Two weeks ago, I made a similar point in my column at The Fiscal Times — and that was before we knew that Big Brother Is Listening. Whether one sees the scandals at the Department of Justice, the IRS, State Department, and now the NSA as incompetence or malice, it argues against the philosophy that big government is a beneficent steward of the public good. For conservatives, this is almost dogmatic; their position is that government should be limited to certain tasks (national security being one of those) with strict boundaries on power and effective counterweights to power to keep from developing into tyranny. The scandals erupting merely confirm their worst predictions about what happens when government outgrows its boundaries and limitations.
At the time, some cautioned against arguing that the scandals undermined the Big Government project undertaken by Barack Obama and the Left. Now, with even more evidence that the federal government has taken snooping to levels once considered the province of conspiracy theorists, National Journal’s Ron Fournier laments that Obama may have killed the good-government argument:
I like government. I don’t like what the fallout from these past few weeks might do to the public’s faith in it. … Damn. Look at what the past few weeks wrought.
Government is intrusive. The National Security Agency is collecting records of tens of millions of customers from the nation’s largest telephone companies. The secret agency is also tapping into Internet providers like Google to sift through emails, videos, photos and other activities.
They are using the data to find patterns that might reveal terrorist plots. It is an electronic fishing expedition.
Government is Orwellian. Sixty four years ago this month, George Orwell published “1984,” a chilling prophecy of a police state. The book inspired the term “doublespeak,” government’s attempt to disguise, distort and reverse the meaning of words. It abounds.
In defending the spying on U.S. citizens, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., declared Thursday that “there has not been any citizen who has registered a complaint.” But come on. How many complaints did he expect on a secret program?
James Clapper, the direction of national intelligence, said the program “cannot be used to intentionally target any citizen … .” That sentence is so 1984: vaguely assuring, impossible to refute, and beside the point. According to multiple reports, U.S. citizens are sacrificing their privacy to a government casting its wide and powerful net in search of foreign terrorists. Rather that initiating an honest conversation with the American public, Clapper hid behind the Orwellian turn of phrase: “intentionally target.”
Government is incompetent. The best outcome for Obama and his Internal Revenue Service is a full and credible investigation by Congress that determines the targeting of conservatives was not orchestrated by the White House but was rather rooted in bureaucratic incompetence. That would be good news.
That’s just a representative sample of Fournier’s disillusionment. It’s worth reading in full. Fournier seems to miss the point of his own logic, though, and it may be because it’s just new to him (Fournier is always worth reading).
Anyone who read F.A. Hayek, for instance, would understand exactly what is happening. As he warned in The Road to Serfdom, the growth of government in both size and power tends to do two things, neither of which are good. First, it starts to assume central control over non-governmental operations, especially the economy, when it’s impossible to centralize the knowledge necessary to make good decisions consistently. The second is that increased power attracts people who are increasingly willing to exert it over others, and that competition produces people who are less likely to perform in an ethical manner or restrain themselves. That in itself produces greater incompetence as people win favor through the exercise of power rather than through excellence in market-based competition, which recedes as government acquires more and more power and success is based more and more on its exercise.
The result from increasing government is that it ends up with ever-increasing power as its incompetence gets covered up by propaganda and lies, and it acts with increasing capriciousness and malice. The incompetence is therefore hardly “good news” (although Fournier obviously means this sarcastically) but a predicate for later obfuscation and abuse. That’s exactly what we’re seeing at the IRS, and to a lesser extent in other areas of the federal government, including State, and very likely NSA.
In other words, Obama and his administration aren’t ruining the “good government” (or more accurately, the “Big Government”) brand. They’re fulfilling the inevitable outcome of it. Fournier describes the symptoms perfectly, and allows everyone else to diagnose the real disease.