In Praise of Paranoia
Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.

Columnist Charles Blow (C-SPAN)



The straw men who populate the Right of Obama’s imagination contend that, because the state is flawed, it should not exist at all. No conservatives think this. But they do understand that to acknowledge that we need a state is not to deny that the state is a credible potential threat. It is by no means “deranged” — nor does it imply that one need don a “straitjacket,” as Blow fatuously suggests in his column — for citizens to worry that the bigger the government, the greater the chance that it will spin out of control, nor that the more potent the state, the more potent the temptation for rogue elements to hijack its power in order to harass those they do not like.

Madison made an apt and brutal observation that was the product of learning, of an appreciation of man’s flawed nature, and of his own tough experience: “The nation which reposes on the pillow of political confidence, will sooner or later end its political existence in a deadly lethargy.” The conceit (in both senses of the word) that such concerns are vestigial rather than timeless — or, worse, that they apply only to a world that we have left behind — is folly. It is especially curious that the modern arbiters of trust reject the possibility of tyranny at this point in human history. Whatever one might have thought of the pernicious and widespread statolatry that cast the world repeatedly into darkness over the course of the 20th century, one can at least grant that many of those guilty of practicing it were unaware of the terrors they would inevitably unleash. Now, a cursory glance at a history book is sufficient warning.

“Paranoia is just having the right information,” William S. Burroughs once observed. We have that information. Who can look at the 20th century with a cold eye and conclude that the problem was that people were “too fearful” of their governments? Who will claim that our blood-drenched last hundred years was the product of people insisting too emphatically that they must retain their liberties? Who will claim that the great flaw of the last century was that the people were armed — or able to speak freely? Most important, who will claim that the progressive conception of government has proved superior to that of the Founders?

The news that the IRS was targeting pro-Constitution groups with “patriot” and “tea party” in their titles is almost implausibly ironic. But that the IRS was “targeting” anyone is flatly unacceptable. Herein lies the silver lining: By reminding its citizenry that government tyranny is not an abstract concept, the IRS has done America a considerable favor. “Strange how paranoia can link up with reality now and then,” wrote Philip K. Dick in A Scanner Darkly. Indeed. Next time an authoritarian explains how, say, a national gun registry will be just swell — and labels its naysayers as neurotic — his opponents will have a new and useful shorthand: “IRS scandal.”

Why, you might ask, do I use “paranoia,” instead of the more palatable “skepticism”? Paranoia, after all, is an involuntary reaction — less of a tendency to “wait and see” than a recipe for constant fear. I will tell you why: because reflexive suspicion of government power is a magnificent and virtuous tendency, and one that should be the starting point of all political conversation in a free republic.

In his Second Treatise of Civil Government, Locke observed that the captain of the ship would feint away from the slave markets of Algiers even when they were his settled destination, so it was in his passengers’ interest to mistrust him no matter where the ship’s bow was pointed. “The wisest thing in the world is to cry out before you are hurt,” considered G. K. Chesterton in Eugenics and Other Evils: An Argument Against the Scientifically Organized State. “It is no good to cry out after you are hurt; especially after you are mortally hurt,” because “sound historians know that most tyrannies have been possible because men moved too late. It is often essential to resist a tyranny before it exists.”

Always essential. Always.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.