Sunday, May 12, 2013

In Which I Disagree With Our President

Obama gave a speech, as he is wont to do:
And that’s precisely what the founders left us: the power to adapt to changing times.  They left us the keys to a system of self-government – the tool to do big and important things together that we could not possibly do alone.  To stretch railroads and electricity and a highway system across a sprawling continent.  To educate our people with a system of public schools and land grant colleges, including Ohio State.  To care for the sick and the vulnerable, and provide a basic level of protection from falling into abject poverty in the wealthiest nation on Earth.  To conquer fascism and disease; to visit the Moon and Mars; to gradually secure our God-given rights for all our citizens, regardless of who they are, what they look like, or who they love.
We, the people, chose to do these things together.  Because we know this country cannot accomplish great things if we pursue nothing greater than our own individual ambition.
Still, you’ll hear voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s the root of all our problems, even as they do their best to gum up the works; or that tyranny always lurks just around the corner.  You should reject these voices.  Because what they suggest is that our brave, creative, unique experiment in self-rule is just a sham with which we can’t be trusted.
We have never been a people who place all our faith in government to solve our problems, nor do we want it to.  But we don’t think the government is the source of all our problems, either.  Because we understand that this democracy is ours.  As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us.  It’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but absolutely necessary work of self-government.
The founders trusted us with this awesome authority.  We should trust ourselves with it, too.  Because when we don’t, when we turn away and get discouraged and abdicate that authority, we grant our silent consent to someone who’ll gladly claim it.  That’s how we end up with lobbyists who set the agenda; policies detached from what middle-class families face every day; the well-connected who publicly demand that Washington stay out of their business – then whisper in its ear for special treatment that you don’t get.
These are fine words from the man with the single greatest amount of power over the government. The whole thing is important, especially for those of you who, like my father, cannot imagine that Mr. Obama could possibly think himself on the side of good, righteous America, and probably the best announcement from our president of where, exactly, he is coming from (despite five years in office, three years campaigning, and two books). But the part I have bolded is the most important part, or at least the single most powerful misunderstanding of the American Experiment.

Robert Oppenheimer gave the US present an awesome authority; the power to wipe out a city and poison it's lands for a generation. In Obama's mind, rejecting authority means someone else will use that authority. In my mind, rejecting authority means that the authority will not be used. In Obama's paradigm, power that goes unused will be snatched up by energetic villains. In my opinion, if Obama were to instead take a bath for the next three years and refuse to speechify, command, or legislate then that power would simply go unexercised for three years. In Obama's mind, lobbyists have power, though of a limited and shadow sort. In my mind, I am a lobbyist, with precisely as much power as any lobbyist. If the president reads my blog (hah!) and because of my words ends the drone program, it isn't me that had the power, it is the president. If the president meets with an ACLU lobbyist and because of her words ends the drone program, it isn't the ACLU or the ACLU lobbyist that had the power, it is the president. Because if the president heard from both of us, whether he agrees or not there is not a damn thing we can do to end the drone program, but the president could end it with a single signature.

The founders did not trust us with awesome authority. They wrote a document carefully circumscribing the authority of the US government. The fact that this document is largely dead is beside the point, the point being that when you give authority over some aspect of your life to anyone else, that authority will be abused. It will also be abused when you retain those rights for yourself, but then it is your own damn fault and hopefully you will learn a lesson from it.

At the end of the day, it isn't really authority that is the problem, since Coolidge had the same authority as Obama and seemed to manage alright. The problem is power. Power is not unlike Jello shots, slippery, fun and sexy, as they wobble around on the tray, spilling and squirming as you lift them and, once tasted, impair your decisionmaking for hours. There is no one who goes uncorrupted by power, only those without the circumstance or ambition to make the news for their corruption. But some stories do get out.

  • The government, together in concert between the various legislatures and regulatory agencies, takes the weakest among us and squeezes them until their pain flows like juices through their fist.
  • The individuals granted coercive authority over the citizens by the government will beat you to death if you do not give them your obedience and respect. They will then silence witnesses  through theft and intimidation.
  • What's more, since every violation of the law is an offense against the state, there is no crime so petty that individuals within the government will not callously run you down with their vehicles.
  • The professionalism of our bureaucracy, supposedly committed to equality under the law, is a facade that is lifted the moment you speak out against the bureaucrats, or should the individuals in the machine develop a personal grudge against you.
  • But it is not implementation, but the very policies themselves that are corrupt. Your city council is paid to sit and ponder their own utopian visions, from the petty to the despotic. But whether these visions are capitalist or socialist, the end result is destructive. Sure, a squeaky wheel can get a special exemption if they pander to the powerful, but to oppose the mere fact that power is exercised is "impossible to consider"
  • Our utopian visionaries are not angels, because no men are angels, but they aren't even clever enough to get their dreams right. There are always side effects, there are always inconveniences, and, when the stakes are high enough, the government will suspend the first and second amendments in a heartbeat to maintain their power.
"We" are not the government, "We" are voters. That means we have miniscule and indirect input twenty to fourty times in our lives as politicians like our president claim the unreviewable right to murder any American citizen, anywhere in the world. A man with the power to murder people on a whim has asked us to trust him and to give him even more power to reshape the world in his image.

The worst part is, we are used to getting, and acquiescing to, these requests.

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