Public choice theory and history have shown that “benevolent” men set above others are subject to the same faults and selfishness as the rest of us, regardless of the good intentions with which their offices were created. As C.S. Lewis said, “Those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”Sometimes, though, the tormentors reveal the limitations of their condition.
Contemporary progressivism depends upon faith in bureaucracy: to collect data, to manage daily affairs on the local and national levels, and to serve as an impartial arbiter of fairness. Many of the major initiatives of the Obama presidency — from Obamacare to his expansion of executive authority to comprehensive immigration reform — demand this bureaucratic faith.You're depending on the conscience of the pencil-pushers, and that conscience might be smugly confident that the pencils are being Pushed For The Greater Good. George Will elaborates.
So every scandal that reveals a bureaucracy’s capacity for corruption deals a methodological wound to this centralizing enterprise. While the president might deride those who fear the subversion of a free republic into a less-than-free state, these sorts of scandals — whatever their outcomes — reveal that such fears are hardly misplaced. After all, we now know that federal tax-collection authorities systematically targeted opponents of the reigning ideology. We now know that federal agents could blithely monitor the phone calls of journalists. Those are not the figments of tea-party paranoia; as far as we can tell, they are facts.
The way it looks at the moment, there are two possible impulses behind these scandals: malice or incompetence. Neither one bears good tidings for bureaucratic progressivism. Obviously, the notion that high-level political actors would use the mechanisms of a bureaucratic empire to target their political enemies would be a very unpleasant idea. Right now, there is no evidence that such high-level actors did abuse their power in this way; it is possible that only a few rogue individuals abused or misused their authority. Media reports seem to indicate that the IRS scandal, at least, involves complicated technicalities and managerial disputes.
But incompetence is not exactly a winning defense for the case of centralized bureaucracies. The lack of approval, and the extent of the abuses, would show a bureaucracy out of control, with a broken chain of command and administrative rules. If the right hand truly does not know what the left hand does — if the brain of authority does not know what its administrative limbs do — how can we place blind faith in any supreme bureaucracy?
Liberalism’s agenda has been constant since long before liberals, having given their name a bad name, stopped calling themselves liberals and resumed calling themselves progressives, which they will call themselves until they finish giving that name a bad name. The agenda always is: Concentrate more power in Washington, more Washington power in the executive branch and more executive power in agencies run by experts. Then trust the experts to be disinterested and prudent with their myriad intrusions into, and minute regulations of, Americans’ lives. Obama’s presidency may yet be, on balance, a net plus for the public good if it shatters Americans’ trust in the regulatory state’s motives.On the other hand, Our President may be campaigning rather than governing, precisely to head that off.
SECOND SECTION. Ben Domenech outlines a Fourth Turning scenario.
Obama isn’t running for office again. Liberalism is. Making this about him is a short term boost to the pleasure center of the conservative brain. Making this about the inherent falsehood of the progressive project will help conservatism win.Put another way, another layer of management simply creates an additional source of rents to seek, generate, and dissipate.
The point is that these scandals cut at the core conceit of Obama’s ideology: the healthy and enduring confidence of big government to be good government. As technological capabilities advance and the scope of government expands, the types of domestic scandals we’re seeing here are only going to increase in frequency and invasiveness, with personal information shared more frequently, easier for even low level bureaucrats to acquire and manipulate. At the same time, Americans are becoming increasingly skeptical and cynical about their public institutions, with their trust in the federal government at historic lows. They distrust the agencies and bureaucrats even as the politicians of our age are investing more and more power in them.
Today, the media, the Obama administration, and David Axelrod are undertaking the task that conservatives could not: illustrating with each passing day that the progressive approach to modern governance and policy is inherently flawed and that vast governments are ripe for abuse. What we are seeing from the IRS and the DOJ is not something new, nor does it represent a perverse approach to benign bureaucracy: it is the inevitable consequence of an approach which puts mechanisms in place and then assumes they will not be used for ill. You should expect government to go as far as it can, whenever it can, in any ways that it can, toward the full exploitation of the power made available to it. Expecting government to behave otherwise is to expect the scorpion not to sting the frog.
The progressive answer to this is more rules and regulators, more agencies and safeguards and accountability projects. Republicans should recognize this intervention for the ridiculousness it is – creating more federal entities to watch over federal entities – and focus their arguments instead on the only solution which will actually work: removing power from the federal government and returning it to the states or the people. The only way to ensure that government doesn’t abuse a power is to make sure it doesn’t have this power in the first place.
When this period of scandal draws to a close, if the idea still survives that a more competent and ethical president would be able to effectively govern a $4 trillion bureaucracy, it will be a sign Republicans have failed. They can succeed by ignoring the tempting bait of making this about the president they despise, and focusing instead on the false philosophy of expansive government which represents the true danger to the American experiment. Doing so will require them to go against their own short-term viewpoint, so prevalent in recent years, and look instead to the long game.