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.

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