Hand-wring about Americans’ growing distrust of government has led Paul Volcker, the respected former Federal Reserve chairman, to launch an institute aimed at restoring faith in government.
No, no, no, Mr. Volcker! You’ve got it all wrong. We do not need to trust government more. To restore America’s greatness, we need to trust government less.
If only Mr. Volcker, a revered public servant whose policies brought us out of an era of crippling inflation, were throwing his immense prestige behind an institute to promote the old-fashioned value of skepticism about government!
It’s that healthy sense of distrust for government that our Founding Fathers had in abundance. Alexander Hamilton took pains to emphasize that the government was the creature of the people. “If the federal government should overpass the just bounds of its authority and make a tyrannical use of its powers, the people,” Hamilton wrote in Federalist 33, “whose creature it is, must appeal to the standard they have formed [the Constitution], and take such measures to redress the injury done to the Constitution as the exigency may suggest and prudence justify.”
Hamilton would be dismayed at the current state of our government, which seeps into nearly every aspect of the lives of Americans. He would have been dismayed, but not surprised at the current litany of scandals. What kind of government uses its powerful tax collecting agency, the IRS, to spy on and intimidate citizens? What kind of government refuses to inform citizens immediately that their diplomats abroad have been casualties of a terrorist attack? What kind of Justice Department seizes reporters’ phone and email information secretly? It’s part of a government that isn’t just abusing power, but has too much power.
The good government types have a different take. Congress must continue to conduct hearings and get to the bottom of it all, of course. They’ll offer more training to create better bureaucrats. They may even call to send a few “bad apple” bureaucrats at the IRS to jail. They’ll draft up new “guidelines” that will make it more difficult for the Justice Department to spy on journalists.
All of this is nice: but it’s small potatoes. Something bigger is happening here, and Americans—Republicans and Democrats alike—should take note.
It is not the Obama administration we should mistrust. It is government itself. The bigger the government, the less accountable.
These scandals, while they certainly arise from personal moral and ethical codes, are not just examples of mistakes made by individual members of the
Obama administration. They are expected examples of what happens any time government gets too big for its britches. Lois Lerner, the IRS official who said she was taking the Fifth rather than divulging information to mere members of Congress, wasn't just the face of the Obama IRS. She was the face of big government: haughty, unresponsive, and utterly determined to play by a set of rules not available to us peons.
This is the sort of statement conservatives get in trouble for, but here goes: these scandals, awful and sickening as they are, are a godsend. This may be our last "teachable moment," as President Obama likes to say, to show people why government is to be distrusted--not just this government, but any government. Only if we are skeptical about government we will have a rationale for reining it in and curbing its abuses. We can't shrink government if half the country loves it.
So this is our fork-in-the-road moment. On one side is President Obama.
President Obama has no doubts about the goodness of government.
Government, in Mr. Obama’s universe, “is the only thing that we all belong to.” President Obama believes that government should grow and grow, intruding ever deeper into the nooks and crannies of our private lives. Are you overweight? Do you smoke? Uncle Sam thinks this is his business. This is not what was intended in 1787, when the Constitution was adopted with—allow me to note--no provisions whatsoever with regard to personal weight management.
On the other side, the Founding Fathers offer another path. A path with a government of limited power, a few, clear, critical responsibilities, and one that is held accountable to the people. I love my country. But I distrust my government. And, I believe that’s a healthy perspective to have.