A Bad Week for Government Isn’t a Good Week for LibertyPosted: May 20, 2013
There are more than a few people I know, particularly among Libertarians and libertarians (the former being the political party, the latter being the philosophy and its adherents; there actually is a difference), who are quite thrilled about the problem and scandal-riddled week the Obama administration has had recently. Between increased allegations of misconduct in the Benghazi attack, the IRS improperly (and perhaps illegally) investigating conservative groups, and the Justice Department seizing Associated Press phone records, this hasn’t been an easy one for the administration. Being overturned for the second time by an appeals court on recess appointments did nothing to improve the week from a governmental standpoint. Even Slate.com and The Daily Show, hardly a pair of right-wing nutjob pandering organizations, are piling on. So why am I not dancing in the streets with everyone else?
In short: been there, done that.
I’ve seen too many examples of “big government chicanery exposed” to start celebrating, certainly just yet. While I am a little too young to remember Watergate (I was born about a month before Nixon left office), there have been plenty of scandals, real and manufactured, since then. Abuse of power is practically endemic to government, and the worst abuse tends to happen in the hands of those who believe they are doing it for the right reasons. It’s always easiest to justify doing the bad things when you have good reasons.
As examples, I offer “Scooter” Libby and the Valerie Plame affair, Lawyergate and the Bush White House email controversy, the Ambramoff scandal, the NSA warrantless wiretapping scandal… and those were just during the younger Bush administration. There’s also the entire Monica Lewinsky affair (excuse the pun), the Whitewater controversy (including Travelgate, Filegate, and Vince Foster), and the Iran-Contra affair.
If you look at these different scandals across decades and administrations, there’s a striking pattern of similarities. First, in almost every case those who perpetrated the misconduct believed they were doing the right thing at the time (and may even try to defend their actions today if cornered on the subject). Second, the abuses are almost exclusively a matter of using government power to benefit one’s friends or hurt one’s enemies; it’s never a value-neutral thing that one can look at and honestly say “well they were definitely doing what was best for the country, even if I might happen to disagree.” And third, each abuse expands the reach of government; there’s nothing here that says “I have too much power, I better find a way to restrict how I or other manage to use it”, except perhaps in the most backhanded, Orwellian sort of way.
Oh, and in case you didn’t notice: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. The abuse of power stretches across five administrations (If you include Reagan in Iran-Contra, which you should) and almost three decades. And I didn’t even bother to include Watergate or any other scandals from administrations back before Reagan (or most of Reagan’s scandals), because I wanted to keep it to stuff I actually remember. Let’s face it; I have more than enough ammunition to condemn both sides.
The problem, as I may have mentioned before, lies not in our politicians but in ourselves. The disconnect between what we are promised and what we receive is based on two things. First, there is the cognitive disconnect that people want the government to provide for them BUT also expect the government to leave them alone. The second is what I refer to as “My Guy Syndrome”: it must be okay as long as “my guy” is doing it. A couple prime examples of this would be the Medicare Modernization Act, the largest expansion of Medicare to that point in the programs history… passed in 2003 by Republicans, and the denial of basic Constitutional rights to a terrorism suspect… in 2013, by a Democrat. Things like this would be unconscionable if the other side did it, but since it was being done by “My Guy”, their respective mouthpieces (particularly within the government, but also in the media) tend to spin and do damage control, and the people who vote for them find ways to justify it in their own minds: “well, sometimes you have to do the politically expedient thing… you gotta break a few eggs… you have to compromise…”
And it is that exact sort of thinking that is likely to prevail in the end, despite the latest string of scandals, unless we change our culture. I don’t mean to suggest that no heads will roll; there may be a token sacrifice, and it may even be enough to get a Republican elected in the next election cycle (for all the good that will do). But until we stop allowing “the politically expedient thing” to happen, until we start holding every politician accountable, and most importantly, until we as a society acknowledge that even if Lord Acton was wrong and absolute power does not in fact corrupt absolutely, that sometimes it’s not a question of corruption but simple out of control idealism that’s the problem, it will never be a good week for liberty.