After hearing Republican presidential candidates denounce big government and burdensome regulation, I’d like to invite them to spend the night here in the midst of the civil war in South Sudan.
You hear gunfire, competing with yowls of hyenas, and you don’t curse taxes. Rather, you yearn for a government that might install telephones, hire a 911 operator and dispatch the police.
From afar, one sees the United States differently. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz seem to think that America’s Achilles’ heels are immigration and an activist government. But from the perspective of a war zone, these look more like national strengths.
Indeed, take what Trump is clamoring for: weaker government, less regulation, a more homogeneous society. In some sense, you find the ultimate extension of all that right here.
No regulation! No long lines at the DMV, because there is no DMV in the conflict areas. In practice, no taxes or gun restrictions. No Obamacare. No minimum wage. No welfare state to breed dependency. No sticky rules about eminent domain. And certainly no immigration problem.
Yet it’s a funny thing. In a place that might seem an anti-government fantasy taken to an extreme, people desperately yearn for all the burdens of government and tolerance of social diversity that Americans gripe about.
In a country where to belong to the wrong tribe can be lethal, South Sudanese watch U.S. aid workers arrive — a mixed salad of blacks and whites, Asian-Americans and Latinos, men and women — with some astonishment. These Americans come in all flavors of faith: Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists and more. And while they may snap at one another, they don’t behead one another.
One lesson of South Sudan is that government and regulations are like oxygen: You don’t appreciate them until they’re not there.
Two political scientists, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, argue that America’s achievements rest on a foundation of government services, but that we Americans suffer from “American Amnesia” (that’s also the title of their book coming out this month) and don’t appreciate this.
“We are told that the United States got rich in spite of government, when the truth is closer to the opposite,” they write. Every country that journeyed from mass illiteracy and poverty to modernity and wealth did so, they note, because of government instruments that are now often scorned.
These instruments also create a sense of national identity that eclipses tribal identities, even if this process is still incomplete in America.
I came across a group of homeless women and girls in the South Sudan swamps, hiding from soldiers who would have killed or raped them. One teenager was wearing a castoff T-shirt that read “Obama Girl,” so I asked her if she knew who Barack Obama was.
She was confused; there are no functioning schools in the area, so she can’t read and didn’t know what her shirt said. But I explained. That didn’t help, for she had never heard of Obama. I asked her friends if they knew, and finally I found one woman who did. She said shyly that Obama is president of the United States.
These women and girls are all members of the Nuer tribe, which the army of South Sudan has often targeted and which remains to some degree marginalized in the central government. And the Nuer are related to the Luo tribe, which is the tribe of Obama’s father. So a Nuer now cannot in practice become president of South Sudan, but someone of similar ancestry can be president of the United States.
That’s an inclusiveness that enriches America and that should be a source of pride. Yet Trump sunders that unity and divides us by heritage: He turns us from Americans into people of many tribes.
What we Americans excel at are our institutions. We have schools, laws, courts, police, regulators, bureaucracies, safety nets — arms of a government that is often frustrating but always indispensable. These institutions are the pillars of our standard of living.
From the perspective of a South Sudanese war zone, our greatest challenge isn’t big government or immigration, but the threat to those pillars from those who miscalculate our national strengths and weaknesses.
It’s odd that some conservative candidates should be so anti-government when an intellectual forerunner was Thomas Hobbes, the 17th-century philosopher who rightly warned that life in the natural state is “nasty, brutish and short.” Trump and Cruz would do well to remember his point:
Government, laws and taxes are a burden, indeed, but they are also the basis for civilization.
Contact Nicholas Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof, Twitter.com/NickKristof or by mail at The New York Times, 620 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10018.