When governments go bad
Government, Clinton Rossiter once wrote, is something like fire: “Under control, it is the most useful of servants; out of control, it is a ravaging tyrant.”
So you want government workers to be acutely aware of the ambiguous and perilous nature of their position. You want them to have a heart full of affection for the people they serve. They should regard the people as a mentor, respecting their wisdom, grateful for their trust and longing to serve them with deference and respect.
As they love and respect the voters, you also want government workers to fear themselves. You want officials who are aware that they probably went into government in part because they have a desire to shape and help other people, and that this desire comes with its own form of immoderation.
You want government workers who are alert to their own tendency toward bossiness; who ladle out their power carefully, gram by gram; who are aware that they are not really as benevolent and disinterested as they seem to themselves. Most of all, you want people with a strong sense of self-restraint.
As a surgeon abhors sloppiness, the best government workers instinctively abhor any hint of domination. Knowing how power is liable to corrupt them, they tend to shrink back at any hint of their own overreach and desire for control.
But we don’t exactly see this attitude in the big stories about government today, do we? Most government workers are amazingly dedicated and talented, and they put in a level of commitment that is far out of proportion to their salaries. But we’re also seeing government workers, who, far from checking their own desire for control, have taken it out for a romp.
The IRS scandal and Justice Department’s invasion of The Associated Press are just the most recent examples of overreach. They rest on top of the daily intrusions of the post-9/11 security apparatus and much else.
It’s hard to tell now if the IRS scandal is political thuggery or obliviousness. It would be one thing if the scandal is just a group of tax people targeting the most anti-tax groups in the country. That’s just normal, run-of-the-mill partisan antipathy.
It would be far worse if the senior workers of the IRS have become so isolated by their technocratic task that they didn’t even recognize that using the search term “Tea Party” was going to be a moral and political problem. If that’s the case, then the members of the IRS leadership are suffering from a tunnel vision that turns outside reality into abstractions. When government workers lose touch with the normal human context of their job, that’s when the real horror show commences.
Everyone is treating the IRS issue as a bigger deal, but the Justice Department scandal is worse. This was a sweeping intrusion that makes it hard for the press to do its job. Who is going to call a journalist to report wrongdoing knowing that at some future date, the government might feel perfectly free to track the phone records and hunt you down?
I would have thought a dozen Justice Department officials would have risen up and splashily resigned when they learned of the scope of this invasion. Aren’t there some lawyers in the Justice Department, and, if so, did they go to law schools where the Constitution is left unassigned?
This scandal arises from a larger cultural virus: leakaphobia. Every administration centralizes power more tightly than the one before and is more paranoid about leaks than the one before. Every administration successively narrows the circle of debate, forsaking wide deliberation for the sake of reducing leaks (except the politically useful ones). Why do they do this? Because people who go into government not only have a tendency to want to control other people but also to control information.
We clearly have a values problem in the federal government. We clearly have a few or many agencies where the leaders don’t emphasize that workers need to check themselves, or risk losing what remains of the people’s trust.
The rest of us just have to be more wary. For example, I generally support the little behavioral nudges that Cass Sunstein describes in his outstanding book “Simpler” — the subtle policy shifts that induce people to save more, or eat healthier. I’d trust somebody with a minimalist disposition like Sunstein to implement these policies. But I wouldn’t necessarily trust the people at the IRS or Justice Department to implement them. They’d take a nudge and expand it into a shove.
And what are we to make of financial regulatory reform and the new health care law? In a culture of unrestraint, will federal regulators use these rule-writing opportunities to expand their reach beyond anything now imagined?
People can only have faith in a government that self-restrains, and there’s little evidence of that now.
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.