Note: This was my weekly opinion column. The theme will be continued in my next.
In his address to the graduating class of Ohio State University on May 5, President Obama sounded the alarm against alarmists.
“Still, you’ll hear voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s the root of all our problems even as they do their best to gum up the works; or that tyranny always lurks just around the corner,” Obama said. “You should reject these voices. Because what they suggest is that our brave, creative, unique experiment in self-rule is just a sham with which we can’t be trusted.”
Of course Republicans pounced on this with glee and have been quoting it often, though usually omitting the last sentence.
Obama’s opponents point to the administration’s data mining of American’s phone records by the National Security Agency, hacking reporters emails, harassing Tea Party organizations by the IRS, asserting the right to survey American citizens with drones and kill them in other countries by remote control without trial, conviction or indeed anything but the president’s say-so.
Obama’s defenders counter the NSA activities started long before the present administration and point to rendition of terrorist suspects etc by the Bush administration.
When a Republican administration is in office the country is on the verge of sliding into tyranny, according to Democrats.
And of course, when a Democratic administration is in power the country is on the verge of sliding into tyranny, according to Republicans.
They’re both right.
They’re both right because our country is always on the verge of sliding into tyranny. More likely the soft tyranny of all-intrusive bureaucracy than the hard tyranny of jackboots and rubber truncheons, but tyranny nonetheless.
Government, as George Washington pointed out, is neither persuasion, reason, nor eloquence. It is force.
“And like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a terrible master.”
To be rendered harmless, an open fire must be carefully tended.
So must government.
“If once the people become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress and Assemblies, Judges and Governors, shall all become wolves. It seems to be the law of our general nature, in spite of individual exceptions,” said Thomas Jefferson in a letter to Edward Carrington.
Notice Jefferson didn’t say, “Those no-good so-and-sos will become wolves.” He said, “you and I will become wolves.”
The Founders were well-aware of the weakness of human nature and warned future generations to trust no one with unrestrained power.
“In questions of power, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution,” Jefferson said.
Of course everybody realizes the other guys can’t be trusted with unlimited power. But of course I can be.
“If I were king…”
Well-meaning politicians always seek more power, for the noblest of reasons of course. But the other guy can’t be trusted with it. And in the democratic process power is always changing hands.
But sooner or later it occurs to even the most well-meaning politicians that the way to keep power out of the “wrong hands” – is to do away with the democratic process.
And that’s why we must listen to those voices.