Buzz Lightyear for President!
January 27, 2004
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 didnt 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
JFKs 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!
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 Hitlers Germany. But I can well believe it. Todays
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
hadnt even gotten around to the fine details that obsess
todays democracies, which protect us from evils
whose existence our ancestors didnt 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, its 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 didnt
really change or want to change the way people actually
lived. Their impact was superficial. However shocking their own conduct,
their subjects werent particularly less free than theyd
In the same way, Bill
Clintons grossly indecorous behavior hasnt made Americans
less free; nor has George W. Bushs 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 States power must keep expanding.
Today, when a conservative Republican president assumes
that same premise, who can doubt that Hayek was right?