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.