Politics & Policy

In Praise of Paranoia

Columnist Charles Blow (C-SPAN)
Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.

‘The politics of the political right,” Charles Blow blew in a recent New York Times column, “have become the politics of paranoia.” If this is true, it is to the Right’s immense credit. Contrary to the derisive dismissals of our elites, paranoia is among the most transcendent of American virtues. In a week in which it was revealed that the Department of Justice undertook a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into the privacy of the Associated Press, the Internal Revenue Service admitted that it had singled out the president’s enemies for special scrutiny, and the administration’s story on Benghazi started to crumble and fall, it is the credulous — not the skeptical — whose judgment has been called into question.

As it happens, Mr. Blow’s infelicitous sneer was a weak echo of the president’s. On May 5, Barack Obama shamefully told graduating students at Ohio State University:

Unfortunately, you’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems. Some of these same voices also do their best to gum up the works. They’ll warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices. Because what they suggest is that our brave, and creative, and unique experiment in self-rule is somehow just a sham with which we can’t be trusted.

This statement is telling. Contrary to the manner in which both Al Gore and President Obama customarily use the term, “self-rule” does not in fact describe a process by which the citizen submits himself to the state and, in return, is given occasion to cast a vote on how the government may run the more significant parts of his life. Instead, “self-rule” denotes a system in which a free man may maintain control over the lion’s share of his decisions while maintaining some say over the government’s conduct in those few areas where it is necessary for government to operate.

To listen to the amateur philosophizing of Obama and Blow is to be unhappily reminded of a 1767 essay, “On Public Happiness,” in which that execrable Frenchman Jean-Jacques Rousseau argues terrifyingly that one should “give man to the State or leave him entirely to himself.” This dichotomy — pristine solitude or total immersion in the State — is both false and dangerous. Yet Obama shows a particular fondness for it. The government cannot become tyrannical, it essentially holds, because, as Obama seems never to tire of intoning, the government is us. How many times has he insinuated that those who issue warnings about government are “anarchists”?

James Madison, writing as “Publius” in Federalist No. 47, insisted that it didn’t matter whether tyranny was “hereditary, self-appointed or elective,” because tyranny was tyranny. Who cares whether l’état, c’est moi or l’état c’est nous? “Even under the best forms of government,” Jefferson recognized, “those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.” Alas, in the age of universal suffrage, this truth has been lost on many. In response, we might insist more loudly that democratization does not necessarily equal government virtue and recall that the Bill of Rights effectively presumes that government is guilty, holding as it does that government may not intrude in certain areas of life however good it claims to be, and that the people may not be asked to relinquish their ultimate checks on power however secure they feel themselves to be. This is nothing short of codified paranoia, and America is better off for it.

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.


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