President Obama is just one of the left-of-center partisans who likes to trot out the assertion that “the government is us.” (At least one of the John Locke Foundation’s regular media foils also uses this line as a common substitute for substantive argument.)

Writing for The Weekly Standard, Jay Cost explains why the assertion is wrong.

This is pernicious nonsense. It is, of course, typical for presidents of both parties to trot out poll-tested phrases that lack internal logic or external validity. Even so, for somebody who fancies himself a scholar-president in the mold of Woodrow Wilson, it is not asking too much for him to evince a little more understanding of the constitutional foundations of the republic.

For starters, this is not a “democracy” in the sense that Obama suggests. Government is not “us” inasmuch as we elect representatives whose job it is to represent our interests as they formulate policy. This should immediately induce some measure of skepticism about the government, for it points directly at the principal-agent problem. That is, how can principals (i.e., the voters) make sure that their agents (i.e., their elected representatives) are actually working on behalf of the public, rather than for their own personal gain? As questions of public policy become more complex, and the agents become more entrenched, it becomes harder and harder for citizens to ensure that the people they elect are doing the job they were sent to do.

Moreover, there is an inherent difficulty in aggregating the interests of individual citizens into something that rightly can be called “the public good.” Many times, for instance, the policy demands of one faction will result in harm to another. What to do then? At the very least, one cannot merely assume that a “democracy” will ensure that the public good is promoted after all the votes are counted, as Obama seems to suggest. If an aggressive faction holds a numerical majority, should the minority then expect to be plundered? How does that serve the public good?