Tag: power

Scandals Keep Eroding Our Faith in Benevolent Government

George Will, Michael Gerson, and our own Gene Healy are among the columnists who reminded us – in the wake of the IRS and AP snooping scandals – of President Obama’s stirring words just two days before the IRS story broke:

Unfortunately, you’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity. . . . They’ll warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices.

No road to serfdom here. Just us folks working together, to protect ourselves from sneaky reporters and organized taxpayers.

And now lots of people are noting that a series of scandals in government just might undermine people’s faith in government. John Dickerson of Slate writes:

The Obama administration is doing a far better job making the case for conservatism than Mitt Romney, Mitch McConnell, or John Boehner ever did. Showing is always better than telling, and when the government overreaches in so many ways it gives support to the conservative argument about the inherently rapacious nature of government….

Conservatives argue that the more government you have, the more opportunities you will have for it to grow out of control.

And Paul Begala, the Bill Clinton operative, notes:

This hurts the Obama Administration more than similar issues hurt the Bush administration because a central underpinning of the progressive philosophy is a belief in the efficacy of government. In the main almost all of the Obama agenda requires expanding folks’ faith in government, and these issues erode that faith.

“Faith in government” indeed. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, putting your faith in government is, like a second marriage, a triumph of hope over experience.

But most particularly this week I’m reminded of Murray Rothbard’s comment in 1975 about what the era of Vietnam, Watergate, and stagflation had done to trust in government:

Twenty years ago, the historian Cecelia Kenyon, writing of the Anti-Federalist opponents of the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, chided them for being “men of little faith” – little faith, that is, in a strong central government. It is hard to think of anyone having such unexamined faith in government today.

Another 38 years later, it should be even more difficult to retain such faith.

Politics Is Better as Fiction

If the season’s got you thinking cynically about politics and politicians, TCM has the movies for you. It’s running a series all this month called “American Politics on Film.” You’ve missed classics like “A Face in the Crowd,” but there’s still time to catch “All the King’s Men” this Thursday night, about a Southern reformer who becomes corrupted by power, and “All the President’s Men” on Friday night, about an ambitious Westerner who was probably corrupt long before he got power. Also on Friday night: “Advise and Consent” and “Seven Days in May,” made from the great political novels of the 50s and 60s. Whatever happened to great political novels, anyway?

For movies about freedom, click here.

Why the Worst Get on Top

Susan Stamberg reports on Martha Gellhorn, “one of the first great female war correspondents,” whose marriage to Ernest Hemingway is being dramatized by HBO next week. Gellhorn had a healthy skepticism toward power:

In 1983, a British TV interviewer posed this loaded question to Gellhorn, then 75 and still gorgeous: “I.F. Stone once described governments as comprised entirely of liars and nothing they say should ever be believed.”

The response was a typical no-holds-barred Gellhorn opinion: “Quite right. And Tolstoy once said governments are a collection of men who do violence to the rest of us. Between Izzy Stone and Tolstoy, you’ve got it about right.”

The title of this post is of course a chapter title from Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom.

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Power Corrupts (Now With Science!)

The humor site Cracked rounds up some serious social science on the psychological effects of power and authority. The results are sobering—if not entirely surprising. When people in experimental environments were made to feel as though they were powerful—either by recalling actual instances for their lives or by being placed in simulated positions of power for a few hours—researchers found that they became less compassionate, less prone to take the perspective of others, more able to lie without feeling guilty about it, and more prone to consider themselves exempt from the rules and standards they righteously insist apply to others. What’s striking is how quickly and easily the experimenters elicited dramatic behavioral differences given that (unlike people who actively seek power) their “powerful” and control groups were randomly chosen.

It’s useful to keep this in mind because, while the overwhelming lesson of the last half century of social psychology is that situational influences can easily swamp the effect of individual differences in character, our political rhetoric takes scant account of this. Political campaigns focus heavily on questions of “character”—which especially in the case of “outsider” campaigns should be of limited predictive value. Republican candidates and officials try to portray Democrats as arrogant and out of touch, while Democrats cast Republicans as callous and greedy. In each case, the message is that these are bad people, and their character flaws are somehow related to their specific ideologies. The remedy is, invariably, to replace them in positions of power with better people from the other team. These social science results suggest that this is unlikely to work: The problem is power itself.

Charles Krauthammer, Rocket Scientist

Last evening on FoxNews, host Bret Baier reported that the Iranians had launched a rocket carrying ”a mouse, two turtles, and a can of worms” into space. He asked the panelists to speculate on the implications.

Charles Krauthammer inveighed “if you can put a mouse into space, you can put a nuke in New York, in principle.” Given that they are clearly developing the technological capabilities that would allow them to nuke New York, Krauthammer concluded, “our only hope on the nuclear issue or any other is a revolution and to help that revolution ought to be our task.”

Well.

To her credit, Jennifer Loven of the AP wasn’t having any of it. “It’s an incredibly large leap,” she pointed out, ”between a mouse in space and a nuke in New York….[I]t’s a…ginormous gap.”

How “ginormous”? The analogies are imperfect, but I can throw a football a fair distance. In principle, I could start in the Super Bowl.

More seriously, there are modest parallels to the subject of my first book – the mythical missile gap of the late 1950s. The missile gap was precipitated by the launch of the Sputnik satellite in October 1957. Millions of Americans became convinced that the beeping silver sphere orbiting the earth signified that the Soviets could, in principle, drop a nuclear weapon on any city in the United States. This misconception was helped along by some opportunistic fearmongering by, chiefly, Democrats who delighted in embarassing President Dwight Eisenhower. And the ploy worked. The Dems rolled up huge victories in the mid-term election of 1958, and John F. Kennedy capitalized on the missile gap to help get elected president in 1960.

The actual missile gap – in the U.S. favor – was irrelevant. It would have been equally irrelevant if the roles were reversed, with the Soviets in possession of hundreds of ICBMs, and the U.S. with only a handful of shorter range weapons. Even if the Soviets had perfected the ability to throw a nuclear warhead onto U.S. territory, what ultimately prevented them from doing so was not technological but psychological – they were deterred by our vast arsenal. And they continued to be so deterred for decades until the entire edifice of Soviet power came crashing down, from within, without any significant assistance from the United States.

Would Krauthammer contend that Eisenhower’s refusal to overthrow the Soviet regime in 1958 was “an embarassing failure?” The Soviets did, after all, actually have nuclear weapons, many of them. The Iranians have none, and have not even mastered the enrichment cycle, let alone the long process toward weaponization.  By implying that the only thing that stops the Iranians from immediately nuking New York is their technical capabilities, Krauthammer demonstrates a shocking ignorance of some of the most basic principles of international relations, beginning with deterrence. This makes him a horrible political scientist.

But as a rocket scientist, he’s even worse.

Liberty, Even for People You Don’t Like

In a conversation about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council admitted that he wants to re-criminalize sodomy:

…which is easy for him to say, of course, because he’s unlikely to be affected by the law. As someone who is likely to be affected by the law, I’m tempted to criminalize Peter Sprigg. Liberty is never more negotiable than when it’s liberty for someone you don’t like.

What is it that I don’t like? I don’t like putting people in cages. Whenever we can reasonably avoid it, we should. Liberty means liberty even for people we think are weird, or disgusting, or immoral – provided that they do not hurt us or our own legitimate interests. Lawrence v. Texas, for which the Cato Institute filed an amicus brief, is one of the most important expressions of this idea in our time.

Once liberty applies only to the things that we like, we have abandoned the true idea of liberty entirely. From that point on, you and I, as enforcers, must cling ever more tightly to arbitrary power. If we don’t, then someone else may come along, take that power, and criminalize us. A free society leaves the misfits alone, because sooner or later, everyone is a misfit, in some way or another.

Blasphemy Laws Are an Admission of Failure

The Washington Post feature “On Faith” today discusses Ireland’s new, profoundly misguided blasphemy law. Blasphemers there can now be fined up to $35,000. That’s a lot of money for a few little words.

Atheist Ireland is testing – and protesting – the law by publishing blasphemous quotations like the following:

“Thou hast said: nevertheless I say unto you, Hereafter shall ye see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.”

“Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him.”

“May Allah curse the Jews and Christians for they built the places of worship at the graves of their prophets.”

“Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”

They are, respectively, from Jesus, Jesus, Muhammad, and Benedict XVI.

Maybe it’s an American thing, but the Post apparently couldn’t find any panelists to defend the law. These folks are all professional wordsmiths, of course, and these tend to be most supportive of the freedoms that they depend on the most. As I noted in my recent Policy Analysis, those who are most easily offended, and who value free speech the least, tend to gravitate not to newspapers, but to governments (and university administrations). That’s where the power is.

Susan Jacoby, for whom I have the utmost respect, even calls the law Pythonesque, likening it to the Ministry of Silly Walks. Of course, there’s this as well:

Blasphemy laws are oddities, because they concede an awful lot of emotional power to the blasphemer. They tell the world: My feelings are so very fragile. Or perhaps they say: My god is so very weak – so weak that he needs state protection against other gods, or even against mere potty-mouthed humans. Either way, it’s an embarrassing admission, but hardly the business of government. If your god can’t take the heat, he’s hardly a god at all.

Jesus and Mo put it very well indeed:


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