Roger’s Rules

Spitzer and the army of born-again Leninists

Glenn Reynolds points to a brief but important comment by Arnold Kling about the phenomenon of Eliot Spitzer. “The term ‘Spitzer’ belongs in the dictionary,” Mr. Kling observes, “and its definition should be ‘any politician.’ We ought to think of all politicians as Spitzers. No, they don’t all have lurid involvements with prostitutes. But they all have an inflated view of their superiority over the rest of us.”

Mr. Kling rightly identifies all the major candidates for the Presidency of the United States as real or aspiring Spitzers, and he usefully points out that the press has performed yeoman’s service in the role of Spitzer’s wife: “someone who tolerates and enables abuse by a Spitzer.”

Mr. Kling makes the further point that while the talk shows are entertaining us with ribald mockery of Eliot Spitzer’s sexual proclivities, we should really be mocking –and constraining–the Spitzers of the world for their abuse of political power and statist intrusion into our daily lives. “Whether it is ‘cleaning up Wall Street’ or ‘giving everyone health care,'” Mr. Kling observes, “the Spitzers are making extravagant promises that only result in expanded government power.”

Mr. Kling has some sound practical advice:

Whenever the subject of politics comes up in conversation, try to bring up the name Spitzer. Yes, he’s a real Spitzer all right.

The Spitzers in the legislature say they need to spend more of our money this year? What happened, did the Empereror’s Club raise their rates again?

That Spitzer wants to tell me what light bulb I have to buy? You tell Spitzer what socket he can stick it in.

Quite right. In fact, Mr. Kling’s amusing admonitions have pertinence far beyond the realm of electoral politics. The virus of Spitzerism has infected not only politicians on the national stage. It has also infected the broader fraternity of policy actors in our society: the petty bureaucrats who determine whether you get a fishing license or a permit to renovate your garage; the school administrator who makes selling a packet of candy a crime; the taxpayer-funded clerks whom you pay to spend their days thinking up new ways to spend your money (they don’t think of it as yours, but it really is) and new ways to make buying or driving a car, sailing a boat, smoking a cigar, ordering a glass of wine, enjoying a dinner of foie gras, writing an article, hiring someone to work for you, or making an investment more onerous if not, indeed, illegal.

At the center of the totalitarian impulse is the belief that, at bottom, freedom belongs only to the state, that the individual should not be treated as a free actor but rather, as Lenin put it, “‘a cog and a screw’ of one single great Social-Democratic mechanism.” Of course, few canny bureaucrats quote Lenin today. The stock of that totalitarian genius is too deeply depressed by his association with Communist tyranny. But really, the Spitzers of the world are, as someone said about Philip Rahv, born-again Leninists. “What socialism implies above all,” said Lenin, “is keeping account of everything.” Could Eliot Spitzer or Patrick Fitzgerald or Michael Bloomberg or Hillary Clinton or Barack Hussein Obama have put it better? Keeping track of your health care, disposing of your money, regulating your food and drink and ration of tobacco: there they all are, ready, able, and willing to run your life for you. Just sign here to dispose of the power to manage your own life responsibly, to make decisions as an independent citizen who is responsible for your own welfare, and those displaced nannies will take care of . . . everything.

The spectacle of Eliot Spitzer’s implosion has provided a good deal of tawdry tabloid entertainment. But really, what matters about Spitzer is not his taste in whores or even his byzantine arrangements for paying them. What matters are–we can now gratefully employ the preterit and say “were”–his actions as a public figure. He recklessly employed the power of the state partly to aggrandize himself, but more dangerously to insinuate state power into areas where it has no business intruding. Probably, few politicians are paid up members of The Emperors’ Club. But how many patronize that other, more amorphous club of emperors, the one staffed by democratic despots whose overwhelming imperative is to relieve individuals of responsibility for themselves, transforming them from free citizens into clients of an increasingly bureaucratized, and increasingly insatiable, state apparatus.

As Andrew McCarthy has noted, the important issue regarding Eliot Spitzer’s abuse of prosecutorial power was not the extent but the irresponsible deployment of that power. “The power wielded by prosecutors is immense,” McCarthy acknowledged, but he went on to observe that

It has to be that way because it is the public’s power, a key ingredient to the order liberty requires if it is to thrive. Still, the prosecutor must bear in mind that the power is a trust, not a personal arsenal. Those who miss that distinction–or, worse, ride roughshod over it–are more apt to leave lives and reputations in ruin than to protect the public welfare.

What we have seen in recent years is a hideous marriage of political correctness and bureaucratic triumphalism. The offspring are the multitude of soft tyrannies we see all about us today–that and an enervation of spirit that renders the public ever less able to respond to the casual indignities that have become such a prominent part of daily life. “Excuse me, Mrs. Smith, please take off your shoes and place them by themselves in a container on the conveyor belt. We don’t go in for racial profiling, so would you mind stepping over here so this new state employee can pat you down to be sure you aren’t carrying any Semtex today. And no, you may not bring that bottle of water or shampoo or those knitting needles aboard.” Of course, Mrs. Smith meekly obeys every order, submits without cavil to every indignity. Obedience to Authority in action? Partly. But there is something else abroad today, something more threatening to our way of life if less psychologically piquant. The immolation of Eliot Spitzer has offered plenty of lascivious distraction. Fine. But it’s time to look beyond his unseemly animal needs to the deeper obscenity of his unfettered moralism. Time magazine once featured Spitzer as “Crusader of the Year.” Quoth James Carville in 2002: “You in New York are so blessed to have an attorney general who just showed what it was like to be a Democrat.” I don’t often agree with James Carville, but this time he hit the nail on the head. I only wish that the disease were confined to Democrats. It isn’t.

A coda on Skittles: Doubtless a reader will comment, “But that New Haven school that suspended an 8th-grader, barred him from attending an honors dinner, and stripped him of his title as class vice-president because he was caught with a packet of Skittles has rescinded the punishments. As an AP wire story puts it, “Conn. School Backs Off Candy Punishment.” While that is good news for the poor teenager, it is not exactly heartening. The issue was not that the school administrators, faced with a firestorm of public opprobrium for their actions, should back down, but that they should have felt justified in acting as they did in the first place. Indeed, their “clemency” has the rotten smell that attends every act of authoritarian largess.

[Update: A reader writes to remind me that “Skittles was the nickname of Victorian England’s best rewarded courtesan.” Obviously, there are wheels within wheels . . .]