Thanks, Mr. President, For the Reminder That You're as Big a Bastard as Your Predecessors


President Obama at Ohio State University
U.S. Government

Whatever the outcomes of the scandals that have beset the Obama administration over the past few days — especially IRS scrutiny of government critics and the Justice Department's snooping on the Associated Press — they've taken on a special importance simply by capturing our attention. A presidency that began with such high hopes of "hope" and "change" has conducted itself just like so many administrations before it. A president who, just ten days ago, mocked "voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity," has been caught presiding over an Internal Revenue Service that, yet again, applied inquisitorial scrutiny to critics of the government, a Justice Department that, once more, snooped on journalists, and a Federal Bureau of Investigation that can't help spying on the public's communications. These abuses remind us not that the Obama administration has invented new ways to abuse power, but rather that even this supposedly fresh start commits the same old excesses that inevitably result from a surfeit of coercive power and plenty of targets of opportunity on which to wield it.

At Ohio State University, President Obama said:

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 doing 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.

We have never been a people who place all of our faith in government to solve our problems; we shouldn't want to.  But we don't think the government is the source of all our problems, either.  Because we understand that this democracy is ours.  And as citizens, we understand that it's not about what America can do for us; it's about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but absolutely necessary work of self-government.  (Applause.)  And, Class of 2013, you have to be involved in that process.  (Applause.)  

The founders trusted us with this awesome authority.  We should trust ourselves with it, too. …

To take him at his word, President Obama believes that democracy is somehow immune to the abuses that otherwise beset government. That because the use of coercive power in a democratic system is "done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but absolutely necessary work of self-government," therefore "we should trust ourselves with it."

But even assuming that "we" are as worthy of wielding coercive power as the president suggests (a dubious proposition for anybody who is familiar with the trial of Socrates, which saw the poor bastard sentenced to death for offending the sensibilities of the citizens of Athens) "we" are usually busy working, raising families, having drinks with friends and otherwise living our lives. The power of government is inevitably really wielded by a professional political class, with a good deal of input from well-organized groups with interests in specific areas of policy. That's the way it always is. And that power is always used against critics of those in power, dissenters to majority views, and inconvenient scrutinizers of officeholders and their activities.

The founders, for all of their many flaws, understood that coercive power is inevitably abused, which is why they didn't trust us with anything like the "awesome authority" that is currently wielded by the government. It's impossible to believe that veterans of the stamp tax and the trial of John Peter Zenger would have been even slightly surprised by the use of tax collectors against political targets, or by the targeting of journalists.

And yet here we are, with a president who simultaneously professes the goodness of government even as that government misuses power in all the old familiar ways, changing only to adapt to new technology.

So, as we prepare to hand authority over our health care system to a tax agency that has, time and again, wielded its power for political purposes on behalf of whoever is currently in power, we owe thanks. Thank you, Mr. President, for demonstrating that you're just as untrustworthy a bastard as all of your predecessors. Thank you for reminding us that, no matter the public assurances we receive, every iota of power given to the government will be misused. We repeatedly forget these lessons, and we need our reminders.