Saturday, April 17, 2010

The tradition of skepticism in American history

Rich Lowry has a very good column pointing out that both the right and the left have their own paranoid fears about the power of the government. Today there are the tea party activists who fear that we're one step away from a total federal takeover of the entire economy. In Bush's administration you had paranoid fantasies about the Patriot Act or Naomi Wolf writing how we were just one step away from a dictatorship. As Lowry points out, our founders rebelled against England not because our tax burden was so onerous but because they were suspicious of the trend towards too much government power.
As Bernard Bailyn demonstrates in his classic "The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution," our forebears prized the thought of the 18th-century "country" opposition in England, which considered the government a clear and present danger to liberty -- corrupt, conspiratorial and insatiable.

America's leaders viewed Revolutionary events through this prism. "They saw about them," Bailyn writes, "not merely mistaken, or even evil, policies violating the principles upon which freedom rested, but what appeared to be evidence of nothing less than a deliberate assault launched surreptitiously by plotters against liberty, both in England and in America."

This is the taproot of American paranoia. It's not in status anxiety, or economic dispossession, or racism: It's in flat-out distrust of governmental authority. As the Patriot Act shows, in America even the statists can summon a robust fear of government. And would we have it any other way? Would we prefer the natural deference to authority of a Japan, or a political culture as favorable to central government as Russia?

Now, literal paranoia is a noxious thing; it gives us the domestic terrorism of the New Left in the 1970s or the militia movement of the 1990s. But a bristling skepticism of government and a keen vigilance about our liberties should be treasured national qualities.

How you view particular expressions of them depends on your politics. I considered the left's tirade against the Patriot Act overwrought and ill-informed. But we certainly could have used such implacable suspicion of governmental powers when J. Edgar Hoover was waging his dirty war of domestic spying against Martin Luther King Jr.
This has been a thread throughout our history and it's woven into the very fabric of our nation. And such skepticism is healthy. And as the size and power of the government keeps growing, there is every reason for our doubts about the wisdom of this trend to stay active.