‘The politics of the political right,” Charles Blow blew in a recent New York Times column, “have become the politics of paranoia.” If this is true, it is to the Right’s immense credit. Contrary to the derisive dismissals of our elites, paranoia is among the most transcendent of American virtues. In a week in which it was revealed that the Department of Justice undertook a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into the privacy of the Associated Press, the Internal Revenue Service admitted that it had singled out the president’s enemies for special scrutiny, and the administration’s story on Benghazi started to crumble and fall, it is the credulous — not the skeptical — whose judgment has been called into question.
As it happens, Mr. Blow’s infelicitous sneer was a weak echo of the president’s. On May 5, Barack Obama shamefully told graduating students at Ohio State University:
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 do their best to gum up the works. They’ll warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices. Because what they suggest is that our brave, and creative, and unique experiment in self-rule is somehow just a sham with which we can’t be trusted.
This statement is telling. Contrary to the manner in which both Al Gore and President Obama customarily use the term, “self-rule” does not in fact describe a process by which the citizen submits himself to the state and, in return, is given occasion to cast a vote on how the government may run the more significant parts of his life. Instead, “self-rule” denotes a system in which a free man may maintain control over the lion’s share of his decisions while maintaining some say over the government’s conduct in those few areas where it is necessary for government to operate.
To listen to the amateur philosophizing of Obama and Blow is to be unhappily reminded of a 1767 essay, “On Public Happiness,” in which that execrable Frenchman Jean-Jacques Rousseau argues terrifyingly that one should “give man to the State or leave him entirely to himself.” This dichotomy — pristine solitude or total immersion in the State — is both false and dangerous. Yet Obama shows a particular fondness for it. The government cannot become tyrannical, it essentially holds, because, as Obama seems never to tire of intoning, the government is us. How many times has he insinuated that those who issue warnings about government are “anarchists”?
James Madison, writing as “Publius” in Federalist No. 47, insisted that it didn’t matter whether tyranny was “hereditary, self-appointed or elective,” because tyranny was tyranny. Who cares whether l’état, c’est moi or l’état c’est nous? “Even under the best forms of government,” Jefferson recognized, “those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.” Alas, in the age of universal suffrage, this truth has been lost on many. In response, we might insist more loudly that democratization does not necessarily equal government virtue and recall that the Bill of Rights effectively presumes that government is guilty, holding as it does that government may not intrude in certain areas of life however good it claims to be, and that the people may not be asked to relinquish their ultimate checks on power however secure they feel themselves to be. This is nothing short of codified paranoia, and America is better off for it.