The Corner

Closuregate: A Larger Lesson about Government

I have absolutely no insight to offer about Governor Christie’s press conference, nor would I presume (based on my knowledge of the case) to opine about its long-term impact on his administration in New Jersey or his prospects in 2016. I could take everything I know about New Jersey politics and sum it up in one word: Nothing.

But the incident does bring up two larger points worth pondering. First, we conservatives sometimes wax eloquent about the virtues of state and local government — at least as compared to the vast, bankrupting reach of the federal leviathan. But states and localities can be at least as corrupt and abusive as the feds. Indeed, my own life’s journey through the small-town South has taught me the small races in the small places can be the most vicious of all. 

Second, incidents like these only stand to reinforce my long-running migration from (for lack of a better term) good-government conservatism to ever-more-limited government conservatism. I often kick myself for past idealist thoughts about changing the world if only “our” people were running things, forgetting that “our” people are, well, people — and thus some of them are fully capable of sending e-mails that say things like, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”

In my experience, politicians and their staffs are no better or worse than any other citizen: some have real integrity, some . . . don’t. The difference, of course, is it’s the rare accountant or store manager or homemaker who can inconvenience or endanger tens of thousands with an impulsive e-mail and a few traffic cones. With great power comes great responsibility (by the way, that concept hardly originated with Spiderman). Or, more precisely stated in the government context, those with even moderate power have the ability to do great harm.

But can they also accomplish great good? Not with the same ease or efficiency. Imagine a converse scenario, with an aide impulsively typing, “Time for a better commute in Fort Lee.” What happens tomorrow? Anything meaningful?

By structure, by culture, and by practice, government is increasingly acting like a one-way ratchet toward pettiness, waste, and vice — one vindictive e-mail at a time.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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