The bibulous Irish playwright Brendan Behan stated his philosophy
crisply: “There’s no such thing as a large whiskey.” He
lived by this credo until his liver gave out, before he was 40.
Behan’s words are pertinent when we recall Bill Clinton’s
proclamation of five years ago that “the era of big government
is over.” We should bear in mind that this was the declaration
of an addict who believes there’s no such thing as a big government.
By the time you read this, Clinton will have proposed nearly a hundred
new federal “initiatives” in his State of the Union address.
In the one year he has left as president, he is eager to leave a “legacy,” and
to his way of thinking a “legacy” means a permanent enlargement
of the reach of government. But no matter how vast its expansion, it
will never be, in Clinton’s mind, “big.”
There used to be presidents who were content to have had the honor
of being president and to have conducted themselves honorably in office.
Millard Fillmore never dreamed of being a “great” president;
he simply tried not to squander the taxpayer’s money or to allow
Congress to exceed its allotted powers. For men of his generation,
honor itself was a sufficient legacy.
By that standard, it’s too late for Clinton. A single year of
honorable conduct would hardly erase the record of the previous seven,
in which he set all-time records for disgraceful behavior that are
likely to last as long as the presidency itself.
When Clinton leaves the White House and can no longer control access
to information, we are sure to learn even more than we already know
about scandals that are now considered “minor,” such as
his illegal possession of FBI files. Future historians may marvel that
he was impeached only for perjury and obstruction in a sexual scandal.
Clinton’s defenders argued that it was disproportionate to impeach
him for crimes that were “only about sex.” Posterity may
agree, but from an opposite perspective: Why was this man impeached
for the least of his offenses?
Meanwhile, Clinton hopes the history books will link his name with
something other than Monica Lewinsky. So for the next twelve months
the Republic will have to stave off his desperate final attempts to
build legislative monuments to himself.
Clinton still insists that he was “defending the Constitution” when
he lied about his sexual (or rather, subsexual) relations with Miss
Lewinsky. But he constantly assaults the Constitution by asserting
powers that were never, by the remotest implication or most strenuous
inference, delegated to the federal government.
Clinton stands for that modern monstrosity, autonomous government:
the state that defines its own powers as it pleases, with no particular
In a sense, Clinton is the price we pay for decades of tolerating
autonomous government. We no longer demand either constitutional or
philosophical justification for the expansion of the state. We merely
bicker over whether we like this or that particular measure, on the
maxim De gustibus non est disputandum. To be guided by principle is
to incur the odium of being “ideological.”
Our two “greatest” presidents, by general agreement, were
Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, who were, as it happens, the
two presidents under whom hundreds of thousands of American boys died
in war. It is as if the most honored surgeons were those who had lost
the most patients on the operating table.
Government, George Washington is said to have remarked, is neither
eloquence nor persuasion: it is force. And there can be few occasions
when a government is warranted in using force — including the
power to tax — against the people. That is why the Constitution
gave the federal government only a few specific powers, strictly leaving
all others to the states and the people.
The more extensive the government, the greater the ratio of force
to freedom in society. Today the coercive powers that were supposed
to be exercised sparingly are used promiscuously.
Worse, the use of force is always disguised as benevolence. Politicians
like Clinton count on our failing to understand that every promise
of benefits to some citizens is an implicit threat against the others
who will be forced to pay for it.
Copyright © 2011 by the Fitzgerald
Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. This column was published originally
by Griffin Internet Syndicate on January 27, 2000.
Joe Sobran was an author and a syndicated columnist. See bio
and archives of some of his columns.
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