The arrogance of power that leads politicians to act as parents is hardly new. In The Republic, benevolent dictators served at the top of Plato’s ideal society. And in 1859, when John Stuart Mill reasoned that a man’s “own good…is not sufficient warrant” to exercise power over an individual’s sovereignty, he too knew of that political temptation.
In recent years, as the size and scope of government has expanded, so has the pull for lawmakers to shoulder that self-imposed burden.
In September 2004, for example, then-White House chief of staff Andrew Card told a group of Republicans that President Bush sees America as a “10-year-old child” in need of parental protection. Perhaps this explains the president’s willingness to funnel millions of new dollars to high-school drug testing and ineffective abstinence programs, to send enormous amounts to religious organizations, and to support a constitutional ban on gay marriage. The president — in his own mind, at least — knows what’s best.
From smoking bans and trans fat bans to curtails on happy hours, it’s becoming harder and harder to smoke, drink, and eat junk food without government interference. But what if political leaders themselves can’t follow the schoolmarmish laws they pass?
Several weeks ago, while en route to meet with Don Imus and the Rutgers women’s basketball team, New Jersey Gov. John Corzine suffered serious injuries when his car careened off the road.
Since 1984, it has been illegal to drive in New Jersey without wearing a seatbelt. Corzine wasn’t wearing one at the time of the crash.
A few days later, at an after-party hosted by Bloomberg L.P. following the White House Correspondents’ Association’s annual dinner, several hors d’oeuvres containing trans fats were served.
Bloomberg L.P ., of course, was founded by New York City’s current mayor more than 25 years ago. And last December, thanks to a measure signed by Mayor Bloomberg, New York became the first city to mandate the elimination of trans fats from its restaurants.
These examples may seem quite dissimilar, but they share something that’s become all too common: Despite our supposed right to pursue happiness in our own way, today’s lawmakers are happy to prescribe our behavior and prohibit the choices they deem unwise — while arrogantly ignoring the laws they impose on the rest of us.
Driving without a seatbelt is stupid. And deciding to eat a deep-fried bacon-wrapped steak with a side order of chili cheese fries is unhealthy. But denying citizens of those choices is remarkably authoritarian. After all, only a man’s “own good” is endangered by such choices. Nobody else is put at risk.
That’s why Corzine’s recent decision to appear in a public service announcement promoting the use of seatbelts is worth noting. There’s a world of difference between encouraging certain kinds of behavior and using the force of the government to compel a desired objective. Unfortunately, however, Corzine, Bloomberg, and others seem unaware of that difference. And therein lays the problem.
If a democracy is to function, the citizenry must instinctively obey the law not because it fears jail sentences and fines, but because it accepts the legitimacy of law itself. In other words, the rule of law makes a free, democratic society achievable. As Edmund Burke once wrote, “good order is the foundation of all things.”
But as laws become more paternalistic, and lawmakers become more brazen in their disregard for the laws that conflict with their own preferences, more and more reasonable, responsible citizens will decide to knowingly to break the law. And that weakens a government’s authority.
Of course, from Sen. Edward Kennedy’s infamous accident at Chappaquiddick to Paris Hilton’s recent attempt to avoid a jail sentence, the wealthy, powerful, and politically well-connected have always behaved as if they’re above the law. But they’re not.
If only voters would tell them.
David White, a writer in Washington, is a regular columnist for Brainwash. He is also the host and producer of Inside Washington Weekly, a weekly podcast from America’s Future Foundation.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire