David R. Henderson  

Peggy's Praise of Power

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One of the columns in the Wall Street Journal I read almost every week is Peggy Noonan's weekend column, "Declarations." A former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, Ms. Noonan has a way with words. The content can range from the incredibly perceptive to the maudlin to the worship of power. Count her latest in this last category. The giveaway is the title, "Suspend Your Disbelief."

She starts:

Flying in [to Washington], we take the route over the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson, the Tidal Basin: the signs and symbols of the great republic. And you've seen it all a thousand times but you can't stop looking, and you can't help it, your eyes well. After a minute you realize you must have a moony look on your face, and you lean back.

OK, she's excited about these signs and symbols. That's understandable. But what does this "great republic" stand for? I think many people would say "freedom." Even if that's not true, it's comforting. But read on and see the enormity that she seems to delight in:

A cabdriver crows that he'll have an easy time getting around next week: "No traffic allowed into town but cabs and limos!" The USAir agents at Reagan National say they'll be sleeping over in the airport--in cots, right over there where the shuttle security lines are--on Monday and Tuesday nights. Roads in and out of the city will be closed.

In other words, people will be forcibly prevented from using the roads. Does this sound like a free country or like two days of Maoist China with some 21st-century technology thrown in?

She continues:

Barack Obama isn't president yet, but already is he is omnipresent. At the Hay-Adams Hotel, security tents block off the street. Motorcades come and go. He dines at a private home in a neighborhood where you can't see the numbers of the houses from the street, but it's clear where the gathering is from the sharpshooters on the roof.
Of course; why didn't I think of it? That's how you'd know where to find the president of a free country. Look for the sharpshooters.

Ms. Noonan later writes:

What is required for full enjoyment of an inauguration, from opening prayers to speeches to marching bands is, in the great 19th-century phrase, the willing suspension of disbelief.

Which raises the question: Ms. Noonan, what exactly would you disbelieve if you let yourself disbelieve?

We're talking about the head of one of the most powerful governments in the world. The main tool government uses is force. It uses this force mainly against innocent people, at home and abroad. That's not just what I believe. That's what I know. Thanks, Ms. Noonan, but no thanks. I'm not willing to suspend that knowledge for anyone.


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COMMENTS (27 to date)
Bob Murphy writes:

Of course; why didn't I think of it? That's how you'd know where to find the president of a free country. Look for the sharpshooters.

Heh great line! That clinches it: Bryan and Arnold are now vying for the #2 spot in my ranking of EconLib bloggers.

megapolisomancy writes:

"We're talking about the head of one of the most powerful governments in the world. The main tool government uses is force. It uses this force mainly against innocent people, at home and abroad. That's not just what I believe. That's what I know."

Damn right! No worshiping of power on this blog.

RJ writes:

I don't understand this post at all... Are we supposed to be upset that there are extraordinary measures of security being made to protect the President from any sort of attack? Are we supposed to be upset that the biggest target in the world has sharpshooters around him at all times? That normal daily affair is shut down when the President is nearby?

Tell me David, do you object to Marathons interfering with the daily lives of citizens? How bout the Freedom marches of MLK? Is the million man march an unquestionable disruption of the "freedom" of people to carry out their daily lives?

Is it only a problem when the government disrupts daily life?

I think it is completely understandable that we go to extraordinary measures to protect the single most important man in the United States. A man whose life is a target for many, who wields enormous power, and who our nation cherishes. The inauguration is an admittedly extravagant celebration of the change of power from one president to another. But there are millions of Americans who will watch it and attend it because they love their country and what it aspires to be, not what it is. Rorty knew this and I know it too.

You're right though David. We shouldn't suspend our knowledge of what we have done, and where we are as a nation. But the inauguration is about change and a better vision for our future as a nation. You may not like the vision, but millions of us do. We're tired of a government more focused on politics than governing, that believes in a unilateral American world power, that works expressly for the interests of the few, that sacrificed American soldiers for reasons that have changed every single time it is politically convenient. We're tired of executive power abuses, of a politicized justice department and system, and of invasive social policies.

I wrote a lot more than I expected, but I honestly never expected to see an expressly unpatriotic post on this site. We are a flawed country that has made massive mistakes. But no good will come of abandoning our government.

Sorry if I over reacted.

dearieme writes:

The worship of centralised power seems to me to be particularly prevalent among historians.

Jacob Oost writes:

"I don't understand this post at all... Are we supposed to be upset that there are extraordinary measures of security being made to protect the President from any sort of attack? Are we supposed to be upset that the biggest target in the world has sharpshooters around him at all times? That normal daily affair is shut down when the President is nearby?"

Well why stop with the sharpshooters on the roof? Why not block off the entire city? Why not ban the Republican party, just in case? Why not evaporate anybody who comes without a ten-mile radius of the President with giant space lasers just to be safe? When does it become too much?

Think about this: all of that force is meant to stop Americans. The government can only exercise its powers (powers to collect taxes, build infrastructure, maintain law and order, etc.) through the use of the force. I think it is ABSURD that the freedom to come into town is limited to the special interests, and not to all citizens. What makes you think this will stop there?

"Tell me David, do you object to Marathons interfering with the daily lives of citizens? How bout the Freedom marches of MLK? Is the million man march an unquestionable disruption of the "freedom" of people to carry out their daily lives?"

Yes, marathons DO interfere with the daily lives of citizens. Same goes for "arts fairs" and the like that block off streets. It benefits the special interests (those interested in participating) at the expense of the general interest (the much larger percentage of the population that has no interest). As for MLK, did he block traffic? Or did he and his followers simply use public areas?

"Is it only a problem when the government disrupts daily life?"

If you were at all familiar with economic theory you would know that virtually all economists, including Mr. Henderson I'm sure, back policy that corrects for external costs created by private citizens. In a sense, all law enforcement is about that. I don't see Henderson complaining about a private citizen barring all non-cab and non-limo traffic from entering a city, because such a person would be arrested for infringing on the rights of others.

"I think it is completely understandable that we go to extraordinary measures to protect the single most important man in the United States. A man whose life is a target for many, who wields enormous power, and who our nation cherishes. The inauguration is an admittedly extravagant celebration of the change of power from one president to another. But there are millions of Americans who will watch it and attend it because they love their country and what it aspires to be, not what it is. Rorty knew this and I know it too."

What's wrong with simply taking the oath? Why shut down a city for a day? If you love this country, don't you love freedom?

"You're right though David. We shouldn't suspend our knowledge of what we have done, and where we are as a nation. But the inauguration is about change and a better vision for our future as a nation. You may not like the vision, but millions of us do. We're tired of a government more focused on politics than governing, that believes in a unilateral American world power, that works expressly for the interests of the few, that sacrificed American soldiers for reasons that have changed every single time it is politically convenient. We're tired of executive power abuses, of a politicized justice department and system, and of invasive social policies."

This is all irrelevant to what Mr. Henderson was saying. But I'll respond anyway. What does it mean to be more focused on politics than on governing? I assume it means officials more preoccupied with gaming the system and keeping their careers than with making decisions and passing policy that benefits the country? Why in the world should Obama be any different from any other politician? This is a man who tries to shut down tv stations that air campaign ads he doesn't like. SHUT DOWN TV STATIONS FOR AIRING CAMPAIGN ADS HE DOESN'T LIKE. Is this America, or Venezuela? He comes from the Chicago political machine, a famously corrupt enterprise. What makes him the only virgin in the whorehouse?

What does it mean to work in the interests of the few? I think passing handouts disguised as tax cuts to only a select group of people but not to another is working in the interests of the special few. Protecting the rights of everybody except for unborn babies is working in the interests of the special few. Giving taxpayer money to some struggling businesses that are politically well-connected but not to others is working in the interests of the special few. Obama, and for that matter left-wing politics in general, is a grab bag of special interest spending.

I could go on, but I want you to concentrate good and hard on all you said over the next four years and see what happens. Go beyond what political pundits have to say, think beyond party lines, and judge what Obama does by the results it actually produces. Judge all politicians that way. That's what I do. That's why I hate pretty much all politicians.

"I wrote a lot more than I expected, but I honestly never expected to see an expressly unpatriotic post on this site. We are a flawed country that has made massive mistakes. But no good will come of abandoning our government."

So refusing to go along with the third-world-dictatorlike security forces Obama surrounds himself with is unpatriotic? It's abandoning the government to say that maybe we shouldn't bring a city to a halt for a day (minimum)? You know, there was a time when Presidents didn't even have body guards. You know why? Because they didn't have enough power to be worth protecting so enormously. If it *is* necessary to go to such extraordinary lengths to protect the President, then that is a sign that the office, and by extension the entire Federal government, needs to go back to its far more limited, CONSTITUTIONALLY-DELEGATED role.

JB writes:

To RJ - think about what you just said, "You may not like the vision, but millions of us do. We're tired of a government more focused on politics than governing, that believes in a unilateral American world power, that works expressly for the interests of the few, that sacrificed American soldiers for reasons that have changed every single time it is politically convenient. We're tired of executive power abuses, of a politicized justice department and system, and of invasive social policies."

So RJ - if Obama has voted FOR renewal of the Patriot Act II in 2006, voted FOR the FISA Spy Bill and expansion of power of the Executive branch (for GW Bush's term), voted FOR the $700B+ bailout of the corrupt banking system, has promised to increase the number of troops involved in resource wars around the world and has promised an unprecedented amount of new government spending at taxpayer (read: citizen) expense and has put in charge of the US economy some of the very people who helped orchestrate this financial crisis to begin with (Rubin disciples: Summers, Geithner, etc.), aren't all of these things in complete contradiction of this "vision" you seem to believe in? Will "fact" ever replace "belief"?

For brevity sake, A Letter to the Obama Campaign will explain my "vision" of what Obama & government force is about to bring to our nation. This was written in August '08.

"Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master."
-George Washington

David R. Henderson writes:

Reply to Jacob Oost and RJ,

First, thanks to Jacob for defending me and what I was saying.

Second, to RJ, I appreciate your passion and your apology at the end. I'm not sure if you overreacted or not. I do want to make sure you understand what I'm saying. I'll quote one of your grafs. You wrote:

Are we supposed to be upset that there are extraordinary measures of security being made to protect the President from any sort of attack? Are we supposed to be upset that the biggest target in the world has sharpshooters around him at all times? That normal daily affair is shut down when the President is nearby?

My answer is that it's not that you should be upset that he has sharpshooters. It's that you should be upset, and we all should, that he needs sharpshooters. Why is that? Because the president has enormous power. He could push a button and destroy the world, as JFK came perilously close to doing. And especially Peggy Noonan should have been upset. This country has come so far from what it was supposed to stand for. That's my point. And we have the choice to take it back. Unfortunately, no politician in D.C., other than Ron Paul, is talking about doing that.

Like you, I think that at least on foreign policy, Obama will be an improvement on Mr. "humbler foreign policy" Bush. Well, that is, except for Obama's determination to escalate the war in Afghanistan. I also think Obama's best appointment so far is Dawn Johnsen to OLC. So there are some things to celebrate.

But as I said to two U.S. military officers who were students working on a thesis under me at the Naval Postgraduate School, in the first meeting we had after 9/11, after one of them had said we just need to have faith in our government, "One of the worst things you could do right now is have faith in your government."

simone writes:

A comment of the following point ...

"The worship of centralised power seems to me to be particularly prevalent among historians."

This is likely due to the fact that story telling is greatly enhanced by understanding the simple causes that must be explained.


By the way, this is also the reason why many academics are attracted to centralized power. Please note all simple minded people like to have a simple villian and hero. Please note Superman, Batman, etc comic books

scott clark writes:

Rj, the problem comes in when the pres needs his praetorian guards to lock down all the places he is and all the places he is going to be. Praetorian guards protect the pres from tyrannicide. When the country was still a commercial republic, and the pres was just chief executive of the federal gov, he walked around DC, did his own banking in person, did regular things like anyone else. They weren't in danger from other citizens. But as the office became more powerful, as the office could use its influence to change the daily lives of the country at large, the personal security of the pres came under increasing threat. A smaller, self-contained government, with its Army at home, its laws limited and just, would be less of a threat and would be less threatened. So the sharpshooters, the armored convoys, and the rest are a bad sign.

Randy writes:

RJ,

"But no good will come of abandoning our government."

I reckon that depends on who you mean by "our".

The last few years have been instructive for nearly everyone, but the lesson for me was that this is not a nation. I came to understand that, not only would much of the population not stand by me in a fight, but that they thought of me as the enemy, and that it was my belief in the nation that made me their enemy. It was confusing at first, but in time I realized that they were right, that we are enemies, and that this is not a nation. So don't ever use the words "we", and "our" in your arguments ever again. Not to me. Because whoever you mean by "our", I know that it doesn't include me.

J writes:

I think it is completely understandable that we go to extraordinary measures to protect the single most important man in the United States.

Therein lies your problem. He is no more important than you, I, or any other citizen. He's a man like any other. The country and the world would not fall part if he were to meet his doom, just as they wouldn't fall apart if I met mine. This Presidential worship really has to be brought to an end.

Nathan Smith writes:

"The main tool government uses is force. It uses this force mainly against innocent people, at home and abroad."

You mean taxes? I'm confused.

David R. Henderson writes:

Dear Nathan Smith,
No. I don't mean taxes. Taxes are what government collects. Force is what they use to collect them. I mean bullets, bombs, etc. and the threat to use these.
Best,
David

dearieme writes:

"This Presidential worship really has to be brought to an end." He's your elected monarch: what do you expect?

Koz writes:

It uses this force mainly against innocent people, at home and abroad. That's not just what I believe. That's what I know.

You know this how exactly?

Koz writes:

My answer is that it's not that you should be upset that he has sharpshooters. It's that you should be upset, and we all should, that he needs sharpshooters. Why is that? Because the president has enormous power.

While I'm at it, I might as well get my two cents in on this one too. It's a plain fact of life that it's much easier to destroy things than it is to build them, and prudent people often take prudent measures to prevent that from happening. You would probably agree if you reflected on it for a moment.

Greg writes:

Guess what, the President has had sharpshooters for a long time. It's not new with Obama.

The extent of the precautions is proportional to the number of people who will be coming to DC, a number that's estimated at 3-4 million. That signifies popularity, not tyranny. And of course we have some people who may have mental illness and decide for whatever reason that hey want to kill the head of state. So security precautions are only prudent.

While Noonan's column may be fawning or too easily impressed with the scale of the event, this post strikes me as slightly ridiculous, along the lines of the scaremongering during the election. "Oh my God, Obama is a terrorist socialist! And he has sharpshooters! He might as well be Stalin!" Please.

The Cupboard Is Bare writes:

"I came to understand that, not only would much of the population not stand by me in a fight, but that they thought of me as the enemy, and that it was my belief in the nation that made me their enemy."

The left calls me a neo-con...the right calls me a liberal...and the big "L's" can't understand my lack of devotion to politics.

Little "l's" are few and far between. It has been my experience that they have become so used to being the "odd man out" that they either cannot recognize a helping hand when it is extended to them, do not trust the helping hand that is being offered, or do something to make the offer of friendship implode (self-fulfilling prophecy).

I think that if you were to stop and reevaluate your situation, you might discover that you have more friends than you think.

Even now, I wait for someone who failed to recognize the fact that I was a devoted friend to wake up and smell the coffee.

RJ writes:

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring this comment. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog.--Econlib Ed.]

martha durham writes:

"It uses this force mainly against innocent people, at home and abroad. That's not just what I believe. That's what I know."

How does one take a few lines written about the security of the president elect and devolve it into a politicized discussion of one's belief as to a nations intent?

Have you seen the history channel lately? Lovely piece on trains and presidency's. Did you note the bit about Lincoln needing to be snuck into Washington in disguise on the eve of his inauguration?

Did you not read the discussion of Martin Luther King's Letter from Birmingham on this very site?There are citizens who do not believe that it is right for a Black man to lead this country. Time has not erased racist hatred from our cultural psyche.

There are many people in the world upset with our country(from our policy in Iraq to the financial geniuses on Wall Street who did not acknowledge a downside to their Ponzi scheme which has reverberated through the world markets)who would find taking out the leader of the United States a just symbol of their dissatisfaction.

There has been discussion here of "peoples presidents" who walked to do errands. 100 years ago people did not lock doors and children played freely. It is a different time.

We are talking about logistics and security here.

To take Ms. Noonan's comments and turn them into a thesis for a malevolent emperialism, there is just no valid way to make that a logical leap.

The traffic snafu's and Secret Service presence I have experienced with Presidential and Vice- Presidential visits on a number of occasions during my adult life have definitely annoyed me but never have I considered these security measures a symbol of the state of our nation.

If you want to discuss Wall Street Insider's, PAC's, the military-industrial complex, Lobbyists, etc...you might have something there...

Randy writes:

RJ,

"You all seem to have a problem with the system. Well I got news, the system aint gonna change."

True, and I do not expect it too. I have just realized that its not my system.

"...then incentive our system so that the best and brightest pursue public service."

My objective is pretty much the opposite, to demonstrate that so-called public service is neither public nor service, but rather, systemic exploitation. I can't imagine that the best and brightest, being persons of integrity, would wish to have anything to do with it.

[Edited per commenter: "Randy" accidental self-reference changed to RJ. RJ's comment has been removed pending his email address confirmation.--Econlib Ed.]

Randy writes:

The above should have been addressed to RJ.

[Fixed--Econlib Ed.]

Randy writes:

The Cupboard is Bare,

"I think that if you were to stop and reevaluate your situation, you might discover that you have more friends than you think."

Friends... good point. Friends or enemies is a political construct. What I'm looking for is productive cooperation. No more of this BS about social contracts (a justification for exploitation). Its time for real contracts.

The Cupboard Is Bare writes:

Randy,

"What I'm looking for is productive cooperation."

Please specify.

Also, how is a friend a political construct?

The Cupboard Is Bare writes:

Randy,

I understand that something like Barack Obama and Joe Biden's Plan for Universal Voluntary Citizen Service

http://www.barackobama.com/pdf/NationalServicePlanFactSheet.pdf

is NOT an example of productive cooperation. As a matter of fact, the term "involuntary servitude" comes to mind.

But I am still puzzled at the idea of a friend (or an enemy) being considered a political construct.

Randy writes:

The Cupboard is Bare,

I got blocked for awhile so I couldn't get back to you.

On the ideas of friends and enemies being a political construct; Your talk of friends made me realize that my talk of enemies was playing into the "divide and rule" tactics of the political class. So not only was my original post disruptive hyperbole, it was counter-productive to my ends. It was political, not productive.

As for the National Service thing (thanks for the link), I have some experience with that. My daughter attended a charter school with a "Service Learning" requirement. She didn't complete it on time, so the school would not release her transcripts, so she is unable to register for college until she completes the hours. Sure, she could have just done the hours like a good little "citizen", but what those who see no problem in such requirements fail to take into account is the many, many opportunities that the political class already has to manipulate our lives. Such so-called volunteerism can very easily become mandatory in fact.

The Cupboard Is Bare writes:

Randy,

Don't be worrying about disruptive hyperbole. You didn't call anyone an insulting name. You're in a safe place here, and you needed to vent.

It would appear that people are coming down on you quite hard, and it bothered me to see you feeling like the enemy. You are not.

Thoughts of freedom are frightening to those who would rather be controlled by the government. And if you happen to be the one who is voicing those thoughts, then they are going to lash out at you.

I am in agreement with you that this whole thing with volunteerism may very well become mandatory. I was listening to news radio yesterday and happened to catch some of Obama's rhetoric from his "whistle stop" campaign while on his way to Washington. Such drama. He was saying things like, "If you want something done, you have to do it yourself." The problem is that it won't be us deciding what to do.

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