Roger’s Rules

The Other Side of Democratic Despotism

Will wonders never cease? John Kerry, “reporting for duty” in Copenhagen, will travel there by commercial airliner. Read all about it: “Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) will travel to the United Nations global warming conference in Copenhagen, Denmark on a commercial airliner.”

The news here is that it is news at all. Senator Kerry will be emitting the same left-wing bromides as the rest of his flock: “Kerry believes that global warming is man-made and he is an advocate of the United States participating in a global agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” the the news story continues. “He backs the idea of paying billions of dollars to help ‘developing’ countries avoid the polluting path allegedly followed by the United States and other ‘developed’ nations.” I hope you appreciate those sly editorial quotation marks around “developing” and “developed.”

But while Senator Kerry joins the herd of independent minds decrying “global warming” (please note that pair of scare quotes, too), he is indulging in a little PR trick of going commercial (though, I’d wager, first class). Many of our rulers go by private plane. The London Telegraph estimated that some 1200 private planes would be descending upon Copenhagen to lament the large carbon footprints us little folk leave behind when we drive to work or heat our homes.

I hasten to add that I have nothing against private planes. It is my preferred mode of long-distance transport. If I had my druthers, I’d keep a G5 idling at all times in the Kimball driveway, right next to the spacious SUV, also idling at the ready.

But such arrangements, though certainly desirable, seem perpetually reserved for folks like Senators Kerry and Gore, not minnows like me. I don’t (much) mind that, though it is galling to have to listen to someone like Senator Kerry or Gore bleat on about the evils of carbon emission when their own carbon emission is about the size of a small city.

The real issue behind the Extra! Extra! Read-all-about-it news that John Kerry was planning to travel with hoi polloi to Copenhagen concerns the increasing distance of our political class. Not paying your taxes seems almost a prerequisite for holding high office these days and more and more the people we used to refer to without irony as “public servants” live by rules designed for them but not for us. As I write, Congress is contemplating a statist assault on the American health care system that, in my judgment, will result in poorer heath care at a much greater — indeed, at a hideous — cost. As has been often pointed out, Congress itself will not have to avail itself of this plan: no, it will continue to receive its own gold-plated version of health care.

That double standard, though dismaying, is only part of the issue. My own suspicion, which I have aired several times in this space, is that the unspoken goal of this obscene intervention into the daily lives — not to mention the daily pocketbooks — of most Americans is only incidentally concerned with health care or health insurance. What it is really about is expanding government control over your life, which is in itself reason enough to oppose it tooth and claw, root and branch.

Something similar can be said about the whole fiasco that congregates under the name of “cap-and-trade.” It’s an anti-growth, anti-business strategy whose chief effect for most people will be less energy at a significantly higher cost. A large collateral effect, however, will be to further extend government control over your life: over the sorts of light bulbs you can use, for example, or what sorts of fuel you will have to use to heat your house and at what cost.

The hypertrophy of government has two main effects.

On the one hand, as Tocqueville famously point out lo these many years ago, it tends to enervate the citizenry, discouraging initiative, independence, and self-reliance. It achieves mastery not by tyrannizing the populace but by infantilizing it.

On the other hand, increased government control has a countervailing effect on those exercising the control. If it encourages dependence among the people, it encourages arrogance, arbitrariness, and unaccountability among the our rulers. The fact that more and more offices seem to come with life tenure only exacerbates these dangerous and deeply undemocratic tendencies. When a Congressman or Senator occupies his office decade after decade, he comes to view it less as his duty than as his right, his prerogative.

Tocqueville discussed the effect of increasing government control under the heading of Democratic Despotism. We cannot remind ourselves too often of his wise words about the evils encroaching government control.

But we need also to remind ourselves of the other side of that transaction, what the cancerous growth of government means for the character of those governing. Among other things, it encourages a high-handedness that, in practice, is indistinguishable from tyranny, whose hallmark is not cruelty so much as arbitrariness and caprice. This is a large subject, worth much more than a short column. Senator Kerry’s little haut-en-bas public-relations stunt may win him kudos from the credulous. The rest of us will be less admiring. For us, Senator Kerry’s condescending gesture is like having a scab torn from a festering wound. His traveling commercial is presented as an act of solidarity with the virtuous minions concerned about “the environment.” Really, it is a cynical gesture that underscores his distance from the people whose interests he is supposed to be serving.