Merely a week ago, President Obama gave the commencement address at the University of Ohio. His speech, which hailed citizenship and democratic participation, included the following passage:
"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 do 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 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 American 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. And class of 2013, you have to be involved in that process."
These lofty, feel-good clichés are designed to make voters receptive to big government intrusions. Those who want power will tell us it isn’t really them we’re trusting with it, but ourselves. Politicians don’t want to rule over us, they assure the skeptics; they just want to give us “self-rule.” What’s so scary about that? Big government may sound intimidating, but self-government, of any size, sounds reassuring.
Yet Obama’s remarks could not have come at a more ironic time. Less than a week later, the administration is embroiled in three simultaneous scandals that make government look anything but trustworthy. First, increasing scrutiny of the Benghazi attacks fueled suspicion that administration officials knowingly blamed an unrelated YouTube video to deflect presidential scrutiny in the midst of a delicate campaign season. Next, the IRS shockingly confessed that the bureau responsible for granting groups tax exempt status had intentionally targeted conservative applicants for additional scrutiny, erecting disproportionate bureaucratic hurdles on ideological grounds to create headaches for political opponents. And at the same time, it leaked that the Department of Justice had secretly seized over 20 pages of AP phone records, casting serious doubt on its stated commitment to transparency and the freedom of press.
With both Obama and rumored 2016 candidate Hilary Clinton involved, conservatives predictably saw these scandals as an opportunity for political gain. House republicans launched numerous hearings and investigations with the general aim of making a fuss. Inversely, Democrats scrambled to contain the blame for these incidents as far down the ladder as possible. Regarding Benghazi, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claimed she had no knowledge of requests for additional security, at one point blurting “what difference, at this point, does it make?”. Regarding the AP scandal, Attorney General Eric Holder recused himself from the investigation, claiming that deputy Attorney James M. Cole had signed the order to seize the records. And in the only question President Obama answered on the matter, he insisted that he learned of the IRS scandal from the same media reports everyone else did.
In the age of sensationalism, proving some high-ranking official was “in” on these decisions would make for some juicy tabloid fodder. Indeed, many of my wide-eyed libertarian friends are going straight for the big fish, putting forth elaborate hypotheses speculating on how the white house itself might have been involved. But these people are missing the point. In the bigger picture the identity of these particular culprits means very little, and launching a partisan witch hunt to find them distracts from the true significance of the scandals. This excellent article from the CATO Institute explains:
“Some libertarians have an odd tendency to believe that government is more effective at doing bad things than at doing good things. At the extremes, this manifests as the “libertarian conspiracy theorist”—someone who oddly believes that, while government can’t effectively run health care, schools, or welfare programs, it can successfully orchestrate and cover-up massive conspiracies. But we don’t need high-level conspiracies to point out that abuses of power, even by low-level officials, can be expected. Moreover, as government grows larger it becomes both less accountable and more important to our lives, thus giving government officials both more leverage and more freedom to misbehave.”
As cynical as my libertarian mind is, I cannot pretend to know who is to blame for these crisis. I don’t know if the Benghazi aftermath was a cover up, or merely confused ineptitude. I don’t know how high up the chain the orders to target conservative groups went, and I don’t know if the Department of Justice was trying to use the shroud of confidentiality to intimidate the press. But I do know that no matter how the dust settles, Obama and all who nodded along with him last week have already been proven wrong. In the rush to shield him from negative publicity, Democratic strategist David Axelrod conceded why:
"Part of being president is there's so much beneath you that you can't know because the government is so vast." - David Axelrod
Let that sink in for a moment. In the age of presidents taking credit for everything that goes right in the entire economy, Obama’s chief campaign strategist has confessed the federal bureaucracy is so massive that it’s impossible for any president to even know about what his own government is doing. Details like “we’re going to target your political opponents” and “is it okay if we steal some phone records?” can just slip right by him. There are so many different people setting so many different policies on so many issues that the president can’t even get briefed about the decisions they make, let alone participate in making them.
These decisions affect 100% of Americans, but the vast majority of us get no say in making them whatsoever. Instead, they’re made by the people hired by the people indirectly appointed by the Cabinet Secretaries selected by the president – a president who was only ever voted for by 1/5 of the American population in the first place. This is self rule?
What this and a thousand other examples clearly demonstrate is that government is not all of us. Government is some of us, who are anointed by others of us to wield authority over the rest of us. From the most liberal democracy to the most oppressive monarchy, all governments subject their subjects to the whims of other people. Only in the absence of government are people truly sovereign over their own lives. Only individual freedom can be credibly called a form of self-government.
The president is correct that some government is necessary, and for those places where it is a restrained democracy is the least-bad method I know of. But the reason we need government is the exact same reason it can’t be given the unquestioning faith Obama seems to expect: people are often selfish, greedy, immoral, prejudiced, and unfair, and this applies as much to the governors as it does to the governed. Government officials are of no higher moral fiber than the rest of us, which means if we the people cannot be trusted to live without them watching over us, they certainly cannot be trusted without us watching over them. The larger and more powerful bureaucracy becomes, the more difficult that task, and the less accountable and transparent our government will be.
CATO concludes with the point libertarians should really be driving home:
“[T]he most common form of government misconduct does not usually involve devious scheming by politicians. Instead, it is often both less insidious and more invidious—the cumulative effects of misconduct by less-accountable, low-level officials who enjoy immense power over small areas of our lives...[more abuses] can be expected if the government continues to grow larger and more powerful. It is simply too large an organization for anyone to control.”