The tyranny of bureaucracy

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Saint Paul noted some 2,000 years ago that the root of all evil is the love of money. A corollary of that prescription might be that the root of all tyranny is the love of other people’s money.

It would seem that the power to tax and spend is a lure to potential tyrants as much as putrefying carrion is to bare-toothed scavengers. Other people’s money allows any politician to convert the public’s own love of filthy lucre into a power base of potential voters. With enough money to dole out of the public treasury, even the most disreputable officeholder can earn the esteem of those on the receiving end of his or her beneficence, thus cementing power and inviting corruption.

I have written before about the warning of Alexis de Tocqueville, the French philosopher, about the danger that would befall American democracy as it grew from its origins of rugged individualism to the inevitable day when the government would grow strong enough to first provide for every individual’s needs and then later tell them just what those needs are.

Here is how Tocqueville (in his essential “Democracy in America”) described his vision of tyranny in a democratic republic where the average people had surrendered their sovereignty to the whims of the ruling class:

“Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?”

Does that sound familiar? Have we not completely fallen under the sway of de Tocqueville’s “immense and tutelary power”? Do not millions of people owe their allegiance to the government for the privilege of receiving food stamps, unemployment insurance, welfare, business or individual tax credits, college loans, agricultural subsidies, and now even health insurance? Is there any branch or even twig of life through which the sap of federal subsidies does not run?

No wonder the Tea Party, with its insistence on turning off the federal spigot, is being painted by progressives as a danger to the national well-being. The national well-being, after all, is a state of stuporific addiction to entitlements and congressionally approved benefits spooned out by thousands of federal bureaus and agencies that prove their worth by keeping the populace in what de Tocqueville called “perpetual childhood.”

This role of government as “the sole agent and the only arbiter of [the people’s] happiness” is nothing new, though Obamacare has pushed it to a new level. As I said at the beginning of this column, there is something almost satanically appealing about the power to spend other people’s money in a bid to make yourself look beneficent. Nor can a politician easily resist the tears of a newborn’s mother or the plaintive cries of a family left homeless by fire.

That last example brings to mind the question asked of Rep. Davy Crockett by a Tennessee farmer in the 1820s:

“Where do you find in the Constitution any authority to give away the public money in charity?”

Crockett, you see, had given in to the noble impulse to help those less fortunate than ourselves and had voted to spend federal funds for the relief of families that had been left homeless as the result of a ravaging fire in Georgetown. He never gave a thought to whether such a payment was constitutional or not, but just did it because it felt good. It took his constituent’s question to make Crockett examine his own conscience and realize he had erred by authorizing the payment of $20,000 for those homeless families.

As Horace Bunce, the Tennessee farmer, explained to Crockett:

“The power of collecting and disbursing money at pleasure is the most dangerous power that can be entrusted to man... [W]hile you are contributing to relieve one, you are drawing it from thousands who are even worse off than he. If you had the right to give anything, the amount was simply a matter of discretion with you, and you had as much right to give $20,000,000 as $20,000. If you have the right to give to one, you have the right to give to all; and, as the Constitution neither defines charity nor stipulates the amount, you are at liberty to give to any and everything which you may believe, or profess to believe, is a charity, and to any amount you may think proper. You will very easily perceive, what a wide door this would open for fraud and corruption and favoritism, on the one hand, and for robbing the people on the other.”

If it was not evident in the 1820s, it is most certainly self-evident now. With a bow to Lord Acton, “Money seduces, and other people’s money seduces absolutely.” As Horace Bunce predicted, the federal government has become nothing more than a conduit for redistribution of wealth. To deny that truth is to live in a fairy-tale world where America remains the champion of freedom and the economic engine of the world.

If we ARE the economic engine of the world, we are permanently stuck in first gear, thanks to the crush of regulations, mandates and red tape that Congress has imposed on business. And if we ARE the champion of freedom, it is the freedom to do what we are told to do by the federal government or else pay a fine, tax or penalty (or whatever Justice Roberts decides to call it this time).

An editorial in the Daily Inter Lake in 1924 lamented that one-twelfth of the population of the United States was then supported by some component of government — federal, state or local. That was just jobholders and their dependents, and that percentage may be approximately the same today, but when you add all the people who are supported by the government through benefits and entitlements, the number quickly doubles or triples. Millions of people are beholden to the gargantuan government, which is often criticized but never willingly diminished.

As the 1924 editorial writer noted, the number of people dependent on government “seems needlessly large but is one of the penalties we pay for government by bureaucracy and it will continue to increase until there is a return to comparative sanity, of which there is no indication at the present time.”

Amen. And just as the Tea Party spokespeople today are branded as radicals for proposing smaller government, in 1924 it was noted that: “To single out any activity for comment is to provoke the ire of some organized minority whose favor was curried by its creation and whose clamor of defense would send the over-timid congressmen scurrying for cover if repeal was mentioned.”

We have indeed at last reached the era prophesied by that long-ago editorial writer, who worried about a bureaucracy that would “supervise every conceivable activity from the cradle to the grave” — and would be able to do so in perpetuity thanks to “the passive acquiescence of the great majority that permits the condition to exist without serious protest.”

To paraphrase Edmund Burke, “The only thing necessary for tyranny to prevail is for good men to do nothing.”

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