The Executive Empire
The great sociologist Robert Nisbet once wrote that if Americas Founding Fathers could come back, the feature of todays America that would most astound and appall them would be the vast scale of its military system and the penetration of militaristic assumptions into American life.
As always, Nisbet had a point, but I would put it just a bit more expansively: the salient feature of American government today is the enormous expansion of the executive branch, of which the military is only a fraction. Though we commonly speak of our form of government as democracy, it is really bureaucracy unelected officials. The bigger the government gets, the greater the ratio of unelected to elected rulers.
To put it as simply as possible, if somebody from the government pays you a call today (not a highly improbable event), it wont be someone you voted for. And if he treats you with contempt, see how much good your vote does you. The vast majority of those who rule us who wield direct power over us are hardly affected by elections and have no reason at all to fear voters.
Yet, in defiance of common sense, everyone talks as if this were a democracy. Again, our Founding Fathers would be amazed not only by the metamorphosis of their constitutional republic into this gigantic bureaucracy, but by our blindness to the change. Little changes may make headlines; the really big ones pass unnoticed.
Its almost enough to make Darwinism plausible. If the modest republic of Washington and Jefferson could evolve into this Hydra, why cant an amoeba evolve into an elephant?
Our language has evolved too. Fewer and fewer of us can speak plain English. The other day at the local McDonalds, I met one who still speaks it. He was a young black working man who doesnt seem to have spent too much time in classrooms, and his sanity is unimpaired. He pays taxes, and he remarked that taxation is extortion. Pay, or else.
I laughed. Id have been wasting my time trying to explain to that kid that extortion is now a service, just as war is now defense and bureaucracy is democracy. Of course he had a big advantage over me: he hadnt had so much education to unlearn. He is still free to utter thoughts no politician (public servant) can afford to entertain.
Politics breeds evasion, abstraction, and euphemism. A politician is someone who can discuss abortion for hours without using the word kill.
Ah, the gift of remembering the simple things! The great Anglican bishop Richard Whately once wrote, He who is unaware of his ignorance will be only misled by his knowledge. That is a priceless observation, worth several encyclopedias indeed, its a reminder of how little encyclopedias are really worth if misused.
Think of a movie based on historical events, like the recent United 93. Its a plausible, painstaking attempt to recreate one of the 9/11 hijackings. Though as accurate a guess as I can imagine, its still only a guess. If we could miraculously get an eyewitness account from one of the passengers, it might be very different from the film. All our history is like that; even the best of it is more or less misleading. Though we have to try to recreate and imagine the past its almost a duty we can never fully succeed.
The Iraq war illustrates Whatelys point. The government amasses fantastic amounts of information, most of it withheld from us but available to the president, who is then said to know more than we do. This has turned out to be a very weak reason for trusting his judgment. And yet the mantra of this administration has been no doubt. As when there was no doubt about Saddam Husseins weapons of mass destruction and the threat he posed. Today the administration is embarrassed to be reminded of the very things it once insisted there was no doubt about!
Donald Rumsfeld once made a valuable distinction, worthy of Whately himself, between the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns. But then he seemed to forget his own words, and the unknown unknowns he failed to consider may prove his undoing.
Thats the trouble. Our Executive Empire is run by clever, Ivy League-educated men who have never absorbed Whatelys Law.
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