President Obama has drawn some fire for telling Ohio State University graduates, among other things:
Unfortunately, you’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems; some of these same voices also doing their best to gum up the works. They’ll warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices.
His critics included my colleagues Roger Pilon in the Wall Street Journal, who deplored Obama’s conflation of the family and the federal government, and Gene Healy in the Washington Examiner, who noted the president’s attempt “to reframe skepticism toward overweening federal power as “cynicism.’”
I was reminded of another political official’s warning back in 2001:
To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty; my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists - for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America’s enemies.
That was attorney general John Ashcroft testifying before Congress on the Patriot Act and the Bush administration’s exercise of power after 9/11. It’s a standard theme of those in power: If you question our actions, if you protest the expansion of government and the loss of freedom, you’re aiding the enemy. You’re undermining our faith in government.
The Founders of this nation had a different view. James Madison warned us that since men are not angels, we can’t entrust them with unlimited power. And Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Kentucky Resolutions against the Alien and Sedition Acts,
that it would be a dangerous delusion were a confidence in the men of our choice to silence our fears for the safety of our rights: that confidence is everywhere the parent of despotism–free government is founded in jealousy, and not in confidence; it is jealousy and not confidence which prescribes limited constitutions, to bind down those whom we are obliged to trust with power: that our Constitution has accordingly fixed the limits to which, and no further, our confidence may go….In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.
That’s the spirit of freedom and self-government: Jealous of our rights and liberties, confident in our Constitution, and skeptical about power and about the men and women who seek it.
As for the president’s much-quoted attack on “individual ambition,” I addressed that in the Wall Street Journal back in 2008 when he made a similar argument to Wesleyan grads.