Government As Panopticon

Trump’s State of the Union suggests there are no societal ills outside the bounds of federal power.

During Tuesday night’s State of the Union address, President Trump evoked the spirit of the Founding Fathers and their quest to create a government that, by placing strictures upon its actions, secured tangible, exerciseable freedom for its people. “America,” the president declared, “was founded on liberty and independence — not government coercion, domination, and control.”

But these lofty words were belied by the sentiments outlined in the preceding hour. Time and time again, the president invoked the language of “we,” implying that the success of the nation hinged not on the efforts of individuals who applied their talents to productive efforts, but on conditions set by public policies. He called on Congress to pass legislation solving cancer and AIDS; he called on Congress to pass legislation fixing inequities in global drug prices; he called on Congress to pass mandated paid family leave.

This is not independence; this is government as panopticon, which considers no problem beyond its problem-solving purview and casually disregards the limits of its Constitutional mandate. Trump is promulgating, not independence, but a centrally-controlled political order. It is a state of dependency, in which individuals are required to submit themselves to the benevolent paternal hand of a government wise and judicious in its judgments. This is the implication to Trump’s invocation of “we,” a pronoun that, though plural, functions in Trump’s rhetoric with a singular capacity.

The president says, “We can make our communities safer, our families stronger, our culture richer, our faith deeper, and our middle class bigger and more prosperous than ever before. But we must reject the politics of revenge, resistance, and retribution — and embrace the boundless potential of cooperation, compromise, and the common good.”

But there is no singular, all-encompassing good in society. There are many co-existing goods, defined and pursued by individuals in relation to their lives. One policy cannot properly respect the nuances which the diverse lifestyles that exist in the policy create. Any united interest, to the extremely limited degree it can be said to exist, is to be found in the broadest outline of a concept: in the idea that government exists to safeguard the ability of individuals to exercise the rights they possess. It is this idea that is the cornerstone of government and this idea that has traditionally been cited as a reason to limit the ambitions of government’s passion projects.

But when Trump invokes “we”, he is endorsing the idea not only that government can take proactive steps to secure and bolster the material wellbeing of its people, but that its efforts are the only way in which individual prosperity can be assured. In calling for government solutions to problems of the private realm, he implies a polity that is impotent. He denigrates the mental and productive capacity of individuals and suggests that it is up to Congress to solve all the woes that befall the people, a solution supposedly made tolerable by the fact that he and members of the legislative branch are elected representatives championing the interests of their constituents.

But though he pays lip service to independence, the omniscience which he grafts onto government strips all substance of this term and turns it into the cheapest of political bromides. Individuals, his invocation of a government panopticon, suggests are incapable of navigating free markets and using discernment to craft the deals that are in their self-defined interests. Left to their own devices, the people are incapable of avoiding the schemes of evil corporations and malevolent foreign actors, who in every avenue ensnare unsuspecting consumers. And so, tariffs are a political necessity if prosperity is to be achieved. Left to their own devices, the people are incapable of negotiating favorable working conditions with their employers. And so, paid family leave is a political necessity if prosperity is to be achieved.

 This, in his rhetoric and calls for government action, is the picture of America the president painted in his address. The independence he promotes is not an independence that belongs to the people. Rather, it is independence of government, which has carte blanche moral authority to act in the interests of bettering its people. The government, in this view, is boundless. It is the people who must submit to government control. In their own interest.

Also published on Medium.

All content protected by copyright. The Politics of Discretion, 2016.
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