In his campaign earlier this year to subvert the Second Amendment, Barack Obama unveiled one of the oldest tricks in the demagogue playbook. Speaking in Colorado, he scoffed at Americans who say, “I need a gun to protect myself from the government” or “We can’t do background checks because the government is going to come take our guns away.”
Obama assured listeners: “Well, the government is us. These officials are elected by you. I am elected by you. I am constrained, as they are constrained, by a system that our Founders put in place. It’s a government of and by and for the people.”
Unfortunately, many Americans are lulled by such assertions from the nation’s most powerful man. But almost 200 years ago, Sen. John Taylor, in his masterful book, Tyranny Unmasked, warned, “Self-government is flattered to destroy self-government.” Obama’s assertions fit a long pattern of presidents’ invoking democracy to sanctify unleashing themselves to do as they please.
The more vehemently a president equates democracy with freedom, the greater the danger he very likely poses to Americans’ rights. Abraham Lincoln was by far the most avid champion of democracy among 19th-century presidents — and the president with the greatest visible contempt for the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. He swayed people to view national unity as the essence of freedom or self-rule. That he suspended habeas corpus, jailed 20,000 people without charges, forcibly closed hundreds of newspapers that criticized him, and sent in federal troops to shut down state legislatures was irrelevant because he proclaimed “that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” Lysander Spooner, a Massachusetts abolitionist, ridiculed Lincoln’s claim that the Civil War was fought to preserve a “government by consent.” Spooner observed, “The only idea … ever manifested as to what is a government of consent, is this — that it is one to which everybody must consent, or be shot.”
Woodrow Wilson declared in 1919, “In the last analysis … a people are responsible for the acts of their government.” But Wilson’s own record was one of endless idealistic appeals followed by the crassest betrayals of Americans and anyone else in the world who trusted him. Were “the people” responsible for his promises in 1916 to keep the United States out of Europe’s war? Or were they responsible for the Congress’s declaration of war against Germany? Were “the people” responsible when Wilson — who had campaigned as a champion of freedom — rammed a Sedition Act through Congress that empowered the feds to imprison anyone who muttered a kind word about the kaiser? Were they responsible for Wilson’s devious dealings with the Prohibition lobby that banned the sale of beer across the land?
Franklin Roosevelt declared in 1938, “Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us.” But it wasn’t “ourselves” that ravaged the nation with the New Deal’s thousands of decrees that crippled Americans’ right to make contracts or use their own property. When he ran for reelection in 1936, he never mentioned his plan (revealed in early 1937) to pack the nation’s highest court with new appointees to rubberstamp his decrees. Yet because he won in 1936, he implied that the citizenry were somehow bound to accept all of his power grabs as if they themselves had willed them.
Bill Clinton declared on October 7, 1996, “The government is just the people, acting together — just the people acting together.” But it wasn’t “the people” who sent in the tanks at Waco, leaving 80 people dead in their wake. It wasn’t “the people” who ordered U.S. planes to bomb Belgrade and kill scores of Serbian women and children. And it wasn’t “the people” who concocted a scheme to rent out the Lincoln bedroom for $100,000 per night in campaign contributions.
The “people = government” doc-trine presumes that the citizen’s unspoken wishes animate each restriction inflicted on him. But drivers who exceed speed limits are not “self-ticketed,” and travelers who get accosted by TSA agents at airports are not molesting themselves. As Sheldon Richman observed, “When you rushed to finish your income-tax return at the last minute on April 15, were you in fear of yourself and your fellow Americans or the IRS?”
The “people = government” doc-trine is equivalent to political infantilism — an agreement to pretend that the citizen’s wishes animate each restriction or exaction inflicted on him. This doctrine essentially makes masochism the driving force of political life — assuming that if government is beating the citizens, they must want to be beaten, and thus they have no right to complain.
The notion that “the people are the government” is one of the biggest slanders that the average citizen will endure in his lifetime. It assumes that a person is born politically damned with the weight of all of the past and future sins of his government on his head. The notion that “you are the government” is simply a way to shift the guilt for every crime by the government onto every victim of government.
And what about Obama’s assertion that Americans have nothing to fear because “I am constrained … by a system that our Founders put in place?” Listening to Obama, one would think that the United States was reposing in the Golden Age of the Rule of Law. Yet a few weeks earlier, during Sen. Rand Paul’s filibuster, the Obama administration fiercely resisted admitting any limitations on the president’s prerogative to kill Americans solely on the basis of his own decree. And the Obama administration continues to claim a right to covertly read Americans’ email without a warrant — a brazen violation of the Fourth Amendment prohibition of unreasonable searches.
If the rulers are above the law, then law becomes a tool of oppression, not a bulwark of the rights of the people. Many Americans were shocked in 1977 when the former president Richard Nixon told interviewer David Frost, “When the president does it that means that it is not illegal.” But that doctrine seems to have become the unofficial Oval Office motto in recent decades. While Obama has not been as brazen in his contempt for the rule of law as was George W. Bush, he did drop an iron curtain around the crimes of his predecessor and ensured that his own agents would almost certainly be legally immune for any wrongdoing they committed under his orders. But as long as rulers are above the law, citizens have the same type of freedom that slaves had on days when their masters chose not to beat them.
The battering ram
If the citizen is the government, why are there far harsher penalties for any private citizen who pushes, threatens, or injures a federal employee than the punishment for feds when they take the same actions against private citizens? Why are governments allowed to claim sovereign immunity when their employees kill private citizens? Why is it routine procedure for politicians and government employees to lie to citizens, but a federal crime for citizens (such as Martha Stewart) to lie to the government? Many state-government vehicles have license plates declaring, “For Public Use.” But if a private citizen assumes that the license plate means what it says and drives off in the car, he will be charged with grand larceny. Yet by assuring people that they are the government, politicians attempt to make all the coercion, all the expropriation, all the intrusive searches, all the prison sentences for victimless crimes irrelevant.
There is no way to reconcile individual liberty with empowering the government to arrest almost everyone on the basis of vague or all-expansive laws. The fact that legislators at some level of government voted on a law (which they may or may not have read) before enacting new penalties does nothing to loosen the handcuffs around citizens’ wrists. The fact that people had the chance to vote for a member of Congress or a state legislator does nothing to lighten their subjugation when they encounter a government agent hungry to fill his quota for arrests. Legislators rarely rein in overzealous police or other enforcement agents when their aggression boosts government revenue.
The verbal switcheroos by Franklin Roosevelt, Clinton, and Obama were the types of shams easily foreseen in this nation’s founding era. In his book, Taylor justly warned, “Tyranny is wonderfully acute in transferring to itself, the weapons of liberty. It has converted charters invented for her use, into pick-pockets for robbing her. It has used even representation to lash her.” And the rhetoric of democracy, when exploited by power-hungry politicians, easily becomes a battering ram against liberty. The hazier people’s thinking about government becomes, the easier it is for rulers to invoke freedom to destroy freedom.
Obama is only the latest in a long series of presidents who sought to induce mass complacency about freedom. But the more people there are who assume that democracy automatically protects their rights, the more likely it is that the American political system will self-destruct. At this point, democracy is a system of government under which the people are automatically liable for whatever the government does to them.
It has been at least a generation since America had a president who seemed half as trustworthy as your average used-car dealer. There is no reason to expect Obama or his successor to be any different from the demagogues who previously occupied the Oval Office.
This article was originally published in the July 2013 edition of Future of Freedom.