Obama Administration Scandals and the Danger of Cynicism

Some conservatives, and our libertarian friends in particular, have been rather enjoying hearing about recent Obama Administration scandals. I would not begrudge anyone a certain amount of perverse pleasure in the discomforts of an administration that has been seeking to undermine our culture, way of life, and economic freedom since day one. But I honestly do not think these scandals are good news for our nation, let alone that they should lead us to believe that we will see any political, economic, or cultural improvements in their aftermath. Here I am thinking in particular of Greg Gutfeld’s enjoyable post. Gutfeld argues that “The IRS scandal, if perceived correctly, spells the end of big government.” How so?  Because, according to Gutfeld, it exposes the IRS as an ideologically biased, arrogant bully. By extension, apparently, big government has been shown to depend on thuggish minions and to be serving its own ends, rather than those of the people. For Gutfeld, the true victory in the IRS scandal is that big government is exposed as the untrustworthy, selfish beast that it is.

Would that it were so. It would seem logical that people would cease to look for favors from someone (or something) that keeps constant tabs on them, abuses its power for its own reasons—and, of course, wastes huge amounts of money on needless, even harmful projects. But nothing in our experience, or that of any other nation, should lead us to believe that this will actually happen. The mainstream press’ response to the most recent scandal, regarding “data mining” of our phone records, is more common and to be expected, namely, “so what?” A few civil libertarians are upset at the Obama Administration’s secret collection of data on Americans, but most have assumed all along that governments snoop on their people, and the press is all-too-willing to give a snooper of its own ideological predilections a pass on “information gathering.”

What these scandals are producing, what these kinds of scandals have been producing for many decades, is cynicism. And cynicism does not breed righteous indignation, demands for justice, or even a prudent aversion to petitioning the government for favors. Rather, cynicism breeds self-interested, unprincipled gamesmanship.

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Corruption in the Russian Soviet regime was not simply rampant; it was what made the system work (to the extent it worked at all). Government officials had all the power, so anyone who wanted anything done, or not done, bribed the officials for the “favor,” or for the favor of looking the other way. Such, of course, is the logical conclusion of big government—it gains all power and becomes the guardian of all things, thereby gaining the ability to sell its acts and its refraining from acting. One must cajole or bribe to get anything done, or simply to be let alone.

Can we stop the leviathan state before it reaches this point of absolute power, when mass rejection and, potentially, revolution provide the only hope for relief? One hopes so. But cynicism is no tool in the fight.

It is easy to be misled by stories of northern European socialism to believe that trust in government is a bad thing. The Swede who happily pays the bulk of his salary in taxes, confident that the government will spend it better than he could does exist, in sadly large numbers. But one must remember that that Swede (or Dane, or Canadian, or member of a number of other proudly socialist polities) is acting at least as much out of pride as out of trust. Swedes and Canadians love their government because they think “caring” about poor people, the environment, and whatever cause is popular at the time, through government programs—rather than through that strange, unpredictable thing called charity—makes them better than other peoples. The lack of corruption in these countries is quite laudable, actually. It is the over-identification of oneself and one’s virtue with the government that is odd, dangerous, and sad. It also can be quite creepy. I remember hearing one Scandinavian remark that most of his countrymen want the government to see to it that all of his neighbors do everything the same way that he does. An exaggeration, no doubt, but creepy nonetheless.

The northern road to socialism—bureaucratic pride—is not the only road. In most of the world, whether former Soviet Republics, sub-Saharan regimes, significant parts of East Asia, or, indeed, parts of Europe, the calculus is one of self-interest. People cheat on their taxes, seeking to pay as little as possible into a system in which they have no faith. But, because the state is there, and handing out money through its various programs, people think only a fool would fail to seek a piece of the action. The state under such circumstances becomes a part of a corrupt political culture. It doesn’t stand above politics, merely administering programs decided upon by the people’s representatives, it becomes instead an enforcement arm of political power, which need not be concentrated among the representatives. Every bureau chief becomes a broker of power and goods. This, not renewed independence and limited government, is the future toward which the Obama scandals are leading us.

What once made many northern European regimes different, both in terms of lower rates of corruption and, for a time, in lower rates of government control, was not some racial proclivity toward honesty. Integrity is not genetic and it exists in a variety of forms in essentially all cultures. Moreover, honest governments exist in all kinds of cultural milieus—Chile has among the world’s least corrupt public sectors, as does Singapore, with Botswana gaining a high score as well, according to Transparency International.

What allowed America in particular to be free also allowed it to be a relatively uncorrupt nation—namely, virtue. Still ranked among the less corrupt nations of the world, the United States is losing its capacity for virtue, and the result is both scandal and further growth of the state. Why? Because our virtue was both personal and political. Decades ago George Carey and Willmoore Kendall coined the phrase “constitutional morality” to denote recognition of the duty of public officials to abide by the strictures of the Constitution. Only when those who hold seats of power within a government recognize the moral requirement that they act only when, how, and to the extent provided for in the Constitution can limited government and the rule of law be maintained.

For decades now our governors have made light of their constitutional responsibilities, preferring to “do good” rather than do their constitutional duty. Judges have come to prefer “broad equitable powers” to the law, because, if read in a convenient fashion, such powers allow them to do what they happen to believe is just, even if the law rather clearly is against them. Legislators likewise have come to see their job as that of “solving problems” by passing broad legislation decreeing that whatever they happen to believe, or see the polls as indicating their voters happen to believe, is a problem shall be addressed by the bureaucracy; they skip the difficult work of writing actual, detailed laws and so the possibility of being blamed for bad decisions, instead giving the real, law-making power to unelected bureaucrats. And Presidents? Defined by the Constitution as chief executives, tasked with administering laws written by others, they have long since taken over lawmaking powers and increasingly seek to act without even the check of public scrutiny.

Seeing themselves as heroes, these public figures corrupt our government by undermining the rules of lawmaking, and the constitution itself. Their consistent actions undermining the rule of law breed cynicism and make it easier for those who work for them (whether in the EPA, the IRS, or the NSA) to put expediency and ideology above their duty to the law.

Corruption at the IRS is in no way good news. Nor is secret data mining, or official lies about what happened in Benghazi, or any of the other scandals that have taken place under this or previous administrations. And this is true whether the misconduct has been reported or unreported, addressed or, worst of all, reported then ignored. The only good that could come out of this cluster of scandals would be actual Congressional action, breaking through the walls of silence and obfuscation from the Administration, and the cloud of smug dismissiveness from the mainstream press to find and punish those responsible at the highest levels. Then we might just see a renewal of faith in our ability to control our governors and perhaps even control the extent to which our government seeks to control us.

Editor’s note: This column first appeared June 19, 2013 on the Imaginative Conservative website and is reprinted with permission.


  • Bruce Frohnen

    Bruce Frohnen is Professor of Law at the Ohio Northern University College of Law. He is also a senior fellow at the Russell Kirk Center and author of many books including The New Communitarians and the Crisis of Modern Liberalism, and the editor of Rethinking Rights (with Ken Grasso), and The American Republic: Primary Source. His most recent book (with the late George Carey) is Constitutional Morality and the Rise of Quasi-Law (Harvard, 2016).

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