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The Folly of Blindly Trusting the Government PDF Print E-mail
Commentary/Politics - Guest Commentaries
Written by James Bovard   
Tuesday, 15 June 2010 07:29

Democracy breeds gullibility. Lord Bryce observed in 1921, "State action became less distrusted the more the State itself was seen to be passing under popular control." The rise of democracy made it much easier for politicians to convince people that government posed no threat, because they automatically controlled its actions. The result is that the brakes on government power become weakest at the exact time that politicians are most dangerous.

Blind trust becomes a substitute for informed consent. But mass trust in government compounds the political damage brought about by pervasive ignorance.

The bias in favor of trusting government brings out democracy's worst tendencies. The normal defenses that people would have against alien authority are undermined by a chorus of politicians and government officials continually reminding people that government is themselves, and they cannot distrust the government without distrusting themselves.

How should people think about their rulers? This is a question that is rarely asked. Instead, it is preemptively squelched by myths pummeled into people's heads from a very early age.

Since it has not been possible to neuter political power, citizens' thinking on government has been neutered instead. Fear of government is portrayed as a relic of less-civilized, unrefined times. There is a concerted effort to make distrusting the government intellectually unacceptable, a sign of bad taste or perhaps ill-breeding, if not downright ignoble.

The central mystery of modern political life is: Why are people obliged to presume that politicians and government are more trustworthy than they seem? The question is not: Why do people distrust government? The question is: Why do people follow and applaud politicians who they recognize are lying to them? The mystery is not that politicians lie, but that citizens believe. It is not a question of giving rulers one benefit of the doubt, but of giving such benefits day after day, year after year, ruler after ruler.

America is perhaps the first nation founded on distrust of government. Checks and balances were included in the Constitution because of the danger of vesting too much power in any one man or one branch of government. The Bill of Rights was erected as a permanent leash on the political class. As Rexford Tugwell, one of Franklin Roosevelt's Brain Trusters and an open admirer of Stalin's Soviet system, groused, "The Constitution was a negative document, meant mostly to protect citizens from their government."

The Founding Fathers issued warning after warning of the inherent danger of government power. John Adams wrote in 1772, "There is danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty." Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1799, "Free government is founded in jealousy, not confidence. ... In questions of power, let no more be heard of confidence in men, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution." The term "politician" was in disrepute from 1776 onward (thanks to the antics of Congress during the Revolutionary War and the conniving of some of the state legislators after 1783).

Many of the initial curbs on federal power were maintained for most of the first century of this nation's history in part because Americans often had a derisive attitude toward government -- especially the federal government.

Wariness toward government was one of the most important bulwarks of American freedom. Representative government worked fairly well at times partly because people were skeptical of congressmen, presidents, and government officials across the board. However, beginning in the early 1900s and accelerating in the New Deal, government was placed on a pedestal.

Trust After Failure

Trust in government is sometimes demanded most vociferously after some horrendous government blunder or abuse.

The number of Americans who trusted the federal government to do the right thing more than doubled in the weeks after the attack on the Twin Towers. By the end of September 2001, almost two-thirds of Americans said they "trust the government in Washington to do what is right" either "just about always" or "most of the time."

The foreign-policy response to 9/11 would have been far more targeted if scores of millions of Americans had not written George Bush a blank check in the form of automatic trust. The adulation and deference that he received in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 encouraged federal officials to believe that they could do practically whatever they pleased. Top administration officials were laying plans to attack Iraq within days after the Twin Towers collapsed, though there was no evidence linking Iraq to the attacks. Less than two weeks after 9/11, senior Bush administration officials were already claiming that the attacks gave the U.S. government carte blanche to attack anywhere in the world. Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo sent White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales a memo on September 25, 2001, suggesting that "an American attack in South America or Southeast Asia might be a surprise to the terrorists," since they were expecting the United States to target Afghanistan.