Friday, September 28, 2012

“In Government, We Do Not Trust”

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“In Government, We Do Not Trust”
September 28, 2012

Polarization has characterized the electorate for some time. President George W. Bush alienated Democrats, while President Obama has done an equally good job of turning off Republicans. But what both men have done, with considerable help from Congress and other officials in Washington (elected and appointed,) is to raise the level of distrust of all those in government. In a Pew Research survey conducted a year ago, just 19% of respondents said that government can be trusted “always or most of the time” – a record low. Over the past fifty years, that number has typically hovered between 25% and 45%. In the 1950s and early 1960s, those trusting government was closer to 75%. A sense that our leaders in Washington were lying to us during the Vietnam War began the decline. It stabilized in the 1980s and 1990s, but has accelerated over the past ten years.

On Monday, David Brooks had one of his regularly informative columns in the New York Times, this one entitled “The Conservative Mind.” In it he discussed two different mentalities of the conservative movement – economic conservatism and traditional conservatism. He writes that the former is alive and well, while the latter has “gone into eclipse.” President Reagan, Mr. Brooks states, embodied both aspects, but no one has since. He writes: “Economic conservatives have the money and the institutions. They have taken control.” He claims that there are few on the conservative side who would be willing to raise taxes on the affluent to help the needy.

It could be that traditional conservatism is hibernating, but it may be that it is only struggling to stay alive. Mr. Brooks uses Russell Kirk’s “Ten Conservative Principles” to point out that traditional conservatives did not see society as a battleground between the private sector and government. He writes that conservatives believed that people should lead disciplined, orderly lives, but doubted that individuals had the ability to do this alone. He suggested that today’s Republicans simply repeat formulas; for example, ‘government support equals dependency.’ He suggested that Republicans have very little to say to Hispanic voters “who often come from cultures that place high values on communal solidarity.” I am not sure whether Senator Marco Rubio and Governor Susana Martinez, both of whom spoke at the Republican Convention, would agree.

The problem, I suspect, is different. It is not so much that Republicans have lost their balance, as it is that government has betrayed the principles of our founders. Relativism has replaced a sense of moral certitude and, politically, decentralization has given way to centralization. The first of Russell Kirk’s principles reads that “conservatives believe there exists an enduring moral order…[that] human nature is a constant and moral truths are permanent.” In today’s world, those words seem dated. Obscenity, for example, is treated with tolerance and humor when it is used by the Left and directed at conservatives. On the other hand, can you imagine the outrage of Democrats if actor Samuel L. Jackson had made a video taking aim at Mt. Obama comparable to the foul one he produced targeting Mr. Romney?

Russell Kirk believed in the importance of community, but he opposed what he termed “involuntary collectivism.” “In a genuine community,” Mr. Kirk wrote, “the decisions most directly affecting the lives of citizens are made locally and voluntarily…But when these functions pass by default or usurpation to centralized authority, then community is in serious danger.” Kirk warned against utopian promises of egalitarianism; he called for restraints on power, and wrote: “The conservative does not put his trust in mere benevolence.” He did, though, believe in the concept of progression, but through prudent reform.

It is not, in my opinion, that Republicans have abandoned their traditional conservative roots; it is Washington, in its power-grab across many Administrations, that has let down the people. It was the perfidy of government which was largely behind the formation of the Tea Party and, to a lesser extent, Occupy Wall Street.

A year ago, a New York Times/CBS News poll found that 89% of Americans distrust government to do the right thing and that 84% disapprove of Congress. In the article, reporters Jeff Zeleny and Megan Thee-Brenan wrote: “A remarkable sense of pessimism and skepticism was apparent in question after question in the survey…”

Judicial Watch, an allegedly non-partisan organization but one with conservative roots, puts together a list each year of the ten most corrupt individuals in Washington. They stress the need for transparency, integrity and accountability on the part of government. In the past, they have sued both the Clinton and Bush Administrations for alleged violations. A second group, CREW (Citizens for responsibility and Ethics in Washington), a more left-leaning group, also compiles a list of ten each year that they have determined to be most corrupt. For 2011 three House members had the dubious distinction of making both lists: Laura Richardson (D-CA), David Rivera (R-FL) and Don Young (R-AK). Maxine Waters (D-CA) would have made both lists, but because of the chaos surrounding her investigation, CREW opted not to include her this year. (The House Ethics Committee has since cleared her of steering TARP funds to the bank in which her husband is a major shareholder. But her exoneration confirms rather than denies a persistent sense of crony capitalism that exists between government and the financial world. She was a key member of the House Financial Services Committee and her husband’s bank did receive their requested funds.)

Anecdotal evidence of corruption is everywhere. When Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius made a speech at an official function in North Carolina last February, in which she explicitly campaigned for the Lieutenant Governor and the President, there was little question that she had violated the Hatch Act. Punishment for such infringements is typically termination. In her case, her remarks were attributed by the President to “an inadvertent error.” Similarly, Attorney General Eric Holder has been exonerated from any responsibility in the Fast and Furious case, despite being held in contempt by Congress and regardless of memos suggesting he knew more about the F & F case than he alleged.

You cannot fool all the people all the time, said Abraham Lincoln. However, the Administration continues to try, as they did regarding the attacks in Benghazi. For days following the attack that killed four Americans, the Administration insisted that the fault lay with a video. Yesterday, we learned that in fact the Administration knew within 24 hours of the event that Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists were involved. Yet, they persisted in their story. Outright liars like Elizabeth Warren, who claims to be Cherokee, have become common and are too often given a pass by a media more interested in pursuing their own agenda than in determining the truth. It is little wonder that the electorate has grown cynical and distrust more prevalent.

Increasingly, the people have become isolated from their leaders, leaders who are arrogant, supercilious, and who reflect a sense of entitlement. Voters appear to be necessary nuisances to be tolerated and infantilized. The proliferation of “czars” in Washington is symptomatic of this change. They are unaccountable to voters and inaccessible to most Americans. All Presidents have appointed policy advisors, now termed “czars.” President Bush appointed 32 during his two terms. According to Judicial Watch, President Obama had named 45 as of a year ago. These appointments do not have to be confirmed by the Senate, as do Cabinet Members; they are responsible only to the President. Similarly, safe seats in Congress abound. About 75% of the 435 House seats have remained in the same Party for the past ten years. While the average term in the House and Senate did modestly decline at the start of the 112th Congress versus the 111th, term limits would ameliorate the tendency toward cronyism that seems endemic to those serving in Washington.

Newly-elected reformers seemingly become enticed too easily by the power and opportunities that Washington offers, and too quickly lose their connection to the electorate. I suspect that it has much to do with lobbyists tossing money around like confetti at a wedding. When Mr. Obama went to Washington, he promised to heave lobbyists overboard. Instead, and unlike Jesus’ success with the money lenders, they have found the White House open for business as usual. At a time of relativism and general moral decline, it is perhaps too much to ask that a penurious public servant be immune to the siren call from K Street. Nevertheless, we expect our elected representatives to serve the public interest, not their own. Unfortunately, most don’t.

It is unfair and untrue to write, as David Brooks implies, that today’s conservatives lack compassion. For one thing, their level of giving, even when one excludes donations to religious organizations, exceeds that of their compatriots on the left. Additionally, the top 10% of all income earners now pay 70% of all federal taxes. Their concern is not a lack of interest in the needy; it is that they see their money going to Washington to satiate inflated bureaucracies that function with little restraint, and that rules and regulations are increasingly being imposed which serve to limit their ability to feed the beast that is government. It is the misuse of our money that concerns all of us.

Russell Kirk’s fifth principle is that conservatives recognize that variety is natural to the human condition. By that he meant that the only true form of equality in society is “equality at the Last Judgment and equality before a just court of law.” Attempts to impose an egalitarian society are an anathema. “Economic leveling,” he wrote, “is not economic progress.” In fact it is instead, as Friedrich Hayek noted, “A Road to Serfdom.”

Somehow, sometime, government is going to have to re-earn the trust of the people. I am not sure how or by whom, but I feel confident it can be done. But blaming conservatives for a problem brought on by proponents of big government does not help. As a society we must keep the promise a community offers, but we cannot do so while subverting the principles of individual freedom. Success in government welfare programs, such as food stamps or unemployment insurance, should be measured not by how many people we add to the programs, but by how many we are able to successfully remove. Conservatives want and need government, not only to help care for those incapable of doing so themselves, but also for defense, protection, teachers, roads, bridges and myriad projects that are better performed by a community than an individual. Federal government spending, however as a percent of GDP, has surged in the last four years from 20% to 24%. As government consumes an increasing share of the economy, the effect will be to retard economic growth. If we want living standards for everyone to continue to rise, as they did in the 1980s and ‘90s, we must provide the private sector more latitude and remove the omniscience of government.

Government has become its own worst enemy, accumulating power and creating bureaucracies whose sole purposes are to expand. It needs honest and caring guardians, not supercilious elites who know better than us as to what is in our best interests. It is little wonder that it is government that we do not trust.

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