Dana Carroll: Time to give Mike Lee another civics lesson

Senator’s speech about government as ‘tyranny’ shows he doesn’t understand American government.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando, Fla., on Friday, Feb. 26, 2021. For the potential presidential hopefuls, the annual CPAC gathering represents a first chance to test their political messages and their appeal in a post-Trump era. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)

It’s that time again. Time to give Mike Lee another civics lesson.

In his recent speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference, Lee reiterated his frequent mischaracterization of the purpose of government, claiming “it is the official collective use of force. It is coercive force. So, faith in government means tyranny. You can’t have faith in government without promoting tyranny.”

Lee apparently forgets that the U.S. Constitution was composed by and for “We the People” for the purpose of establishing a government that would be the antithesis of the tyranny they had experienced under British rule.

The purpose of government at all levels is to achieve together what we cannot achieve as individuals. This includes collective funding for an army, a navy, fire departments, police, schools, highways, social services, medical and materials research, space exploration, a robust legal system, protections from the tyranny of the wealthy, as part of a much longer list.

From which of these communal benefits does Sen. Lee want us to have “freedom”?

He seems particularly upset about restrictions imposed by governments during the COVID-19 pandemic. He bemoans “being prevented from gathering in our churches, in our schools and in our workplaces, in some cases even from gathering in protest while seeking redress of grievances.”

By the latter, I assume he refers to the violent attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6.

In fact, the response to the pandemic is an excellent example of the proper role of government. No individual could have performed the decades of prior research that led to a rapid understanding of the virus and the nature of pandemics. No individual could have communicated with countries around the world to monitor its spread. No individual would have understood how to protect himself and others through masking, physical separation and hygiene. No individual could have supported the amazingly rapid development of multiple vaccines to protect large populations.

All of these accomplishments reflect the reason why we pool our resources for the benefit of ourselves and others.

Faith in government — an attitude Lee derided — is dependent on government serving its purpose. That purpose is not advanced by modifying tax laws to benefit the already wealthy, nor by obstructing legislation that will help citizens generally, nor by threatening existing programs people depend on (Medicare and Social Security come to mind).

It is wise to keep a sharp eye on our governments to make sure they are working for us, but we make a mistake when we elect to office people who are fundamentally opposed to the proper role of our institutions. Many of us are distressed by those like Lee and Sen. Rand Paul, who undermine our government from within.

The problem, Mr. Lee, is that we have no faith in you.

Dana Carroll

Dana Carroll, Salt Lake City, is a professor in the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Utah School of Medicine, but offers this commentary simply as a citizen of Utah and the United States.

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