All organizations, and not just governments, are either standby or operating institutions, or some combination of the two, and an important basis for the division between conservatives and liberals, a distinction that goes back to the French Revolution or before, and is part of the fabric of the modern world, rests on whether government should be primarily one or the other. This is just one of the underlying and overlapping emotions and ideas that give rise to the chasm between conservatives and liberals. Another, well elaborated by Karl Mannheim about one hundred years ago, is the distinction between those who look backwards to a golden age and those who look forward to a utopia as the focus of their political imaginations. Both ideas are creatures of the imagination but both also have very different consequences. A traditionalist mind finds conventional morality and politics preferable to what seem to be the hopeless dreams of the Utopian, even though what a utopian predicts will often come true, as happened in the United States, for example, when African Americans went from being a caste to an ethnic group in two generations, from the time miscegenation was made legal to the time a mixed race person was elected President.
Some institutions, and not just those of government, are standby institutions. They step in for an emergency or a significant disruption in a person’s life. Hospitals, criminal justice, insurance companies, all come into play for middle class people only when something has gone off the tracks. Few people see the inside of a police station except to report that their car has been stolen. A pediatrician is there to do more than provide six month checkups and vaccinations; he is there just in case a child gets seriously ill. You call the insurance company only if your car is wrecked or somebody dies. Otherwise, you just send in the check. These institutions depend on very large markets to keep them supplied with clientele each of which use them infrequently and that it is why it is strange to think of hospitals as making their money by keeping their beds filled when people don’t use their services unless they have to. That is different from supermarkets and department stores who cater to customers who are repeat shoppers, who use their facilities as a matter of routine and so can be considered the operating institutions of the private sector. Other operating institutions are newspapers and networks, those always looking for more material to publish so as to keep up the interest of readers and viewers. Schools are also operating institutions, even if they have long summer vacations, because they are supposed to produce a level of education appropriate to the number of years children have been at school. The children served by the organization change because children grow up but the function of the school is the same, day after day, generation after generation.
A sign that government is, at least in part, a standby institution rather than an operating institution is that formal legal bodies that have fallen into disuse or decrepitude because power has shifted elsewhere become the locus of political power again when usual arrangements for political decision making suddenly lose their legitimacy. So the Estates General is called into session in France, even though its arrangements are so inequitable that its reorganization is an issue before it assembles; The Congress of People's Deputies, which was created as a temporary constitutional body to represent the forces that were at work in the Soviet Union in l987, becomes the rump parliament that provides legitimacy for the new union of republics; the moribund Graduate Faculties Senate is called into session to provide an official faculty voice during the student unrest at Columbia University in 1968.
Most societies have a number of "stand-by institutions" that exist on the books but only take on significance if they are needed to resolve political disputes not otherwise handled. The Court of the Sanhedrin may have been so used by Pontius Pilate to handle a local political-religious movement. The Electoral College takes on significance only in those elections where the popular vote is so close or goes the other way so that the winner of the Presidency gains legitimacy from the way the Electoral College magnifies or overturns the size of victories. It is very rare for the Electoral College vote not to reflect the popular vote and there might be a call for abolishing or modifying the Electoral College if that should happen soon again. The Supreme Court, for its part, has graduated from being a stand-by institution to a major creator of policy because the Congress and the President, in their wisdom, have decided not to pursue or pass major legislation about abortion, the right to die, campaign finance, and other contentious issues that are matters of major political concern, and so these matters have to be settled as matters of what the Constitution allows rather than as what is good policy within what the Constitution allows.
Government is both on stand by and operational. It is stand by because it is supposed to deal with major crises, to step in and handle a military attack, or an economic depression, or a shifting sense about which minorities are to be given full citizenship rights. The rest of the time it dawdles even if most Presidential candidates insist on saying that every election is epochal. That is because they have to raise the ante to make this election vital to their supporters and so draw them into something that is on a standby basis. But changes in taxation or the management of natural resources imposed by one administration can be overturned by the next administration. Most of the time, the government waits around for something to happen that will galvanize it, and that is not likely to be a mere hurricane or other natural disaster, or gun violence, or an opioid epidemic. It takes something more than that to unsettle the public enough for them to require the government to do something. This is so even if the general trajectory of the nation can indeed be shifted by the election of one candidate rather than the other. Does anyone doubt that a Goldwater America would have been different than a Johnson America? Remember, Goldwater opposed all civil rights legislation. Does anyone doubt that a Gore America would have been different than a Bush America? No Iraq and Osama probably dead a dozen years earlier.
Government is an operating institution in that the mechanisms put in place to deal with one crisis or another have become long standing organizations that are part of the fabric of social life, like Medicare or prisons, and partly because there are things which are so clearly better managed collectively than through free enterprise that most people do not want to privatize the Department of Motor Vehicles, however annoying it may be to deal with it. Things that were once handled on an emergency basis are now handled on a regularized basis simply so that they are done more effectively and efficiently, the cause for the need of intervention recognized as of longstanding. So Lord Lieutenants dealt with food riots in eighteenth century England on an emergency basis, but the control of urban violence among the poor was turned over to the police departments created in the early nineteenth century. Poverty and crime were going to be around for a long time and so you needed Bobbies. The evolution towards greater governmental operations is historical rather than formal, although it is also formal in that collective decision making has always vied with individual decision making as a way to get things done. Joseph and Moses did things collectively, while Jesus was out to rescue individual souls. He was a fisher of men and a spreader of seeds, not a builder of silos.
Conservatives prefer to think of government as a standby institution. It takes care of war and some natural disasters and shouldn’t mess with much more unless it is a deepset moral issue, such as abortion, because people can get along without it when it comes to business regulation, although that may simply mean people have lost sight of how vital to the safety of the food supply is the Food and Drug Administration. And anyway, so the conservative argument goes, the morals of the people are safeguarded by churches and custom, and if those do not work, then we are properly left to what a doctrine of the survival of the fittest would have us become. Liberals, on the other hand, think that government is always about programs, how to make the government a more effective operating system in dealing with poverty or illness or gun deaths, just missing the point of conservatives, which is that government doesn’t need to have programs in most of these areas or only have those programs, such as the CDC or the Weather Bureau, that have been so long in existence that they seem to be “natural” functions of government. Liberals always think that more has to be done, more programs instituted, to deal with the as yet unfulfilled needs of the citizenry. Culture and free enterprise can’t most of the time work on their own. Culture can assign Negroes to the back of the bus and free enterprise can exploit workers. It is government that makes sure that minority groups are not on a queue for only the back of the bus and that workers can negotiate collective bargaining agreements, though in that second case, as in many other areas, the social structure has shifted enough so that the mechanisms provided by government have become antiquated, and new ones, such as a raised national minimum wage, may be the only way out of worker exploitation. Conservatives will see the failure of government mechanisms as a reason to think that government solutions “never work”, while Liberals press on for innovative solutions. The two sides talk past one another.