Charles, I hear what you’re saying, and practically speaking I think we’re on the same page. But I’m afraid I don’t think your response is all that persuasive. I think of it this way: Fear is not irrational, at least not necessarily so. I’m afraid of tyrrany because tyranny is worthy of fearing. In other words, tyranny deserves our respect. The two great sources of respect are love and fear. You could argue that the dividing line between left and right falls along precisely this divide. The Left loves government; the Right fears it. Both perspectives need to leave enough room for government to do the few things most reasonable people can agree government should do. It’s good and fine to remind us of George Washington’s warning that government is force. But it’s also worth remembering that George Washington helped establish our government. Surely, he was not phobic about government but he was fearful about its potential for abuse.
I think a healthier and freer society is one where we have more of a healthy fear of government rather than a love for it. I think that is your point as well. As I am sure you would agree, not everything government does is tyrannical, but we should always respect the inherent danger of tyranny that lurks within government. But that doesn’t mean we should irrationally flip out over every move government makes as a stepping stone to tyranny. That is less a recipe for freedom than it is for paralysis. Instead of sharks, consider guns, an issue dear to you from what I can tell. Guns are things to be feared. But we should not fear them so much that we become irrational about them. Every serious gun owner I have ever met has emphasized the need to respect guns. They insist upon becoming knowledgable about their uses and misuses. That’s why the NRA devotes so much to gun training and education. Government is very much like a gun. There is always the potential — even the temptation — for criminal misuse. There is always reason to show respect. But as a conservative as opposed to, say, an anarchist, I do not think government is in and of itself a criminal misuse of force (my apologies to Kevin Williamson!). I do not look at government and automatically freak out. My problem with the word paranoia is that it implies freaking out at the mere sight of a gun — or government.
That said, I agree with you that skepticism, while always necessary, isn’t always sufficient. I’m a big believer in the value of taboo. That is to say, in the value of good taboos. It should be a given that incest is wrong. We can come up with all sorts of good empirical arguments for why it’s wrong, but the second you start playing that game an important bulwark against the acceptance of incest has been lost. This is perhaps the keen insight of Chesterton: Dogma is essential for establishing the bounds of what is acceptable. It’s likewise with government, if the taboo against intrusive government is broken — and I believe it has been to a dismaying extent — it becomes all the more difficult to find a new line of taboo everyone can agree upon (hence the eternal project of conservatism). If you’d talked about taboos and dogma instead of paranoia, I think we’d be in pretty much complete agreement.