The amoeba in question is large, mostly mindless, and utterly impersonal. It is also ravenously hungry. Most of us call it by another name: the government.
I know that “thought-provoking” is one of those anodyne phrases that works more to suppress than express thought. But overlook that, please, and give the article a look. Mr. Bowyer lists a couple dozen ways in which ordinary Americans flout the law daily: by not paying Social Security for their nanny, by stocking up on incandescent light bulbs when they have been declared illegal, by (if you’re really a fancy person, like the secretary of the Treasury) cheating on their income taxes. He has rather a long list, which you, Dear Reader, could easily make longer with five minutes’ thought.
But arresting though his examples are, what really struck me about the piece was its premises. The first premise is that there has been a dramatic shift in the nature and extent of government in this country. What was once a limited government with (as Madison put it) powers that were “few and defined” has gradually expanded into government unlimited. This change in the nature of government has instigated a change in the attitude of the citizenry toward government. Mr. Bowyer writes:
It seems to be that as the United States federal government and the Presidency in particular have gradually morphed into something more like a European monarchy, our attitude towards its sovereignty has shifted. Certainly no state or province or faction of the ruling class would dare to challenge the military might of the United States in a single act of open revolt.
But as time goes on we challenge it in small acts of secret revolt.
There then follows that list of quotidian insurrectionary acts.
The idea that the federal government, and the presidency in particular, has metamorphosed from a limited, unintrusive executive into something akin to a European monarchy of old is not itself a new idea. (Scott Rasmussen, e.g., expressed something similar here.)
What I have never seen expressed before is the link between that idea and the habit of casual, often semi-conscious, disrespect for the law. Mr. Bowyer makes this interesting point about the explosion of under-the-radar law-breaking:
It’s not civil disobedience that I’m talking about. It’s the opposite: Civil disobedience is meant to be noticed. It is a price paid in the hope of creating social change. What I’m talking about is not based on hope; in fact, it has given up much hope on social change.
“No hope, no change” might be the motto. And why? Because (and here’s the metaphor I used in my title) government has become a huge, nearly mindless, pullulating organism whose only real end is its own engorgement. The people rebel in their despairing way because they recognize this fact, that the government is like:
… a colossal amoeba twitching mindlessly in response to tiny pinpricks of pain from an endless army of micro-brained interest groups. The point is not to teach the amoeba nor to guide it, but simply to stay away from the lethal stupidity of its pseudopods.
Sound familiar? Mr. Bowyer is an observant zoologist delineating the character of this imaginary beast and our reaction to its stultifying imperatives:
The amoeba does not get smarter but it does get hungrier and bigger. On the other hand, we get smarter. More and more of our life takes place outside of the amoeba’s reach: in the privacy of our own homes, or in capital accounts in other nations, or in the fastest growing amoeba avoidance zone ever created, cyberspace. We revolt decision by decision, transaction by transaction, because we believe deep down that most of what government tells us to do is at bottom illegitimate.
Indeed. I feel that way. And probably you do, too, if you think about it. It is not a reassuring imbalance of power.