The Politics of Crises

Those who are old enough will recall President Lyndon Johnson declaring war against poverty and the resulting creation of the “Great Society” with it’s numerous programs ranging from Medicare to Headstart. It wasn’t long before the government under President Reagan declared war on drugs, setting a world record for creating criminals and erasing constitutional rights. That was followed by President George W. Bush’s declaration of war on terror, with its variety of civil liberty abuses. Not every “crisis” was met with a declaration of war, of course. President Richard Nixon reacted to an economic “crisis” by imposing price controls and debasing the currency. President Jimmy Carter’s oil embargo crisis resulted in a Department of Energy whose budget exceeded the combined profits of all the oil companies.

Each of these “wars” or “crises” resulted in a massive enlargement in the size of the federal government and, in typical bureaucratic fashion, multiplied its intrusions into the affairs of America’s citizens. With each intrusion, regulations have sprouted like weeds, restrictions on individual choices have grown, and we’ve lost more of our constitutional rights. The latest crisis is “global warming”, and the government is likely to capitalize on the unwarranted hysteria by imposing more restrictions and bureaucratic requirements. Someone once said that “War is the health of the state.” Well, real wars do result in massive government intrusion and loss of rights. But, in fact, any “crisis”, real or not, inflates government at the expense of its citizens.

Some people think there’s a conspiracy involving (take your choice) the “New World Order”, the Trilateral Commission, the Bilderburger Group, Council on Foreign Relations, the Illuminati, Freemasonry, Jesuits, and who knows who else. This conspiracy is striving for world domination, and depending on your degree of paranoia, a one world government, the loss of all rights, and possibly most of humanity’s extermination. Those who believe in such conspiracies tend to think all crises are manufactured as an excuse to advance the agenda of the secret society of their choice.

As simple as that explanation is, the truth is likely to be more prosaic. Crises happen because of human incompetence, human vices or natural events. And bureaucrats seek power, which is in itself a vice. Happily for those addicted to power, crises provide for a marriage of human need and bureaucratic greed. But more importantly, the cause of ever expanding government and the erosion of human liberties is the simple philosophical idea that the government exists to solve all of our problems, no matter what it takes. Efficiency and expediency are the rationales of those lawmakers and bureaucrats who believe their job is to “form a more perfect union”, as the Constitution puts it. In other words, the ends justify the means. The impetus to meddle is energized by the conviction that those entrusted with caring for the nation’s welfare have superior intelligence and a vision of what constitutes the common good. That individual rights, interests, and the citizen’s “pursuit of happiness” can be sacrificed for that common good comes from the meddler’s love of humanity, even if individual people don’t matter.

So why doesn’t the populace revolt, or at least reassert their independence from the bureaucratic cancer that is eating away their rights and privileges? Why do people permit the government to regard their very income as the government’s property to dispense with at will? Why do people look the other way when some poor soul is hauled into court for violating some government mandate that he or she never even knew about? Why don’t people object when someone is thrown into prison despite not harming anyone else, simply because their activities were deemed objectionable? Why don’t people mind that the government can easily ruin a businessman simply at the whim of a bureaucrat’s discretion? The answer is human nature.

People want to be catered to and they insist that the government ameliorate the uncertainties of life’s insecurities. In other words, people want to feel more secure, not more at liberty. To provide for their own physical security, people will vote for those who promise more programs providing some kind of benefit, whether it involves ensuring health, housing, food, or whatever. These are subsidies, entitlements, job programs and so forth. The catch is, people don’t want to pay for all of those programs. So, as long as taxes don’t increase, it seems that the government is paying for them. And the more programs that are added without an increase in taxation, the bigger the government’s budgetary deficit. Of course, the government is borrowing to run these massive deficits, or is taxing the life out of some rich person who “can afford it”, but it doesn’t matter so long as the average voter is unaffected. The notion that government provides something for nothing is too appealing to resist. Moreover, if the government has eroded civil liberties, created bureaucracies that crank out regulations governing virtually every aspect of life, and repeatedly victimize people for their ignorance, vices or quirks, then that too doesn’t matter so long as it’s someone else who pays that price.

Perhaps the decline of individual liberty and personal sovereignty is inevitable, the result of some flaw in human psychology or the result of a pernicious but appealing philosophy. In my opinion, it’s both. And the inevitability is built into the genes of humanity. But then, that’s the subject of another essay.

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