The Bipartisan War on Liberty

Liberal and conservative elites agree on one thing: Americans are too free for their own good.


To outward appearances, it might seem as though the left and right have never been more at odds. And for the average man in the street, drawn to the Tea Party on one side or the Occupy movement on the other, this might be true. But it is not so true for elite opinion. The nation's high and mighty may be divided about many things, but on one point they often agree: Americans are still too darn free.

For example: Not enough people exercise their right to vote. Problem, right? Well, William Galston of the Brookings Institution has a solution: Force them to. The other day he took to the pages of The New York Times to explain why we should be "Telling Americans to Vote, or Else." (It doesn't seem to have occurred to Galston that making people exercise a right takes that right away, by turning it into an obligation.)

Galston is hardly alone. Mitt Romney considers it a problem that many foreign nationals enter America without a government permission slip. His solution: Force every U.S. resident to carry a biometric ID card. (Just the thing to present at the polls when meeting your mandatory-voting requirement, eh? Great minds think alike.)

One of Romney's GOP primary opponents, Michele Bachmann, laments that many Americans—53 percent of them—pay no federal income tax. So she proposed forcing everyone to do so, even if they don't have any income to pay taxes on. That'll show 'em.

Time magazine proposed forcing every American into national service. A federal advisory board has decided, to much applause, that we should force boys as well as girls to receive the HPV vaccine. Proponents of ObamaCare believe the government should force everyone to buy health insurance.

The Obama administration also has lots of other bright ideas about how to bend the American people to its will. Last year Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told those at a National Press Club that the administration's "livability" initiative "is a way to coerce people out of their cars." The administration also wants to force insurers to pay for birth control and abortifacients, and to force consumers to buy more fuel-efficient cars.

Voices outside the administration, however, fret that it is not being forceful enough. In a recent Washington Post column, Dana Milbank advised the president to emulate the ruthless tactics of JFK. Milbank recounts how Roger Blough, chairman of U.S. Steel, raised prices in defiance of the president's wishes. "'You have made a terrible mistake,' Kennedy told him. Subpoenas flew, FBI agents marched into steel executives' offices, and Kennedy spoke about IRS agents examining 'hotel bills and nightclub expenses [that] would be hard to get by the weekly wives' bridge group out at the country club.'"

Ahh, the good old days. When J. Edgar Hoover pulled stunts like that, liberals considered it proof that the dark night of fascism was descending across the land. But when their own guys do it, they call it getting things done. Nary a word from Milbank about what business the president has dictating steel prices, by the way.

Yet Milbank is a piker in the thuggery-worship category, at least when compared with The New York Times' Thomas Friedman. In 2009, Friedman penned a column about how China's one-party autocracy was better than America's two-party system: "One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks," he wrote, "but when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people . . . it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies to move a society forward." He went on to list some of China's critically important policies, which were—surprise!—policies of which he personally approved.

Well, anyone can write a stinker of a column now and then (heaven knows!). But a year later Friedman was still at it, relating on Meet the Press how he has "fantasized" about "what if we could just be China for a day?" Then "we could actually, you know, authorize the right solutions." He didn't actually want America to "be China," mind you, he just wanted "my democracy to work with the same authority." That way, Friedman could impose his will on everyone else, and life would be grand.

This is what power fetishists always do: assume the power will be used in ways they like. (And since the ends are noble, they surely must justify the means, right?) Sometimes it is. But power changes hands, and the inheritors may be a rather different sort. The people pushing for more government power never seem to think of that—until it's too late.

A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where this article originally appeared.