The other day I sought a respite from current events by re-reading some of the writings of 18th century British statesman Edmund Burke. But it was not nearly as big an escape as I had thought it would be.
When Burke wrote of his apprehension about "new power in new persons," I could not help think of the new powers that have been created by which a new President of the United States -- a man with zero experience in business -- can fire the head of General Motors and tell banks how to run their businesses.
Not only is Barack Obama new to the presidency, he is new to running any organization. One of Burke's fears was that "we may place our confidence in the virtue of those who have never been tried."
Neither eloquence nor zeal was a substitute for experience, according to Burke. He said, "eloquence may exist without a proportionate degree of wisdom." As for zeal, Burke said: "It is no excuse for presumptuous ignorance that it is directed by insolent passion."
The Obama administration's going back and forth on the question whether American intelligence agents who forced information out of captured terrorist leaders will be subjected to legal jeopardy, even though they were told at the time that what they were doing was not only legal but a service to the nation, came to mind when reading Burke's warning about the dangers of continuing to change the rules and values by which people lived.
Burke asked how we could expect a sense of honor to exist when "no man could know what would be the test of honour in a nation, continually varying the standard of its coin?"
The current drive to take from "the rich" for the benefit of others came to mind when reading Burke's warning against creating a situation where "any one description of citizens should be brought to regard any of the others as their proper prey."
He also warned that "those who attempt to level, never equalise." What they end up doing is concentrating power in their own hands-- and Burke saw such new powers as dangerous, even if they were used only sparingly at first.
He said, "the true danger is, when liberty is nibbled away, for expedients and by parts." He also said: "It is by lying dormant a long time, or being at first very rarely exercised, that arbitrary power steals upon a people."
People who don't like "the rich" or "big business" or the banks may be happy that President Obama is sticking it to them. But such arbitrary powers can be turned on anybody. As John Donne said: "Send not to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee."