Trimming government for America

During the recent federal government shutdown a number of important things have been revealed about our political system. Perhaps the most obvious of these unfortunate truths is the extent to which both sides of the aisle are willing to subordinate the collective good in the name of partisan bickering.

Amid the maelstrom of intransigent tail-chasing, one admirable figure has emerged. He doesn’t look heroic, at least not in the Hollywood sense of the word. Nonetheless, Chris Cox of Mt. Pleasant, S.C., appears to embody the best of that which is America.

Cox has gotten a lot of media coverage lately. Most of it derives from his efforts to tidy up around the now-closed memorials on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

As the Washington Post reported, the 45-year-old Cox bought an old lawn mower and a leaf blower and got to work, making sure the lawn was nice and kempt and some fallen tree limbs were moved out of the way.

Asked about his motivations, Cox told the local CBS radio affiliate, “These are our memorials. Do they think that we’re just going to let them go to hell? No. If they shut down our memorials, we’re still going to take the trash out, we’re going to clean the windows, we’re going to cut the grass, we’re going to pull the weeds, we’re going to do the tree work.”

Cox further indicated that his work was in preparation for the Million Vet March held this past weekend. “There’s a lot of preparation to get ready for them and there’s nobody here representing the government.”

For their part, National Park Police have taken a desultory line on Cox. Stating that they don’t condone his work for “liability reasons,” they allowed his work to continue — for a time. Apparently, the work done by Cox and his expanding “militia” of volunteers was just too much unbridled patriotic enthusiasm for the vestiges of NPS enforcement to bear. They’ve been ordered to stop cleaning up the Mall.

While this is unfortunate for visitors to the Mall, it is even more regrettable on a philosophical level. Cox and his compatriots demonstrated industry and creativity in the face of a mundane bureaucratic problem. They improvised. Perhaps there’s no room for that kind of thing in modern American governance.

This situation should provoke discussion as to the proper role of state. For the most part, government exists as an adjunct to the informal processes of society. Government exists ostensibly to do two things: protect us from others; and protect us from ourselves. If everyone always behaved in charitable, selfless and communitarian ways, we wouldn’t need any government. They have never and will never. Even very good people lapse into behaviors that require regulation. It is the nature of being human.

As to protecting us from ourselves, the equation is far more simple. The combined forces of haste, ignorance and hubris necessitate it. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be a society of warning labels and safety devices. Again, we are what we are.

All that said, if we could summon the wherewithal to be a little less base and a little more like Chris Cox, perhaps we might need fewer bureaucracies, departments, agencies and authorities. To be sure, Cox is full of the same imperfections that dog us all, but in this one instance, he set aside the bickering and just did what needed doing. Were Congress equally noble.