There has been much excitement over Ronald Reagan's declaration in his State of the Union Message that "we who are in government must take the lead in restoring the economy." The Democrats staged an explosion of applause in response to it, and both that moment and the sentence that gave rise to it have now been analyzed to death. Did it or didn't it mean that the president's critics had been vindicated, that Reagan newly accepts a central role for government in bringing the economy to heel, that he has--in his critics' terms--finally seen the light?
I believe that nothing whatever has changed in Ronald Reagan's conception of what the federal government is and wherein its duty lies. A much more instructive statement from the speech is this: " . . . the federal government will hold the line on real spending. Now, that is far less than many American families have had to do in these difficult times." I have put that last sentence in italics because it reveals so much. You could argue that it is precisely when so many American families are in trouble and precisely because they are, that the federal government may need to spend somewhat more on various programs to help them out. But the president doesn't see it that way, because he doesn't see the government as a collection of institutions and relationships. He doesn't see it as a network of consensual and contractual arrangements. He sees it as a person. And if one fellow is having to tighten his belt, well, it follows that the least the other fellows can do is tighten their belts, too.
"An-thro-po-mor-phism," my dictionary says, "the attributing of human shape or characteristics to a god, animal or inanimate thing." Michelangelo thought that God has hands. The 19th- century poets thought that flowers shed tears. The 20th-century American thinks his national government is a person and one who, most of the time, should know better.
Reagan is far from being the originator or the sole proprietor of this odd, unspoken assumption. It has many variations, including a Democratic one to which we will get around in a moment. A time-honored practice of American politicians of all stripes, after all, has been to equate the federal budget with the budget of an ordinary household and to draw all their economic prescriptions from that. Government should do the same things that Mom and Dad and Junior and Sis have to do to remain upstanding, well-respected members of the community and still have a little something left over to go to the movies with on Saturday night.
But the person, familiar to us all, whom Reagan seems always to have in mind when he talks of the federal government is neither upstanding nor well respected. He is preeminently the lazy, no- good brother-in-law of everyone's experience. He is that shirt-sleeved gentleman lying over there on the living-room couch at three in the afternoon, sound asleep while the rest of the world is hard at work. It is at work, as we all immediately recognize, to earn the money that this lazy brother-in-law (who is nothing if not wily and deceptive) will end up borrowing or filching or otherwise getting a considerable hunk of. He doesn't pay his board. He doesn't make good on his debts. He is a damnable burden to the family. And you know what? With all this he still has the gall to talk big and tell everyone else in the household--although he is a failure --how to run their lives.
This dreadful spectral creature haunts the Reagan prose on government, as well as the prose of people who share the president's particular outlook. If you read Reagan's applause-getting line again, the one about government's obligation to take the lead in restoring the economy, you will see it is not necessarily inconsistent with the basic Reagan view. Reagan's federal government is always being asked to reform, to improve, to stop making the people's lot worse, to get its hulk off the couch and do its fair share to lessen the burden on everyone else. It is the federal government's duty to mend its ways and contribute to the recovery. His critics may think they see changes of heart all over the place. But Reagan will never much like or respect his imagined personification of the federal government.
The anthropomorphic Democrats, on the other hand, will always love theirs. And why should they not? It is mommy. To them the federal government is meant to be "caring." Ideally, it is--what else?--"compassionate." It keeps a watchful eye on us at work and play. It intervenes when the big kid on the block is socking the little kid. It is full of instruction "for our own good." It is fair (we should therefore refer all our disputes to it). And it is generous. It gives us money to buy things with. How about showing a lttle respect for your mother after all that she has done for you?
This last is a recurrent strain in Democratic prose just now. It is, of course, in some measure just a response to the Reagan government's assault on mommy's character. But the indignant demands that she stop being defamed have a peculiar quality that seems to me to go beyond normal political argument. Something more than a mere defense of the federal government's necessary and benign interventions in some of our gravest national problems comes through. There is almost the child's idolization of the parent in this view--and also many of the child's assumptions. The federal government is the ultimate arbiter. It has all the moral authority. And it also has, as the offspring know, all the money, which is viewed as coming from no place in particular but simply being there. People who have this maternal picture of the government somewhere in mind will often tell you about the services it should provide, in their quaint usage, "free."
But the terrible truth is that your government doesn't love you--bureaucratic propaganda notwithstanding. It doesn't love you because it doesn't have a heart to love you with. It isn't a thing with liver, kidneys and brain. It isn't, Ronald Reagan notwithstanding, a bum. It is all those complicated deals and tribunals and sclerotic structures that we have contrived over the years to preside over our common national business. A president's job is to try to make it function as smoothly and fairly as he can. The first thing he needs to acknowledge is that it isn't one of us.