Society and Government 

March 5th, 2022

By Peter Hill

Society and Government 

     Here is the starting point:  Society and government are not the same.  Society is not a subset of government.  Government is a subset – one element among many – of society.  Society is bigger than government.


     Barney Frank, while a progressive Democratic Congressman from Massachusetts, was reported to have once quipped that “Government is what we have in common.” 


     There is a sense in which that is correct.  Americans may go to different schools, attend different churches, are born and marry into different families, and work for different businesses, yet we are all citizens of the United States.  But I suspect that is not what Congressman Frank meant.  Instead, he confused the idea about what government is, with the idea about what society is. 


     Society and government are not the same, but are frequently conflated into a single entity in progressive rhetoric and thinking.  Conservatives maintain the distinction.


     Government is an organized political structure that uses coercion to achieve its ends.  This coercion is essential to government.  It is the chief characteristic of government.  Government coerces by inducing certain behavior, punishing other behavior, subsidizing this, fining that, regulating this, inspecting that.  It uses tax collectors, soldiers, police officers, building inspectors, judges, prosecutors, federal agents, food inspectors, accountants, biologists, licensing bureaus, and a hundred other offices to regulate behavior, benefitting this behavior or group, and burdening that behavior or group. 


     Government is one subpart of society.  Society also includes individuals, businesses, families, clubs, churches, hospitals, athletic leagues, political parties, the Red Cross, and a host of other entities that are part of society but are not part of government.  Society – our social environment – is what we have in common. 


     It is very common for progressives (typically but not always Democrats) to speak or write about a particular social ill, and then propose a governmental solution to that social ill.  For example, progressives may yell, “Lack of high paying technical jobs in our urban centers is destroying the quality of urban life!” and then propose a governmental solution to this problem, usually using coercion, such as increasing taxes under penalty having one’s property seized or one’s liberty destroyed.   The progressive begins by identifying a social problem, and then immediately jumps to a government solution. 


     The conservative (typically but not always a Republican) does not make this jump as quickly or automatically as the progressive, and often does not make this jump at all.  The conservative recognizes just as many individual and social problems as the progressive, but does not confuse “society” and “government” and invariably propose a government solution.  The conservative appreciates the variety, functions, and independence of the other social spheres, and may propose a solution using those other social spheres that may or may not even need a governmental response.  Accordingly, the conservative may, after having identified a problem, propose a solution using the family, or the school, or a business or economic entity, or the individual. Thus, if the conservative identifies the same problem as the progressive – “Lack of high paying technical jobs in our urban centers is destroying the quality of urban life” – the conservative’s solution to this social problem may well be the use of another social sphere, such as the family or a business, rather than the government. 


     This approach demonstrates a key difference between progressives and conservatives.  Progressives tend to think that contemporary society is unjust from top to bottom and from east to west, i.e., injustice (and inequality or, more commonly now, inequity) is universal and pervasive.  The task of government is to remedy all injustice.  Therefore, no part of contemporary society is outside the reach of the government in its efforts to eradicate injustice. When there is injustice (or inequality) in families, the government will intervene.  When there is injustice (or inequality) in education, the government will intervene.  When there is injustice (or inequality) in income or wealth, the government will intervene.  And so on.  For the progressive, nothing is outside the legitimate power of the government to coerce and regulate in order to remedy injustice.  There is not a square inch of society which cannot be regulated by the government.   There is no natural stopping point at which someone or something can tell the government, “No!  Not here!” 


     Conservatives recognize that there are many injustices in contemporary society, but do not consider the entire social system to be wicked and unjust because it is “sexist” or “racist” or “fascist” or “classist” or some other progressive or socialist label.  Nor do they consider unequal outcomes necessarily to be unjust.  Conservatives respect the independence and value of social spheres besides the government, and are much more willing to find policy solutions in those other social spheres rather than immediately craft a governmental solution.


     Consider public schools as an example.  Consider how they have evolved from an institution which provided educational services to prepare students for further academic or technical or professional work, and which provided all students with basic reading, writing, math, and social science knowledge and skills, to an institution with nutritionists and food preparation experts, emotional and mental health professionals and counselors, nurses and other medical personnel, armed security guards, guidance counselors, pre- and post- school monitors and day care, and numerous administrators to run the whole enterprise.  We ask far too much of our schools, which are no longer mere schools but vast bureaucracies with many different occupational specializations.  Teachers are often in the minority among the school’s employees. But progressives have incrementally added to the public school’s functions to address a perceived societal need.  The conservative may well choose the schools as a tool to remedy a societal ill, but would also consider other nongovernmental elements of society, including the family, nongovernmental organizations, and business.


     Test this thesis.  The next few times you see or read about progressive politicians identifying a social problem, see how quickly they move to a governmental solution, not even considering other nongovernmental alternatives.  See how quickly they conflate and confuse “society” and “government”.  See how quickly they move from “We have a social problem” to “And here is my governmental solution.”


     That is a serious error.  But it steadily increases the role of government (including its power and cost), and just as constantly erodes the vitality and independence of the other elements of society.  As government grows, other social institutions retreat.

© Peter Hill, 22 Jan 22