Politics & Policy

Because Angels Don’t Govern Us

President Obama, surrounded by his Secret Service detail
The real scandal is government overreach.

Now that the first round of spin has passed, we can take a second look at the lessons to be learned from the recent General Services Administration and Secret Service scandals.

First, it really is a bit unfair to blame them on President Obama. The president is not directly involved in the day-to-day management of these agencies. Nor should he be. Moreover, misbehavior by government employees predates the Obama administration by quite a bit. In 460 b.c., for example, the Greek Delian League put nine government administrators to death for misusing public funds.

However, none of that lets President Obama entirely off the hook.

Too many on both the left and the right believe that government intervention in the economy or in the lives of individual citizens is necessary because only government can see the larger picture and act in a disinterested way for the benefit of the greater good. Businesses can be corrupt or self-seeking, and individuals may be myopic or make choices that others see as either morally or economically wrong. No doubt this view is correct, at least in some cases. In one way or another, we are all imperfect.

#ad#President Obama believes that government is different.

Given our flaws as individuals, the Obama administration believes that government should run our health-care system. Left to our own devices, we might fail to buy health insurance or buy insurance that doesn’t include the right package of benefits. Government needs to subsidize “green energy,” because we might decide to buy fuel-inefficient cars. Government needs to oversee the banking industry and housing markets, because banks made loans to people who couldn’t afford to pay them back.

People are prejudiced and selfish. Government is altruistic and “fair.” Markets fail, but not government. As President Obama sees it, government can make us better and lead us to the promised land.

But, as the GSA and Secret Service scandals should remind us, government is made up not of philosopher-economist-saints but of men and women like the rest of us — afflicted by failures, corruption, short-sightedness, and self-interest. The difference is that government gives those imperfect individuals the power to impose their views and desires on the rest of us.

The Founding Fathers understood this. They knew that some government is necessary to protect our rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” For this reason, they noted in the Declaration of Independence, “governments are instituted among men.” But they also understood that government needs to be carefully limited in its scope and power.

As James Madison wrote in Federalist 51:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.

Indeed, the damage that government can do is far greater than the damage that can be done by business or individuals, because ultimately the state holds a monopoly on the use of force. If I make a mistake, it affects my life and perhaps the lives of my family and a few others. If a business makes a mistake, it can affect thousands more. But if government makes a mistake, it can affect everyone. That is what makes the growing reach of government so dangerous.

That means that, necessary though some restraint on the freedom of individuals and businesses may be, it is even more important to have internal and external controls on the power of government.

The Obama administration’s failure, therefore, is not that it neglected to micromanage the GSA’s expenses or that it couldn’t keep Secret Service agents out of brothels. It is that it wants the practical equivalent of GSA employees and Secret Service agents to run our lives. The Obama administration persists in believing that government is wiser than and morally superior to the average American.

That is a real scandal.

— Michael Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and author of Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution.

Editor’s note: This piece has been amended since its original posting.

Most Popular

PC Culture

Hate-Crime Hoaxes Reflect America’s Sickness

On January 29, tabloid news site TMZ broke the shocking story that Jussie Smollett, a gay black entertainer and progressive activist, had been viciously attacked in Chicago. Two racist white men had fractured his rib, poured bleach on him, and tied a noose around his neck. As they were leaving, they shouted ... Read More

Ilhan Omar’s Big Lie

In a viral exchange at a congressional hearing last week, the new congresswoman from Minnesota, Ilhan Omar, who is quickly establishing herself as the most reprehensible member of the House Democratic freshman class despite stiff competition, launched into Elliott Abrams. She accused the former Reagan official ... Read More
Politics & Policy

The Strange Paradoxes of Our Age

Modern prophets often say one thing and do another. Worse, they often advocate in the abstract as a way of justifying their doing the opposite in the concrete. The result is that contemporary culture abounds with the inexplicable — mostly because modern progressivism makes all sorts of race, class, and ... Read More
PC Culture

Fake Newspeople

This week, the story of the Jussie Smollett hoax gripped the national media. The story, for those who missed it, went something like this: The Empire actor, who is both black and gay, stated that on a freezing January night in Chicago, in the middle of the polar vortex, he went to a local Subway store to buy a ... Read More

White Progressives Are Polarizing America

To understand how far left (and how quickly) the Democratic party has moved, let’s cycle back a very short 20 years. If 1998 Bill Clinton ran in the Democratic primary today, he’d be instantaneously labeled a far-right bigot. His support for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Defense of Marriage Act, ... Read More

One Last Grift for Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders, the antique Brooklyn socialist who represents Vermont in the Senate, is not quite ready to retire to his lakeside dacha and so once again is running for the presidential nomination of a party to which he does not belong with an agenda about which he cannot be quite entirely ... Read More
PC Culture

Merciless Sympathy

Jussie Smollett’s phony hate-crime story could have been taken apart in 24 hours, except for one thing: Nobody wanted to be the first to call bullsh**. Who will bell the cat? Not the police, and I don’t blame them. Smollett is a vocal critic of President Donald Trump who checks two protected-category ... Read More

Questions for Those Who Believed Jussie Smollett

The “we reported the Jussie Smollett case responsibly” contention has been blasted to smithereens. Twitter accounts and headlines in the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times reported as fact Jussie Smollett’s wildly implausible allegations, and many other journalists did so as ... Read More