January 27, 2004

by Joe Sobran

     In 1960, when I was 14, I was nuts about JFK. The 
first one, John F. Kennedy, not the current one, John F. 
Kerry. I got about thirty JFK buttons from the local 
Democratic headquarters, pinned them all to my shirt, and 
wore them to school.

     Mr. Elliott, my former math teacher, who had a 
wonderfully dry sense of humor, took one look at me and 
said, "Why, Joe! Have you thrown subtlety to the winds?" 
I loved that man. His deadpan ribbing always made me feel 
like an adult, which is a nice way to help a boy grow up.

     Of course throwing subtlety to the winds is what 
politics is all about. In 1960 I didn't realize that JFK 
was establishing a lasting style of campaigning for the 
presidency: offering "idealism" and "leadership," meaning 
proposing extravagant missions for government. JFK 
promised a "New Frontier," which took form (sort of) in 
the "space race" that culminated in putting a man on the 
moon before the Russians did.

     JFK's successor, Lyndon Johnson, promised a "Great 
Society," meaning a lot of new Federal programs. And even 
today, presidential candidates are expected to make 
enormous promises, entailing huge Federal spending. 
President Bush is talking about sending men (and women) 
to Mars, among other things. *Many* other things. And he 
is said to be a conservative!

     Utopian reflexes have become part of the job 
description of the American presidency. We take them for 
granted. The idea that the president is merely an 
"executive," that is, executing the laws passed by 
Congress, seems pathetic and pusillanimous. Today the 
president is supposed to think big, like Buzz Lightyear: 
"To infinity -- and beyond!"

     Not so long ago, the writer Henry Allen has 
observed, politics was a rather narrow specialty: fat 
guys in three-piece suits cutting deals in those famous 
smoke-filled rooms. Politics pretty much left you alone. 
Now it encompasses absolutely everything: the food you 
eat, the air you breathe, the clothes you wear. Nothing 
is off-limits. Politics is life! Human destiny itself is 
being decided in New Hampshire!

     The historian John Lukacs once caused controversy by 
writing that life was fairly free, except for Jews, in 
Hitler's Germany. But I can well believe it. Today's 
democracies make the old totalitarian regimes seem rather 
quaint by comparison. I suspect that you could light a 
cigarette in a restaurant in Berlin in 1936 without even 
thinking about it. The tyrants of that era hadn't even 
gotten around to the fine details that obsess today's 
democracies, which "protect" us from evils whose 
existence our ancestors didn't even recognize -- 
"homophobia," for example.

     We have been living amidst one of the great 
revolutions of human history, and we hardly know it: the 
penetration of the State into every aspect of human life 
and society. Some people regard this as good and 
"progressive," others regard it as tyrannical; but either 
way, it's a fact, a transformation as great as, say, the 
Industrial Revolution. Absolutely nothing is now beyond 
the scope of State power.

     You might think people would at least notice. But so 
far this age has received no tag, unlike the Stone Age, 
Feudalism, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the 
Enlightenment, and other eras of profound change that 
left nothing as it was before.

     Rulers like Nero and Caligula have achieved 
notoriety for their personal cruelty, but they didn't 
really change -- or want to change -- the way people 
actually lived. Their impact was superficial. However 
shocking their own conduct, their subjects weren't 
particularly less free than they'd always been.

     In the same way, Bill Clinton's grossly indecorous 
behavior hasn't made Americans less free; nor has 
George W. Bush's apparently more proper conduct made us 
more free. The great transformation continues under both 
parties. No presidential candidate proposes to reverse 
it, because none is even aware of it. The only question 
is how to carry it on.

     In the 1940s, Friedrich Hayek intuited the great 
change, which he called "the road to serfdom." He was 
attacked for suggesting that the Nazi, Fascist, 
Socialist, Communist, and Democratic regimes were all in 
agreement on the basic premise that the State's power 
must keep expanding. Today, when a "conservative" 
Republican president assumes that same premise, who can 
doubt that Hayek was right?


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