Sturm: Tyranny of bureaucracy
In his 1980s comedy routine, Yakov Smirnoff celebrated America’s free society and equality before the law, joking, “In America, you can always find a party. In Russia, party always finds you! In America, you break law. In Soviet Russia, law breaks you!”
In the wake of scandals involving the abuse of governmental power, Americans must Think Again about Smirnoff’s ironic wordplays. As we’re learning, the ruling party can find and break you — despite constitutional protections.
Today, our federal government is the nation’s largest spender, debtor, lender, employer, contractor, property owner, insurer, health care provider and pension guarantor. What it doesn’t directly control its unchecked bureaucracy can ban or mandate. Moreover, the Justice Department’s wiretapping of journalists and the demotion of Benghazi whistleblower Gregory Hicks at the State Department have impeded the media’s ability to assure a free flow of information between the people and our government. Even New York Times reporters aren’t getting calls returned.
Meanwhile, large swaths of America are in no mood to party — especially the tea party — after getting trapped in the government’s dragnet and subjected to personally invasive, banana republic-like scrutiny. Along with other conservative, pro-Israel and religious groups, their First Amendment rights — freedoms of association, speech and religion — were systematically abridged by the most feared agency of the government, the Internal Revenue Service.
After it unfairly applied tax-exemption laws and divulged personal files to media site ProPublica, Americans worry the IRS can’t be trusted to impartially and confidentially administer 47 new health care provisions and 18 new taxes. Mistrust spiked after Americans learned that the IRS’ Obamacare office is led by the same manager who oversaw and ignored abuse in the tax-exempt-entities office. Adding fiscal insult to political injury, revelations about the IRS’ lavish spending culture — especially its $4 million employee boondoggle — prompted Jay Leno to suggest that we close the IRS, not Gitmo.
Though government officials acknowledge the IRS’ “inexcusable” and “inconsistent” application of the law — and notwithstanding its apologies for the “unprecedented” abuse of power — many Americans are gleeful that political groups with which they disagree were muffled, as video blogger Caleb Bonham discovered when inviting students in Boulder to sign his gigantic thank-you card to the IRS. Ironically, students in Bonham’s viral video cheerfully endorsed the harassment and intimidation of fellow citizens, unmindful that coercive government could crash their party one day.
Quick to call limited-government types devils incarnate, and inspired by politicians for whom there can be no honest difference of opinion, hyper-partisans are willing to commit fellow countrymen to an administrative Star Chamber simply because they identify with different values. But nothing is more destructive to our social fabric and antithetical to America’s founding principles than the abuse of federal power to stifle dissident opinion, as Smirnoff knows and our founders feared. That’s why our founders devised a system to protect the very liberties that are currently under assault.
Defending limited government and our system of checks and balances, James Madison penned this famous argument: “What is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men … controls on government would (not) be necessary. In framing a government … you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
Clearly, our government is out of control, as recent revelations of government overreach, excess and incompetence testify. The federal bureaucracy has morphed into a government of special interests, by the bureaucrats, and for the political class. Occupy Wall Street meets the tea party at the intersection of their contempt for a government that routinely presses its massive thumb on the scale of justice, picks winners and losers, and gives sweetheart deals to well-connected cronies.
As law professor Jonathan Turley described in an eye-opening Washington Post op-ed, the administrative state has grown so powerful and independent, it constitutes a fourth branch of government whose impact on citizens’ lives is larger than the other three branches combined. Composed of 15 departments, 452 agencies and 2.8 million unelected and inaccessible bureaucrats, it’s less transparent and more unaccountable than other branches.
“We cannot long protect liberty,” Turley concludes, “if our leaders continue to act like mere bystanders to the work of government.”
This fourth branch is our founders’ nightmare and an assault on their constitutional principles: government by consent, separation of powers and equal rights of individuals. To preserve the system that is the source of our flourishing and the bedrock of our culture, we’ll need “a new birth of freedom,” as Abraham Lincoln yearned, so that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Think Again. We wouldn’t want to be like the USSR, where, Smirnoff says, comedians could crack jokes about leaders — but only once.
Melanie Sturm lives in Aspen. Her column runs every other Thursday. She reminds readers to Think Again. You might change your mind. She welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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