereby having the same opportunity for freedom and liberty – but the fact is that we experience those theories in very, very different ways. These different experiences go a long way to explaining why people react differently to similar situations. I don’t believe it is as much a black and white thing or a rich or poor thing – it has to do with our different experiences.
It would interest me greatly to read your thoughts…