Too often now when people voice fear of the American government, whether it is homeland security or health-care reform, one is accused of being irrational or paranoid. It is that familiar "It can't happen here" syndrome at work. But there are good reasons not to dismiss such concerns under current circumstances.
When society is considered a collective — akin to a team, only not voluntarily established like most sport teams — those who see themselves as its leaders and charged with selecting goals everyone must pursue can quite easily slip into a mode of thinking that construes all opposition a form of betrayal. If, for example, the federal government is understood along these lines, setting goals for us all for which resources and hard work are needed, and dissent from which may threaten the ability to collect those resources and secure such work, the dissenters will naturally be perceived as traitors to the cause. Indeed, their obstreperousness will easily be perceived as dangerous obstruction of justice! After all, those who lead us toward a goal they consider vital to the public interest do understand themselves to be promoters, champions of social justice. How else are they to understand wealth redistribution, for example?
In all the literature I have run across in my now quite long career in the field of political philosophy, insisting on the idea that the rich must not be allowed to keep their wealth, the poor must be made to share in the wealth of the nation, the indigent are legally entitled to support obtained by taking from those who have it — all these views are defended mainly as varieties of social or economic justice. And is it not even a crime today to obstruct justice? Sure, that means obstructing law, but it is called obstruction of justice, is it not? Because if the law itself is deemed as just, then those who oppose it are in cahoots with criminals who obstruct it. And by the lights of the collectivists, laws promoting their idea of the public interest are indeed just.
How can a bona fide promoter of social justice tolerate serious, persistent dissent? It is not possible unless one is firmly committed to the idea of individual rights, the right, for example, to campaign against and even withdraw from various projects government officials consider vital to the public interest. And when a country's government is administered by officials who do not believe in individual rights, as for instance President Obama is not — judging by his close association with and reliance on the advice of legal theorists who denigrate such rights as fictitious — the concern that dissent will land one in hot water with government officials is quite rational.
OK, for a while there is the protection afforded by the First Amendment to the Constitution but with sufficient savvy the defenders of the public interest as they see it could very well see full warrant for weakening such protection. This is one of the lessons of Franklin D. Roosevelt's efforts to pack the Supreme Court when that court would not go along with his plans for the country, plans that involved breaching the principles of the Constitution. Roosevelt did not believe in the Bill of Rights as traditionally understood in America's legal history but crafted, instead, a Second Bill of Rights. It wasn't only that some of the older interpretations of the Bill of Rights needed to be straightened out but that the very idea of citizens having basic, unalienable rights stood in the way of his aggressive statism.
Today, the legal team of President Obama is of the same mind as FDR was when he launched the New Deal. What is needed, they argue, is the reaffirmation of FDR's Second Bill of Rights, with its emphasis on entitlements and the coerced services needed from everyone so as to deliver on these. So when one opposes this policy, one is clearly an obstructionist. One is breaking ranks from an army that needs all the soldiers to be dedicated and loyal. Patriotism is then defined as falling in line with the government's plans.
Why is it such a surprise, then, that the Obama administration is attacking those American citizens who voice opposition to, for example, its plan for the virtual nationalization of the health-care profession in America? Why be surprised that opponents of bailouts and stimulus programs are denigrated and marginalized instead of argued with? Such people are seen as vicious opponents of social and economic justice, and such opposition is quite intolerable to anyone who cares for such justice, is it not?
Once the bulwark against this kind of tyranny — namely the basic rights of individuals and the legal system that rests on those rights — is rejected as ultimately mythical, what will stand in the way of treating dissenters as traitors?
The fear of the American government becoming more and more tyrannical is not irrational but completely justified by the logic of the current administration's attitude about political and legal theory. What we are seen as, all of us, is tools and resources for carrying out the government's plans. Anyone who disagrees may well need to be neutralized.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Tibor Machan holds the R.C. Hoiles Chair in Business Ethics & Free Enterprise at Chapman University and is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution (Stanford). He advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. Most recently, he is author of "The Promise of Liberty." E-mail him at TMachan@link.freedom.com.