"Government," liberal Democratic politicians like to say, "is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together."
The errors in this sentiment can explain what's wrong with today's left — and with the right. Both sides need to understand better that there are many words for the things we do together, including "community," "church," "commerce," and "family." These are the backbone of civil society.
Respected liberal economics writer Mike Konczal made an astute point in the Washington Post recently: "Conservatives don't really get that some things are 'public,'" Konczal began, "and it's hurting their ability to handle the challenges of the early 21st century."
When liberals talk about community, conservatives are too quick to raise the Gadsden Flag and shout, "Leave me alone!"
Consider the reactions to catchphrases made famous by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton — "You didn't build that" and "It takes a village."
Obama's 2012 message to business founders, "You didn't build that; somebody else made that happen," shaped the Republican counterattack in Summer 2012. "I DID build that," team Romney cried, again and again.
But in its full context, "you didn't build that" is true. Obama's line began this way: "If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive ..."
This is actually something conservatives frequently celebrate. Entrepreneurs often need investors and they always need customers.
Also, consider what economists call "complimentary goods": Steve Jobs' iPhone wouldn't be worth as much without Twitter, Yelp, or Google maps. The high-resolution camera is a major selling point of the iPhone 5, and Sony makes the camera — Steve Jobs didn't build that.
H.J. Heinz's ketchup couldn't have dominated the country 100 years ago if other businessmen (and governments) hadn't improved shipping, refrigeration, and bottling. Free-marketeers celebrate the dynamic interconnectedness of the marketplace.
More importantly, when those entrepreneurs were young they needed parents and a family — and a community where they could learn and grow.
So why did conservatives so hate "You didn't build that"? Why did this drive the right to the Ayn Rand hymnal?
Because they feared Obama meant something else — something threatening to liberty. After all, "You didn't build that" was Obama's justification for more taxes, regulations, and subsidies. It sounded like "You're no better than Solyndra, so get off your high horse."
And when Hillary Clinton says, "It takes a village to raise a child," conservatives recoil. If George W. Bush said, "It takes a village to raise a child," conservatives would nod: Of course parents need role models, babysitters, extra eyes on the street, football coaches, pastors, police, youth-group leaders.
But when Hillary Clinton says "village," conservatives assume she means "federal agency," and when Obama says "someone else made that happen," he means Uncle Sam.
Konczal's article, praised by many on the left, confirms those conservative suspicions.
Konczal groups me with conservatives who "prefer to eliminate any notion of the public from their ideology."
He summarizes my offending view this way: "The current safety net provided through the federal government, in [Carney's] mind, is better provided by private, civic 'voluntary organizations.'"
So it's no longer "public" if it's voluntary? Or even local? You may think of a church group, a county government, the Red Cross, or the NAACP as collective actors, trying to address public problems. But it's not "public" in this liberal view articulated by Konczal.
Konczal's next target is even odder. He goes after Rick Santorum for saying people in poverty "have all sorts of issues that they have to overcome to be successful." Santorum said that in an interview with the Washington Examiner's Byron York.
In that interview, Santorum says a rising tide doesn't lift boats that have holes — and lots of people's boats have holes: "Republicans can't simply tell those people to go fix their own boats. ... Most of us who have had holes and had someone help us fix those holes, and what we need to be is sensitive to that and say there are things we can do."
Santorum cites government policies to help the unemployed overcome issues that prevent them from getting a job. But for Konczal, this counts as denying a public role — presumably because Santorum is not talking about direct government hiring of the unemployed or increased redistribution.
Conservatism, properly understood, appreciates a broad role for the public. Aristotle tells us man is a political animal. Jesus tells us that loving our neighbor is our most important job in this world. Today's conservative, so wary of liberal collectivism, sometimes looks like Homer's Cyclops — the mythic one-eyed hermit beast who disdains all society.
The liberal myopia is worse. They think "doing things together" means a heavy-handed government program. This may be the mindset that drives Mike Bloomberg to stop good Samaritans from feeding New York's hungry.
Government, it seems, can't abide any rivals.
Timothy P. Carney, The Washington Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears Sunday and Wednesday on washingtonexaminer.com.