First Principles

In search of the Unified Theory of Conservatism

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Barack Obama vs. Liberalism

May 19th, 2013 · 4 Comments

In defending the President against his responsibility for his scandals, liberals undermine their governing philosophy.  We should support these efforts!

It’s been incredibly interesting to watch supporters of the President try to defend his actions – or lack thereof – in his various swirling scandals these days.  First there was a lot of silence – it took awhile for the damage control talking points to get worked out.  It takes special skill to defend the indefensible, after all.  Some are denying anything is wrong at all, that the IRS was just doing its job, that no one was lying about Benghazi, and that monitoring the AP reporters’ phone calls was vital to national security.  The RGJ’s Corey Farley absurdly argued today that the IRS targeting and harassment is no big deal, because Nixon, McCarthy, and Ted Kennedy (all folks modern Republicans hold in the highest regard, of course) did it, too.  All of these excuses have the same drawback, though – they require the excuse maker to be either stupid or a liar.  But now they seem to have settled on the ultimate defense.

The President didn’t do anything wrong, you see – he’s just incompetent!


If the goal is to prevent any accountability for criminal wrongdoing, this isn’t a terrible way to go – Actus reus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea, after all.   There is no malfeasance from the White House, because they just didn’t know what was going on as a result of the government being too darn big.  Who could keep this “vast” government under control, anyway?  Obama couldn’t know what was happening in an IRS office in Ohio, or what discussions were taking place between senior members of the State Department and the CIA, or what some Deputy Attorney General was up to.  C’mon – who could keep track of all of that?  It’s not like he can make his senior advisers tell him important things that are going on, and besides – he’s got a lot of golf to play and Sports Center to watch.  Sure, he’s technically responsible, but c’mon, he can’t monitor every one of his employees’ actions – there’s to many of them!

But this is exactly the argument of conservatism.  Our governing philosophy assumes that people with power will inevitably be tempted to abuse that power – that’s just human nature.  Most of them won’t, but some of them always will.  We further assume that people drawn to power (in any party) are disproportionately likely to be this way.  Finally, we assume that even the many good people in government (of both parties) are stupider than we are, particularly about issues we happen to be experts in (what’s best for our families and/or businesses).   The more power government has over our lives, and the more people who have this power, the more often and the more egregiously this power will be abused.  History backs us up on these assumptions pretty solidly.

We therefore fight to structure our institutions such that they have firewalls, checks, balances, and decentralized authority that can be fired at the next election (if not before).  We struggle to keep our government as small as possible, so power-abusers cannot so easily hide.

President Obama has greatly expanded the size and scope of the government, and wishes to make it even bigger and more intrusive.  And it’s not just size – as part of their efforts to “protect” workers, liberals have made it nearly impossible for voters and taxpayers to get rid of members of their government who aren’t doing a good job.  If for no other reason, this makes him and his party responsible for these many scandals.  (With, let’s admit, plenty of assistance from his predecessor.)

Even assuming the best about the President, no one could competently manage a government under these conditions, or prevent “rogue” government enforcers from abusing their tremendous power from time to time.  And that – far more than White House dishonesty – is the real scandal here.  The President really is incompetent, but it’s in no small part because he helped build a structure that no one could competently maintain.  He set himself (and the rest of us) up for failure.

The answer isn’t trading one necessarily incompetent chief executive for another.  Republicans aren’t any better at micro-managing our lives that Democrats.  The answer is to hack apart the impenetrable jungle our government has become so that it CAN be managed, and to keep as many essential functions of government (education, welfare, law enforcement) as local as possible.


We’ve become so tribal in our politics that I doubt liberals even understand that they’re renouncing their claimed philosophy in their defense of the President.  Even if they do, I understand – it’s tough to admit that the guy you supported, lied for, and defended against all charges both ridiculous and real really IS the fink that his detractors have always claimed him to be.

But Republicans these days are no less prone to blindness by this tribalism.  Yes, President Obama himself should be held accountable for his role – or lack of leadership – in these scandals.  But Liberalism itself is the ultimate target.  If we insist on making this personal, we lose the bigger picture.  If we want better government instead of just beating up on a President we don’t like because he’s on the other team, it’s important to keep this in mind.  Short of video showing Obama actually ordering the IRS to harass conservative groups, the “I word” should be wiped from our collective minds with extreme prejudice.  And we need to remember that not all “scandals” are the same – if you can generate the same level of outrage over a Marine holding an umbrella for the Commander-in-Chief that you can for the IRS systematically and illegally harassing the boss’ political opponents, then don’t be surprised when nobody takes you seriously.

Besides – the President is effectively neutered at this point.  No one believes him.  No one trusts him.  He’s the butt of late night jokes.  An over aggressive witch hunt only empowers him by amplifying all of our natural tribal tendencies, including those of his supporters.  In the long run, it’s not the President who matters, but his philosophical take on governance and the inevitable failures as he tries to put that philosophy into practice.


There are lessons for all levels of government here, too.  Every new tax, every new government database, every new regulation, every new criminal sanction – every one of them can be abused (or just mishandled by incompetents), and at some point, almost certainly will be.  We should – and must – assume that it will be, and every time someone tries to say that’s ridiculous paranoia, the Obama IRS scandal should be invoked.  Such consideration should be part of the cost/benefit analysis of every proposed governmental action, along with serious discussion on how to prevent or limit such malfeasance, along with serious and enforceable punishments when it occurs.  This should be done without rancor, and without assuming that the abuse of power is the secret “real” goal of the person proposing more government powers.  But it should be done nonetheless.


Of course, the President can be both incompetent and a liar (there is simply no other word for what’s going on at this point).  He is undeniably responsible for all of this, whether he actually picked up a phone and ordered it or not.  We now know that senior level cabinet officials knew both that the Benghazi talking points were bogus and that the IRS had been illegally harassing conservative groups, which means that Obama either knew or had to go out of his way to avoid knowing, which is another way of saying he really did know.  Disparate treatment of groups based on their ideology isn’t limited to the IRS, making the President’s lack of awareness even less plausible.  And Eric Holder’s claims of “recusal” in the AP phone records case is ridiculous – a rural state DA doesn’t recuse himself from a misdemeanor without a huge paper trail, and yet there was no record made for a major “leak investigation” involving the White House and the actual Attorney General of the United States?  Puh-LEEEZ.

The common thread of all these scandals is rank and habitual dishonesty, coupled with such contempt for Americans that they assume we’d believe it.  I don’t think there was some huge centrally orchestrated conspiracy, but neither do I believe that the President didn’t at least knowingly ignore bad and/or criminal behavior which benefited him personally.  Quite frankly, you yourself have to be either stupid or lying to believe otherwise at this point.

If the goal is merely to beat up on Obama, those are the drums to beat.  But that’s not the ultimate goal, or at least it shouldn’t be.  The goal is to promote, defend, and maximize individual liberty.  To do THAT, we shouldn’t scoff at Obama’s defenders, but rather embrace  – and make them own the obvious consequences of – their defenses.

Tags: Big Government · Obama · Partisanship · Principles