“The most terrifying words in the English language are ‘we’re from the government and we’re here to help.’” Ronald Reagan
In his second inaugural address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt described the all-powerful federal government he was trying to build as “an instrument of unimagined power for the establishment of a morally better world.” During his first term, he boasted, he had “made the exercise of all power more democratic; for we have begun to bring private autocratic powers into their proper subordination to the public’s government.”
FDR was articulating one of the central beliefs of the political Left: that only good can come of making the government more powerful, and that only a more powerful government can do anything good. Individuals and businesses in the private sector, according to this view, play no constructive role in society.
President Roosevelt’s view of government as the font of all good things is pretty widely shared on college campuses, where professors vote overwhelmingly for candidates of the Left. Professor Eric Foner, to cite one prominent example, writes in his freshman history textbook that Roosevelt’s policies “recast the idea of freedom by linking it to the expanding power of the national state.”1 He describes, approvingly, how FDR’s advisers told the President that “the competitive marketplace…was a thing of the past and large firms needed to be managed and directed by the government.”2
Conservatives and Liberals on Government
The conservative view is very different, and is best summed up in the words of Henry David Thoreau: “That government is best which governs least.”
Conservatives distrust governments because governments are composed of people. No human being is absolutely altruistic. All of us have selfish interests, and government employees are no different. As history clearly shows, politicians and bureaucrats frequently exercise their power in ways that benefit the politician or bureaucrat more than they benefit the nation as a whole.
FDR’s Moral Compass
Even President Roosevelt himself was not immune to human ordinary shortcomings. He may have seen himself as the architect of a “morally better world,” but his egotism and vanity often made it difficult for him to act like the selfless public servant he pretended to be. When FDR talked about “an instrument of unimagined power,” he had only one person in mind to be the wielder of that power.
Many of the New Deal mandates Roosevelt imposed on business and the taxpayers where based on little more than the President’s personal caprice. He once told his group of economic advisers, for example, that he was going to manipulate the price of gold, increasing it by twenty-one cents per ounce, because “It’s a lucky number. It’s three times seven.”3 His advisers were horrified.
The ugly side of Roosevelt’s egotism really came to the fore when he continued to cling to power in 1944 and ’45, when he was clearly too sick to do his job. He was at death’s door when he ran for re-election in 1944, and had to deceive the public about his condition in order to win the election. Then, to make matters worse, he went out of his way to keep his successor ignorant of everything a new President would need to know.
Roosevelt had always concealed his many health problems from the American people, and during his third term in office, from 1941 through 1944, his health declined sharply. In 1943 his Teheran conference with wartime allies Churchill and Stalin was interrupted for a day when Roosevelt collapsed in the middle of a meal. In 1944 he suffered a similar collapse in California, and then an angina attack on a naval ship. Still he refused to give up the reins of power. “Nothing,” said reporter John Gunther, “was going to budge him from the driver’s seat except death.”4
When death finally did remove FDR from the driver’s seat, Vice President Harry Truman was totally unprepared to take over the White House, because the megalomaniacal Roosevelt had deliberately kept him in the dark about every issue of national importance. In the middle of a world war, Truman had no idea that America had been working on developing an atomic bomb (although Communist Party members in Roosevelt’s government had made sure that Soviet Dictator Josef Stalin knew about it).
Truman had no involvement with the crucial Teheran and Yalta conferences with Churchill and Stalin, and the obsessive Roosevelt did not even brief him on what was discussed.5
President Roosevelt clearly cared more about gratifying his own ego than he did about the good of the United States. In this he was far from unique. Politicians and bureaucrats have been putting their own agendas ahead of the public good for as long as there have governments.
To the Shores of Tripoli: Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory
Self-centered behavior by public officials certainly didn’t start with FDR. Another good example of less-than-altruistic bureaucratic behavior comes from the early years of our nation’s history, when the Bashaw of Tripoli was waging a war of sorts against the United States. Pirates under the Bashaw’s command had been looting the ships of any nation that didn’t pay bribes to the Bashaw, and had managed to take some American hostages.
In 1805 a diplomat named Tobias Lear contacted the government in Tripoli in an attempt to negotiate a peace treaty and pay a ransom for the release of the hostages. At the same time, a general named William Eaton had made plans to release them by force. Eaton led a group of American Marines and foreign mercenaries in an attempt to overthrow the Bashaw and replace him with Hamet Karamanli, a previous ruler of Tripoli.
(Eaton and his marines were so successful in the field that they have been immortalized in the opening phrase of the Marine Corp Hymn: “From the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli.”)
Tobias Lear’s agenda was to enhance his resume by negotiating the hostages’ release. In Lear’s view, Eaton and his marines threatened to ruin everything by winning the war and releasing the hostages without his help. As biographer Richard Zachs put it, “Though neither man would express it so baldly, their efforts amounted to a race for results. Would Lear negotiate peace before Eaton could place Hamet on the throne?”
At one point Lear even tried to persuade the navy not to provide Eaton with needed supplies.6
In the end, Lear resorted to making humiliating concessions to the pirates in order to get a peace treaty signed before Eaton could win the war.7 Eaton was ordered to return home.
If Tobias Lear had cared more about his country than his career, he would have allowed American forces to win the war and solve the Mediterranean piracy problem for good. Lear looked out for his own interests first; a human trait that was just as common then as it is today.
Hiding Spies, and Legislating for Dollars
During the Cold War, Soviet agents in the various departments of the federal government frequently benefitted from the tendency of their bosses to sweep embarrassing problems under the rug. In case after case, when the FBI or some other investigative agency turned up evidence of treason on the part of a government bureaucrat, the spy’s bosses would work to conceal or contest the evidence, in order to avoid the embarrassment of having to fire a subordinate. Better to have a subordinate who continues to spy for the Russians than to suffer the awkwardness of admitting that your subordinate is a spy.
M. Stanton Evans documents many such cases in his excellent book Blacklisted by History.
Modern day government officials are no more altruistic than their predecessors from previous centuries. Given a choice between what’s best for the public and what’s best for himself, the average politician will still do what’s best for himself.
The federal corporate income tax, for example, is little more than a cash machine for incumbent members of Congress.
There was a public scandal of sorts in March of this year when the New York Times reported that General Electric did not pay any corporate income taxes in 2010, but in truth no large corporation pays anywhere near the nominal corporate tax rate of thirty-five percent. GE may have played the game a little better than most companies, but all big companies have to play the game; they have no choice.
The government threatens corporations with a devastating thirty-five percent tax on their earnings, but corporate executives know they can “qualify for” various exemptions and credits if they just gain the sympathy of powerful congressmen by making campaign contributions.
Since the election of President Obama in 2008, the federal government has been increasing its reach and power at a rate not seen since the Roosevelt years. Whole industries are being put into “their proper subordination to the public’s government,” as FDR once put it.
As the government positions itself to take over the entire health care industry Americans should take the time to ask themselves whether they want to depend, for their very lives, on the tender mercies of bureaucrats and politicians.
1Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty (Volume II, 2006 edition), p. 717
2ibid., p. 701
3Amity Shlaes, The Forgotten Man Harper Perennial 2007, p. 147
4Jon Meacham, Franklin and Winston, Random House 2003, p. 289
5Paul Kengor, Dupes ISI Books 2010, pp. 178, 179.
6Richard Zachs, Pirate Coast, Hyperion 2005, p. 210
7ibid., pp. 302, 303