Americans are currently conducting a controlled study on the utility of having a government. Belgium has led the way in showing that they are not strictly necessary. Independent law courts, and other independent providers may be able to perform useful quasi-governmental functions to higher standards at lower cost. However, establishing metrics to prove the case is a tricky business, but I thought it interesting to consult that standby, the frequency with which words are used in books.
Specifically, will usage of the word government rise or fall in the years following the shutdown? To prepare the ground, we have to look back at the usage of that word, and other related words over the past two centuries.
The results are quite startling: government was used at a perfectly steady rate of 0.032% from 1800 to 1855 and then fell significantly to 1870, probably as a consequence of the Civil War. Citizens are not fools, and regard cousins killing other cousins as a failure of good government. Use of the word remains subdued till the Second World War, and rises to a gentle peak in 1968, the peak of Counterculture. Perhaps it only records citizens saying “Down with the Government”. After 1990 it begins to decline again. Despite the current dramas, people are slightly losing interest in it.
On the cheery grounds that nothing is certain except death and taxes, I have looked at both those words. On purely actuarial grounds, all men being mortal, I expected that death would be depressingly and consistently lodged in our language. Not so. Stable from 1800 to 1860 it then shows a linear decline to 1940 and stays at that low level thereafter.
As to tax it rises from the 1900 but only very slightly. I assumed it would have risen more sharply, but we talk more about death than tax.
Anyway, what is the US government shutdown about? I would characterise it thus: “Can we increase the limit on our credit card?” At the core of this debate is a concept which will determine the outcome. What is the word that English speaking peoples have rarely used over the last two centuries, in good times or bad, the one concept they don’t like talking about?