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Petty Tyranny

Two years ago, on 24 October 2009, Scott Johnson posted  for me on Powerline a piece I wrote on one aspect of the present discontents. Since it describes what I will be doing tomorrow and the larger point it makes is, alas, just as apt today as it was in 2009, I am re-posting it here with nothing altered but the references to the passage of time:

This weekend, I will spend my Saturday morning in a fashion unheard of in most academic institutions. Because I teach at Hillsdale College, I will be meeting with the parents of my students — at ten minutes intervals — to discuss their progress.If last year is any guide, something on the order of 800 parents will descend on us this weekend. Those who come to what we call Parents’ Weekend are, for the most part, parents of the 400-freshmen we take in every year.

 Most of the conversations that I have with these parents will be inconsequential. They love their children; they worry about their well-being; and they want to be reassured that they are doing well. Once reassured, they relax.

Some conversations will, however, be of genuine importance. For some freshmen run into trouble, and there are occasions in which an intervention on the part of their parents serves a real purpose.

Some parents come back again and again. The parents of sophomores and juniors tend, however, to be more interested in meeting the professors that their children have described than in discussing their sons and daughters. They are no longer worried in the slightest concerning their progeny, and they come back a second and even a third time because they had a good time when they first ventured into the wilds of south-central Michigan.

Where I taught before I came to Hillsdale four years ago, nothing like this was possible. This is not due to the fact that Hillsdale College is well run (which it is) nor to the fact that the University of Tulsa is dysfunctional (which is also the case). It arises from the fact that Hillsdale College takes not one dime from the federal government.

With that money — whether it comes in the form of federal loans to students, research grants, or the GI Bill — comes the heavy hand of regulation. It is, of course, perfectly proper that a granting organization — whether public or private — sees to it that the money it grants is spent for the purpose for which it was granted. But this is not what I have in mind.

When Washington gives money to a state government, a municipality, a school system, or even a private college, it encroaches on the autonomy of the entity whose beneficiary it is. This should come as no surprise. As any teenager will tell you, generosity is wonderful, but there are always strings attached.

In this case, however, the story is especially interesting. For the busybody who attached these particular strings, the man who denied to any institution of higher education that took in as much as a dime in federal funding the right to communicate with the parents of a student with regard to his well-being, was a libertarian.

His name was James F. Buckley. He was the brother of William F. Buckley. In the late 1960s, he was elected a Senator from New York on the Conservative ticket; and in 1974 he authored an amendment to a federal bill, aimed at protecting the putative privacy rights of eighteen-year-olds (among others).

Some years ago, while teaching at the University of Tulsa, I had a freshman in my honors course who showed up for the first class and then disappeared. I thought nothing of it; I presumed that he had dropped the course (as many students do). When he showed up four weeks later, I contacted the Dean’s office and asked that they look into the matter.

It turns out that this student had turned into a binge alcoholic and was sleeping on the floor of a fraternity house, surrounded by empty whiskey bottles. But the university could not contact his parents about the matter without risking the loss of all of its federal funding.

There is, I think, a moral to the story — and I try to draw this moral in the two books mentioned below. We need government, and it is essential that the government be vigorous within its proper sphere. When, however, a government exceeds its prerogatives, especially when that government is far, far away and effectively out of sight, it is quite likely to succumb to tyranny — petty or otherwise.

We are all inclined to think that we know better than our neighbors. We are all inclined to be busybodies. When offered the opportunity to interfere, even a man as sensible as Jim Buckley is apt to succumb.

When our compatriots saw to the ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment in 1913, legalizing the income tax, they created that temptation. What Barack Obama and the thugs with whom he has surrounded himself are trying to do right now on a very grand scale has been taking place on a much more petty scale for a very long time.

It is not enough that we throw the current crowd of rascals out (though that is essential). We need to remove the temptation to which Jim Buckley succumbed thirty-seven years ago. As long as there is largesse in Washington on a magnificent scale, as long as the federal government has the wherewithal with which to offer to everyone a helping hand, our ability to govern ourselves in the ordinary business of life will be in peril. Obama may fail, but there will some day be someone who does not.

The two books alluded to above are, of course, of Montesquieu and the Logic of Liberty: War, Religion, Commerce, Climate, Terrain, Technology, Uneasiness of Mind, the Spirit of Political Vigilance, and the Foundations of the Modern Republic and Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect, and the last paragraph of the post I wrote two years ago clarifies why I think it insufficient that we elect a managerial progressive as President in 2012. Our aim must be to roll back the administrative entitlements state and not just to restore it temporarily to solvency.

  1. The King Prawn

     Yours, Professor, is a story of the technicality coming in direct contact with the reality. Also known as the unintended, yet not unforseen, consequences of good intentions.

    I would add the 17th amendment to the list of fundamental problems we face. The 16th gave the national government largesse on a magnificant scale, but the 17th institutionalized the peddling of it, as Todd Zywicki explains here. Those amendments were the one-two punch that KO’d our experiment in self government.

    Also, thank you for yet another reminder that I’m dawdling and haven’t finished Soft Despotism yet.

  2. The Mugwump
    Paul A. Rahe

    I think it insufficient that we elect a managerial progressive as President in 2012. Our aim must be to roll back the administrative entitlements state and not just to restore it temporarily to solvency. ·

    On this you and I agree.  The problem is that too many Americans have become addicted to government largess.  Money is like dope.  The government has become what in my day was known as a pusher.  Is America ready for cold turkey?  Sudden sobriety is a painful experience, but it’s the only possible solution.  I doubt America is ready for a collective case of the DT’s.  We’re headed for a painful hangover one way or another.    

  3. Joseph Eagar

    The problem with rolling back the administrative state is that Congress has well-insulated it against any attempts to do so.  Thus, the first step is to move much of the regulatory apparatus back into Congress and back under democratic control.

  4. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Joseph Eagar: The problem with rolling back the administrative state is that Congress has well-insulated it against any attempts to do so.  Thus, the first step is to move much of the regulatory apparatus back into Congress and back under democratic control. · Oct 21 at 8:33am

    Yes, the non-delegation doctrine should be rigorously applied.

  5. raycon and lindacon

    “What Barack Obama and the thugs with whom he has surrounded himself are trying to do right now on a very grand scale has been taking place on a much more petty scale for a very long time.”

    Tyranny has no category: “petty”.  It is in the “petty” that tyranny reaches the point called totalitarianism.  We have had tyranny from Washington since Wilson.  What we now have is totalitarianism.  And the enforcement of that results in fines, imprisonment, gulags and finally death.

    Where there are many laws, you can be found guilty any time it’s necessary.

    Nothing “petty” about it.

  6. Pilli

    This brings to mind the concept of “block grants” where the federal government gives huge chunks of money to the states to accomplish what the fed. gov’t. wants done.  

    These grants are always “targeted” and thereby administered by the fed. gov’t. even though the states do the spending.

    During the last debate, one of the “contestants” (Newt?) advocated block grants instead of some program coming from Washington.  There is no difference that I can see.  Money taken from my pocket and given to the states is still money taken from my pocket.

  7. flownover

    I know it’s simplistic, but a new motto of mine is : HIPAA Kills.

    Besides the added weight in my bank statement, the typing on the prescriptions, the endless forms, the truth of the matter is that ofttimes it does endanger us.

    A police chief friend told me the local Family Guidance Center called in a complaint about a client of theirs tossing furniture about, threatening, etc. evidently off the meds that they supply him with. When the officer inquired as to the man’s name, what meds he was on/off, and why he was there, the Family Guidance said they “couldn’t divulge such private information” . 

    Next time it happened, the police said we’re not showing unless we know what we are getting into. That first time could have turned out tragic. So HIPAA Kills. And the sponsors of it aren’t responsible because they’re politicians and “advocates”.

    Another motto: Advocates are usually lawyers who can’t find work.

  8. Charles Gordon

    Kleptotechnocracy’s 100-year-long project in Washington has shown its mastery of infusing redundancy, unaccountability, and profligacy in every corner and in each cubicle of our labyrinthine Leviathan that “petty” is the fundamental building block with which it is expertly constructed and the fundamental attitude to which its servants instinctively adhere.

    The history of arithmetic, geometric, and now exponential progression in the accumulation of Leviathan’s power via the 16th, 17th, and 18th—our first expression of the nanny-state temptation further calling for another government intervention needed for its repeal by ratifying the 22nd—have buried the culminating Amendment in our Bill of Rights, the 10th, so deeply into a Yucca Mountain-like repository for wasted state rights, that the subsequent FDR administration, the Great Society of the ‘60s, and 21st century “compassionate conservatism” have stretched the parameters for government’s largess in “petty” to such absurd dimensions that it made in 2008 a majority of voters comfortable with being “five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America.”

    Besieging this edifice, sealed with such good intentions, requires tea party movement victories at all levels of government and in many years of elections following the next.

  9. Lucy Pevensie

    Thanks for this. It’s beautifully argued. 

    Isn’t it ironic that people would ever create laws that impose all kinds of required behavior on other people in the interest of freedom? Weird and crazy.

  10. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Lucy Pevensie: Thanks for this. It’s beautifully argued. 

    Isn’t it ironic that people would ever create laws that impose all kinds of required behavior on other people in the interest of freedom? Weird and crazy. · Oct 21 at 2:02pm

    Weird, crazy, and, alas, all too common.

  11. Chris Campion

    Our aim must be to roll back the administrative entitlements state and not just to restore it temporarily to solvency. ·

    The uphill climb we face is easily summarized here.  Require a slowdown in the pace of catastrophic spending and the growth in government will never be enough.  It’s why we are where we are right now.  The size and scope of the government must be deconstructed, dismantled, and the daily intrusions into all aspects of our lives must be finally seen for what they really are – a creeping, incremental reduction in the liberty of the individual.

    As Lucy mentions above, the enforcement of behaviors required by the gov’t is something that runs directly counter to individual freedom, yet is something wildly endorsed by the supposed freedom-luvin’ party labeled, oddly enough, “Democrat”.  Apparently we are completely free to behave in only the ways that they approve of.