Richard Nixon

Viewpoint: Watergate, and the Argument from Knowledge


For decades, our Presidents (and their apologists) have told us that they know, and know far more about the important matters than us humble and hapless citizens. Richard Nixon has been one of the most vocal of these proclaimers. And since they know so much more than the rest of us, we must leave the important decisions up to them. The seeming disasters of foreign policy, of economic programs, of internal security, these were not really blunders because the President and his staff were privy to the vital information that the rest of us did not have. The immediate answer: "well then, give us the information", seemed far too gauche for the weighty and delicate matters at stake.

This Argument from Superior Knowledge rested, however, on a naive and fallacious model of bureaucracy. The theory is that the rank-and-file funnel key information up to their superiors in the hierarchy, with each in turn filtering out the wheat from the chaff and passing the knowledge further up, until, at the top of the pyramid sits the head—in this case the President—knowing all the vital stuff possible. We should have remembered the ancient adage that the lower bureaucrats tend to pass upward only that information which their bosses want to hear. Unwelcome information that might tell the boss that he is in error will often jeopardize a subordinate's job. Or even worse: as in the ancient custom of the King executing any messenger that brings him bad news. The result was that precious few people would bring him any such news. The bureaucratic theory for the U.S. should have been shaken by the Pentagon Papers, where we saw that unwelcome CIA estimates on how the Vietnam war was faring were deliberately kept from the President and his top aides.


Now Watergate provides us with a fascinating new look on knowledge vis a vis the President and the White House. Note, for example, the Mitchell-Moore-Kalmbach picture of life in the White House. If we can believe their story, we see this picture of these our august rulers: not a single one asks anyone (especially the President) anything, no one tells anyone (especially the President) anything, and, especially in the case of the nitwit Moore, no one seems to know who is working in the next office. Everyone sits in his cubicle passively, awaiting developments, hearing-seeing-and speaking no evil, and displaying no curiosity whatsoever on the burning political issues of the time. Apart from a loyalty to and worship of Mr. President hardly exceeded by the court of the Chinese Emperors, no one of these gentlemen knows, asks, tells, or seemingly does anything. Particularly intriguing was the political philosophy expressed by former Attorney-General John Mitchell: that it is vital, for the sake of enabling the President to make the proper decisions, not to tell him what is going on! Here is a reverse twist to the Argument from Knowledge for letting the President make our decisions. For in order for him to make the great decisions properly he must sometimes be kept ignorant, he must be freed from knowledge that might prove awkward! In the history of political philosophy, never has a more idiotic proposition been put forward, and with the high seriousness that only a Nixon aide can muster.

But though our rulers seem to know virtually nothing, they have all displayed a remarkable zeal and curiosity for knowing what everyone, almost literally, has been saying at any time. It started in 1970, with the plan of leading young conservative Tom Charles Huston to bug, spy, and burgle potentially dangerous radicals and dissenters. But the burning zeal for knowing everyone else's business hardly stopped with radicals. The "enemies" list, to be royally "screwed" by the White House, had scarcely a radical on it, featuring instead highly conservative Democrats, from the Meanyite labor leader Alexander Barkan to the dessicated old moderate Max Lerner. But pretty soon our rulers began to bug not only extremists and moderates, but their very own aides ("for their own protection", intoned Henry Kissinger) and finally each other. And, now, to top it off, we find Mr. Nixon automatically bugging everyone he has come into contact with, including himself: ostensibly for the sake of future historians! We can imagine some poor doctoral candidate a few decades from now, dutifully spending six years of his life doing nothing but listening to Nixon's interminable tapes. If Sartre had written NO EXIT now, he could have included that scene in his definition of Hell.


All this conjures up what must have been—and still is—the delightfully spontaneous spirit within the White House, as its various denizens meet to reason together, to learn about problems, discuss policies, etc. Everyone, including the President is secretly taping everyone else; nobody asks or tells anyone anything—and our future historian can delightedly listen to an endless litany of evasive and meaningless jargon about "time frames", "inoperative memos" and "unviable options." And when the pressure gets too great, they can always confide in good old Grandpa "Dick" Moore, who at 59 looks 89 (and who is still, ye gods! one of our rulers) secure in the knowledge that Dick can scarcely remember where his office is in the morning. (So long, of course, as kindly old Dick doesn't have a tape secreted on his person.) And secure in the knowledge, too, of the kind of advice that Dick is likely to give: "Heh, heh, young feller, go thou and sin no more." All this topped by our new image of Mr. President, his every grunt preserved for posterity and/or detailed reexamination. Only a Terry Southern-style movie can do justice to the bizarrerie of the whole scene; we are reminded of the seemingly wild fantasy of THE PRESIDENT'S ANALYST, where the President turns out to be a literal robot with wires leading out of his head. Who's getting those tapes?

Query to our "limited government" friends: after Watergate, do you still revere our rulers? Can you still hold that they have superior knowledge or wisdom to make any decisions whatever? Wouldn't we all be better off if the White House became an empty monument to a grisly past, and our Nixonian rulers were turned loose to seek honest employment—provided they can stay out of jail?

Dr. Rothbard's viewpoint appears in this column every third month, alternating with the viewpoints of Tibor Machan and David Brudnoy.