Obama & Co., Growing Up Fast
Obama and his EU counterparts are learning that high-minded adolescence makes for bad governance. But it’s an expensive lesson.


Victor Davis Hanson

Old laws predicated on human nature cannot so easily be discarded — even by utopians who think they have the power to cool the planet and stop the rising seas. Borrowed money really has to be paid back. Governments cannot operate without confidentiality. Nations perish if they cannot protect themselves from existential threats. Watching a therapeutic Barack Obama grow up and learn these tragic lessons is as enlightening as it is sometimes scary.

When they are out of power, modern leftists advocate massive government spending and large deficits. They applaud when Republicans and conservatives sometimes prove as profligate as any big-government liberal. But when invested with the responsibility of governance, they come to understand that Keynesian “stimulus” must eventually cede to the same unhappy logic as the private household’s indebtedness.

Maxing out credit cards does not exempt one from having to pay off the balance. Low or nonexistent interest on debt does not mean the principal vanishes. We are reminded that debt is real with the ongoing meltdown of the European Union, as a bloated public sector from the Atlantic to the Aegean demands that someone, somewhere cover its debts.

Here in America the same fiscal rules have not disappeared. In California, Governor-elect Jerry Brown will have few choices in January 2011. Since he cannot raise taxes much in a state that already has the nation’s highest income and sales taxes, he can only find a way to cut expenditures. He must then either finesse such reductions with a sort of green philosophy of “small is better” or plead that his reactionary predecessor gave him, a compassionate liberal, no choice. Either way, the creditors and bondholders must be paid. Even Barack Obama, after spending $1.3 trillion more this year than the government took in, now seeks to save a few billion dollars by freezing federal wages. 

In short, from Sacramento to Athens the world is reminded that obligations, despite in-vogue euphemisms like “stimulus” and “Keynesian,” really do have to be met. There is an iron law that transcends politics and limits the application of fiscal liberalism: Print more money and money becomes less valuable; default just once and all future credit is lost or intolerably expensive.

In a similar way, the WikiLeaks mess reminds us of the adolescence of crusading freelance leakers and their enablers. This time the disclosures are not morality tales about Vietnam or Guantanamo. They concern a tough Hillary Clinton urging her State Department subordinates to spy on United Nations personnel. Barack Obama is not seen calling for the planet to cool, but is shown as so desperate to keep his promise to shut down Guantanamo that he is reduced, in tawdry fashion, to horse-trading photo-ops with the leader of any small country willing to take a detainee or two off his hands. In other words, those who once sermonized about the morality of leaking the Pentagon Papers and details of U.S. policy in the war on terror are now seeing that a let-it-all-hang-out transparency can be nihilistic rather than liberating. Will Hollywood now follow Rendition, Redacted, and In the Valley of Elah with a hagiographic treatment of WikiLeaks?

Likewise, the notion that “civil liberties” were sacrificed in the effort to stop Islamist terrorism increasingly is shown to be a liberal talking point, not a serious criticism of responsible wartime government. Barack Obama conceded that argument when he flipped on every pre-presidential critique he had made of George W. Bush’s protocols. At one time or another, Obama, as law professor, state legislator, senator, and presidential candidate, had ridiculed the Patriot Act, wiretaps, renditions, military tribunals, the Iraq War, Predator strikes, and Guantanamo.