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It Can Happen Here

American government goes European

Nov 8, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 08 • By ROGER KIMBALL
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I do not advise bringing up the legitimacy of the Sixteenth Amendment in serious conversation; there are some issues that are simply off-limits in polite company. It is nonetheless worth reflecting on what a privilege it is to be in the position of deciding which issues are “dead causes” and which are okay to broach. How about Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal? For many years that, too, was off limits. But the advent of Barack Obama has had the curious stereoscopic effect of making FDR’s legacy both more subject to scrutiny and criticism and more sacrosanct. Hannan is clearly skeptical, and he makes the provocative observation that “most disastrous policies have been introduced at times
of emergency.”

New Deal Democrats, like many elected representatives today, were in the grip of one of the most dangerous of political fallacies: the idea that, at a time of crisis, the government’s response must be proportionate to the degree of public anxiety. “Doing nothing is not an option!” intone politicians. .  .  . Doing nothing is always an option, and often it is the best option.

Indeed. For Rahm Emanuel, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste” when you can milk it to increase government control. But then there was Calvin Coolidge, perhaps America’s most underrated president, who (among others) is credited with commanding a busybody aide: “Don’t just do something; stand there!” (I cannot find the source, but I urge you to ponder the wisdom of Coolidge’s advice.) The point is that it is far easier to establish than to rid oneself of any bureaucracy, and of all mankind’s bureaucracies, the hardest to kill are government bureaucracies. (Still, while there is life there is hope: Coolidge  did manage to reduce the size of the federal budget by some 50 percent.)

When the economic crisis broke in the fall of 2008, the United States and Great Britain were among the quickest off the mark to spend more, borrow more, and impose a raft of new regulation. In late October 2008 then-
candidate Barack Obama stood before a cheering throng and told them that they were only five days away from “fundamentally transforming the United States of America.” As the past two years have shown, he wasn’t kidding; that wasn’t hustings hyperbole but a forthright plan of action. In the past months Obama has expanded the size of the federal government by a third (by some estimates), has spent trillions—trillions-—of
dollars, and has, under the rubric of health care “reform,” put nearly 20 percent of the American economy under the control of Washington. Instead of exuding confidence about his own country, he has jetted around the world, arrogantly apologizing for America’s past
“arrogance” to bewildered tyrants and heads of state. Meanwhile, he has effectively jettisoned the Republican-
sponsored welfare reforms that Bill
Clinton signed into law, quietly reassuming federal control over welfare spending. (Another tidbit from
Jefferson: “To preserve our independence, we must not let our rulers load us with perpetual debt. We must make our election between economy and liberty, or profusion and servitude.”)

In the past, I have often wondered why people, whether in Europe or the United States, put up with the promiscuous indignities of quasi-socialist rule. Why didn’t they fight back? I put it down mostly to something Hayek described as one of the “main points” of his argument in The Road to Serfdom: that one of the most important changes that extensive government control brought in its wake was

a psychological change, an alteration of the character of the people. .  .  . The important point is that the political ideals of a people and its attitude toward authority are as much the effect as the cause of the political institutions under which it lives.

Such a change, Hayek acknowledged, was not easily demonstrated, but it could be clearly felt. It did not arise all at once but might take “perhaps .  .  . one or two generations” to flower fully. It was all, I thought to myself, part of what Alexis
de Tocqueville meant in those famous passages about “Democratic Despotism” in Democracy in America. No wonder Hayek had taken his title from
Tocqueville: The description of how despotism in a democracy tended to infantilize men rather than tyrannize them as did despotisms of old seemed exactly right. Its power, said Tocqueville,

extends its arms over society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way to surpass the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them, and directs them; it rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.

I had concluded that something like Tocqueville’s analysis explained the quiescence of the citizenry in Europe and America when faced with the progress of socialism. As Hilaire Belloc put it, “The effect of Socialist doctrine on Capitalist society is to produce a third thing different from either of its two begetters---—to wit, the Servile State.” 

Here we were, then. Or were we?
In the immediate aftermath of the
economic dégringolade in 2008, the United States experienced a veritable tsunami of government expansion. “Taxation, expenditure, and borrowing were all rising exponentially,”
Hannan observes. “Federal officials were presuming to tell private firms how to operate, even what to pay their employees. And, most shocking of all, the entire nation appeared to be going along with the new dispensation.”

But appearances were deceiving. The clerks were going along with it. (Many observers would refer here to the “elites,” but “elites” is not quite right; “clerks,” as in “trahison des clercs,” is closer to the reality.) Those with their lips sewn to the government teat went along, as did the left-leaning commentariat. But the rest of the populace? The bumper sticker advising that “It’s a good thing Obama doesn’t know what comes after trillion” told you something. As did, for example, the Rasmussen poll revealing that only 21 percent of Americans approved of bailing out General Motors, which forever more will be scornfully known as “Government Motors.” Calls to “man up” were suddenly being heard across the land. Someone had miscalculated, and miscalculated badly.

I write this during the run-up to an election that, if the signs and portents are at all accurate, will be a disaster for—well, I was going to say “for the Democrats,” but it will be a disaster for all those politicians, be they Republican or Democrat, who have forsaken the Founders’ wisdom that discerned the unbreakable link between limited government and freedom.
Hannan quotes a marvelous passage from
Edmund Burke:

Because half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shade of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field; that, of course, they are many in number; or that, after all, they are other than the little, shriveled, meager, hopping, though loud and troublesome, insects of the hour.

“Clerks” is better than “elites,” but better than both is the image of those little, shriveled, meager, hopping “insects of the hour” that Burke apostrophizes. Insects, beware: This election is only
the beginning.


Roger Kimball, editor of The New Criterion, is the author of the forthcoming Much Ado About Noting: A Pedographophilic Chrestomathy of Sly, Admonitory, Informative, Scurrilous, and Amusing Observations from the Bottom of the Page




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