“Paranoia is just having the right information,” William S. Burroughs once observed. We have that information. Who can look at the 20th century with a cold eye and conclude that the problem was that people were “too fearful” of their governments? Who will claim that our blood-drenched last hundred years was the product of people insisting too emphatically that they must retain their liberties? Who will claim that the great flaw of the last century was that the people were armed — or able to speak freely? Most important, who will claim that the progressive conception of government has proved superior to that of the Founders?
The news that the IRS was targeting pro-Constitution groups with “patriot” and “tea party” in their titles is almost implausibly ironic. But that the IRS was “targeting” anyone is flatly unacceptable. Herein lies the silver lining: By reminding its citizenry that government tyranny is not an abstract concept, the IRS has done America a considerable favor. “Strange how paranoia can link up with reality now and then,” wrote Philip K. Dick in A Scanner Darkly. Indeed. Next time an authoritarian explains how, say, a national gun registry will be just swell — and labels its naysayers as neurotic — his opponents will have a new and useful shorthand: “IRS scandal.”
Why, you might ask, do I use “paranoia,” instead of the more palatable “skepticism”? Paranoia, after all, is an involuntary reaction — less of a tendency to “wait and see” than a recipe for constant fear. I will tell you why: because reflexive suspicion of government power is a magnificent and virtuous tendency, and one that should be the starting point of all political conversation in a free republic.