Shaffer: Lose faith in government

On Truth and Lies

As President Obama pointed out in his State of the Union address, fewer Americans than ever before have faith in their government.

I consider this a highly encouraging trend.

Walking in the Branford courtyard shortly after Obama’s election was called, I heard chants of “Yes we did!” reverberating from Old Campus. I went to High Street and saw a veritable mosh pit, a bacchanal, celebrating, it would seem, the second coming. I was reminded of Nietzsche’s observation that after the death of God, man began looking for his salvation and ultimate purpose in the state. Obama’s ascension to the presidency was a moment of religious ecstasy for respectable people everywhere.

Even I — cynical misanthrope and conservative skunk as I am — couldn’t help but feel inspired. I was excited by an end to the eight years of the Bush presidency. I was well aware that the election of a black president was a millennial event, and that I was lucky to live through it.

But our more rational faculties should have realized that the chants of “Yes we did!” were premature and immature. We elected a president substantially less humiliating than George Bush, sure. But we elected one hardly more capable of solving our problems. It’s not Obama’s fault. He is obviously extremely intelligent — so intelligent, in fact, that it’s strange he could ever get elected to high office. The problem isn’t him but the massive incompetence of government in general.

Government, as a rule, is to trash what King Midas was to gold. Everything it touches, no matter how lovely and well-functioning it once was, no matter how well-meaning and eloquent its advocates remain, begins to flounder. At times, it seems almost magical.

Libertarians — small-government advocates — have allowed themselves to be satirized in the press as Randian egotists and bizarre ideologues — rich anarchists who attribute mystical perfection to markets. There are some weird libertarians. But belief in small government can reasonably rest on the recognition that man is so stupid, so corrupt and so deeply fallen that almost every time we give more power to bureaucrats — no matter how good our intentions — we are likely to do more harm than good. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. And America’s decline is hastened by well-intentioned, but failed wars on drugs and poverty, in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Small government is sort of like what Churchill said about democracy — it’s the worst alternative except for all of the other ones. People do bad things with freedom sometimes, but they do worse with power. Markets are flawed and irrational, but bureaucratic authorities are more so. Robust civil society and good culture are the things that really matter for a nation, but the government can do little to bolster these. It becomes dangerously overbearing when it tries.

What disturbs me about American politics today is the lost presumption of liberty. Obama isn’t solely, or even mostly, to blame for it. But he is at risk of being a victim of his own success. He’s so charismatic and smart that his supporters expect him to do every little good deed conceivable. We no longer live in a world in which liberty is the default, and government intervention requires exceptional justification. Rather our governor seems to think we citizens need exceptional reasons to demand liberty.

This is not an argument for radical libertarianism. It is only for the presumption of liberty — that when we have any doubts it’s generally better to lay off on the heavy hand of the state. Even the most pernicious government programs create entrenched interests such that they are impossible to be rid of. (Milton Friedman quipped, “Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program.”) We can start wars whenever we like, but we can’t end them at will. As such, the heavy burden of proof should be on those who want to start wars and other massive government initiatives, not on the skeptics.

It’s not just that Obama is not omnipotent, either. Like every now-elected politician, he’s not what we had hoped for when we voted. Over the course of his campaign he was sufficiently vague that each of us saw what we wanted to see in him — a political strategy par excellence. But he has extended the Patriot Act, doesn’t believe gay people have the right to marry, has expanded Bush’s faith-based initiatives and has created national security measures that come dangerously close to profiling. Obama may well be moderately liberal by the standards of his generation. But by the standards of our campus, he’s backwards.

We should expect the same for every politician.

I like Obama. He’s not a socialist; he’s really quite moderate. He’s focusing on jobs, instead of national security — not claiming that “after the underwear bomber everything changed.” I don’t want his hope for change in America to fail. But most of them probably will. And when they do, I hope Americans take notice. I hope our faith in government will decline even more, and, subsequently, our faith in the free individuals freely acting in free markets — in the power of entrepreneurship, creativity and our robust civil society — will be renewed.

It will be a good day for America when we stop looking to bureaucrats and start looking to ourselves.

Matthew Shaffer is a senior in Davenport College.


  • thetabooparty

    Dear Mr. Schaffer,

    In essence, I agree with your analysis and conclusion. But the problem transcends our President. The larger and more cribbling issue rests squarely with our Congress. Gone are the days of the government of the people. Here to stay, unfortunately are the people of the government. The latter has absolutely no interest in preserving the tenets of this great nation but only the tenders of influence.

    Instead our focus should be firmly entrenched on removing that influence. Allowing undue influence is not the fault of the peddlers of influence but rather the continued partnering of our elected officials. This influence has supplanted our Congressmen from acting in the best interest of their constituencies. Regardless of the good intentions of our current President, our Congress willingly ignores the anger and frustration that has been clearly demonstrated by the very constituent’s interests they have sworn to uphold.

    This country still has the resilency to weather the storm of any Presidency. They come and go. But Congress has a life of its own. If limited government is the mantra, then limited terms for our Congressmen is the remedy. Extended terms creates a power base that makes our leaders in Congress the untouchables. Limited terms will lead to limited government.

    Ron Wilner
    Founder and Creator of the Taboo Party

  • Yale mom

    If there were more folks in government who were as intelligent and forward-thinking as our current president is, it would be an entirely different America we live in today. Sadly, too many of America’s best and brightest do not land in Washington, D.C. It is not so much the size of government as it is its quality, or lack thereof, that is the biggest problem.

  • ES

    Great column. I wonder if you could do a follow-up on how America might be able to extract itself from this tangled mess of bureaucracy? Has our education system failed us too badly for Americans to survive without holding the large hand of the government? Can those of the lowest socioeconomic status survive anymore without the support of government programs, and what would a freer market mean for those people? What will happen to the middle class? All kinds of questions to be answered here. Ideologically, I fully agree with the stance of your column, but I think our ideology needs to be tested by harsh, real-world scrutiny. You seem like a guy who could do it.

  • roflcopter

    Matt Shaffer is the greatest columnist the YDN has ever had.

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  • @ Yale Mom

    You forget the power that form has over substance. The government has swallowed many, many bright men and women. Their works has been for naught.

    And don’t you think enough young people go and waste their lives in Washington? I watch them go all the time. Tell them to go do something better with their lives.

  • c@cb

    their bleh

  • Erin Green

    The more disillusioned young people we have, the more positive work can be done! …We kind of do live in a fascist police state…
    Thanks for being real, kid.