Politics & Policy

The Tyrant in the Gray Flannel Suit

Traditional American distrust of the centralized state is based on some lessons learned the hard way.

Russia’s takeover of Crimea is already so complete that commercial flights to Kiev from the region’s main airport, located outside Simferopol, the regional capital 50 miles from Sevastopol, now leave from the international terminal instead of the domestic one as they did until last week. The shift suggests that Kiev and the rest of Ukraine are now classified as foreign territory.

New York Times, March 6, 2014

There is no one who can be trusted with political power. Lord Acton’s famous epigram — “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” — communicates a law of human life that is as inescapable as that of supply and demand: There may be variations along the curve, but the slope is always in the same direction. Even in a stable, liberal society such as our own, we have seen presidents, including the current president, abuse their power for personal and political ends, sometimes with shocking disregard for both law and propriety. The number of generals who have participated in the overthrow of civilian governments to which they swore oaths of allegiance is enough to populate a small army. In politics, great men are dangerous men.

There is very little in this world as dramatic as the coup d’état, but it is not only presidents and princes who are susceptible to the allure of power. New York City enjoys the services of the nation’s best-led and most professional big-city police department, but its officers have been known to abuse their power in ways ranging from the banal to the antiheroic, from taking petty bribes to acting as mob enforcers for the Lucchese crime syndicate. Political power is corruptible down to the level of public-school administrators and DMV clerks.  

Indeed, from the fiction of Franz Kafka to the headlines in National Review, we have seen that it very often is not the great man who gives in most consequentially to the temptation of corruption but the anonymous bureaucrat. This probably has something to do with the passage of time. A president of these United States need resist his worst inclinations only for four or eight years. That may not be enough time for those without a prior education in the field even to learn how to be effectively corrupt, much less to develop and execute a program of corruption. The civil servant is a different matter. After 20 years on the job, suffering the inevitable slights that accompany a bureaucratic career, he has the specific local knowledge and the opportunity to indulge his baser nature. He may also have the motive: Why should a successful car salesman or trip-and-fall plaintiffs’ attorney enjoy such a higher standard of living than a lifelong servant of the public interest? (He has convinced himself he is a servant of the public interest rather than lacking in skills or ambition.) Why should some night-school lawyer lord power over him just because a congressional district in some flat and featureless farm state preferred his empty speeches and intelligence-insulting television commercials to the empty speeches and intelligence-insulting television commercials of some other guy?

Noting the rapid co-opting of the administrative apparatus in Crimea by the Russian invaders — trivial little fictions such as Kiev’s being a foreign city so far as the Simferopol airport is concerned become critical facts when they are backed by sufficient levels of terror — the economist Tyler Cowen observed drily: “Bureaucracies can act swiftly when they wish to.” They can also act with relatively sophisticated levels of coordination and great energy. Consider the case of the corruption of the Internal Revenue Service by progressive political ideologues, which has now degenerated into the mob-trial spectacle of formerly obscure revenuers invoking the Fifth Amendment in front of congressional investigators. Many journalists and investigators have been looking for ironclad proof that the IRS conspiracy against conservative activists was directed by the White House, perhaps by the president personally. The search for what is obscured in the shadows can cause us to ignore what is right in front of our noses, in broad daylight: Elected Democrats in Congress put very public pressure on the IRS to suppress and harass tea-party groups. That is not a secret; even the see-no-Democratic-evil New York Times knows who they are: Max Baucus, Jeanne Shaheen, and, especially, Chuck Schumer. I very much doubt that Barack Obama personally ordered the IRS to abuse its powers, just as I very much doubt that Vladimir Putin has taken a personal interest in terminal assignments at the Simferopol airport. Neither had to — a fact that says as much about the fragility and corruptibility of institutions as any top-down agenda would have, and perhaps more.

There is no one who can be trusted with political power.

But of course we must trust somebody with political power. There are those among us (myself included) who like to imagine that we might one day innovate our way out of the need for politics per se, but at the moment we have courts, legislatures, armies, police, tax collectors, and the whole apparatus of democratic selection and armed enforcement that goes along with them. During the long postwar boom, there were radical elements, including radical elements on the right, that questioned the durability and trustworthiness of American institutions. There were would-be reformers and revolutionaries, but a commanding majority of Americans readily and quietly consented to our political institutions in the belief that whatever the defects of the U.S. government, we were living under the best arrangement known to man, enjoying more freedom and more prosperity than any other people ever had. But that is no longer the case. Our progressives increasingly look longingly at the welfare states of Scandinavia and Western Europe, while conservatives fear that we have fallen behind Australia, New Zealand, even Canada on the march toward maximum freedom and prosperity. Our technocrats dream of being “China for a day.” There were not very many conservatives in 1955 writing articles about lessons to be learned from Singapore.

The less ideologically committed also have come to regard our institutions with a pronounced degree of suspicion and hostility. Books and radio shows about conspiracy theories command very large audiences, an indicator of credulousness, to be sure, but also of a people who understand that something is wrong, even if they cannot quite put their fingers on it. From Occupy and the neo-Communists on the left to the Tea Party and the so-called Dark Enlightenment on the right, there is a remarkable consensus:

There is no one who can be trusted with political power.

But one of those things is not like the others. There is a great deal more to the Tea Party than tricorn hats. The paradox of our constitutional order is that its architects had a deep appreciation for the dynamic described later by Lord Acton but also had firsthand experience of the necessity of building the very institutions and instruments of political power that cannot be trusted. The arrangements that they developed were both inspired and in a way crude: a federal government turned against itself, with three (it had to be an odd number) equal branches invested with both complementary and adversarial interests, a legislative branch further subdivided, and a federal government held in check by the self-interest of the individual states of the Union. Each of those divisions and adversarial relationships is crucial, which is why there remains a great deal of energy behind even such quixotic proposals as repeal of the Seventeenth Amendment.

From tea-party organizations to “constitutional conservatives” such as Rand Paul and Ted Cruz and Tenth Amendment maximalists such as Rick Perry, there is a great deal more at work on the populist and constitutionalist right than antiquarian document fetishism. The American tradition of reverence for the precise language of the Constitution is no doubt culturally related to our Protestant tradition of personal Biblical interpretation, and indeed there is a remarkable parallel between the way even unschooled Americans will engage in constitutional or Biblical exegesis with no regard for whatever passes for professional opinion on the question at hand. (The two tendencies share the occasional apocalyptic indulgence as well.) There is a popular suspicion, not entirely unjustified, that the relatively esoteric interpretive professions and their disregard for the plain language of the documents in question are very little more than a cover for raw power and for the interests of career-building mandarins seeking to fortify their own positions.

But those colonial costumes and pocket Constitutions and occasionally modified Gonzales flags are not mere markers of retrograde cultural and political tendencies. They are the insignia of a deeply rational movement for self-defense and self-preservation against the plenary state. The American constitutional order is, for all of its defects, the only one of its kind to have resisted Lord Acton’s absolute power with such success going on two and a quarter centuries in a large and complex society. The traditional American distrust of the centralized state is based on the possibly uncharitable but by no means indefensible assumption that every functionary in the Department of Education is a potential IRS rogue, that our National Security Agency can transform life in these United States as deeply and as darkly as co-opted Crimean bureaucracies can help a Russian autocrat fix his fangs in Ukraine, that there is no one who can be trusted with political power, even when we must by necessity invest them with it. Bureaucracies can indeed act swiftly when they wish to.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.


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