Burke and Obama

Thomas Sowell

5/29/2009 12:01:00 AM - Thomas Sowell

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."

The Constitution of the United States set out to limit the powers of the federal government but judges have greatly eroded those limitations over the years and the dispensing of bailout money has allowed the Obama administration to exercise powers that the Constitution never gave them.

Edmund Burke understood that, no matter what form of government you had, in the end the character of those who wielded the powers of government was crucial. He said: "Constitute government how you please, infinitely the greater part of it must depend upon the exercise of the powers which are left at large to the prudence and uprightness of ministers of state."

He also said, "of all things, we ought to be the most concerned who and what sort of men they are that hold the trust of everything that is dear to us." He feared particularly the kind of man "whose whole importance has begun with his office, and is sure to end with it"-- the kind of man "who before he comes into power has no friends, or who coming into power is obliged to desert his friends." Jeremiah Wright, Bill Ayers and others came to mind.

The biggest challenge to America -- and to the world -- today is the danger of Iran with nuclear weapons. President Obama is acting as if this is something he can finesse with talks or deals. Worse yet, he may think it is something we can live with.

Burke had something to say about things like that as well: "There is no safety for honest men, but by believing all possible evil of evil men, and by acting with promptitude, decision, and steadiness on that belief." Acting -- not talking.