In Leviathan We Trust
The Folly of Blindly Trusting the Government
By James Bovard
Democracy breeds gullibility. Lord Bryce observed in 1921, “State action became less distrusted the more the State itself was seen to be passing under popular control.” The rise of democracy made it much easier for politicians to convince people that government posed no threat, because they automatically controlled its actions. The result is that the brakes on government power become weakest at the exact time that politicians are most dangerous.
Blind trust becomes a substitute for informed consent. But mass trust in government compounds the political damage brought about by pervasive ignorance.
The bias in favor of trusting government brings out democracy’s worst tendencies. The normal defenses that people would have against alien authority are undermined by a chorus of politicians and government officials continually reminding people that government is themselves, and they cannot distrust the government without distrusting themselves.
How should people think about their rulers? This is a question that is rarely asked. Instead, it is preemptively squelched by myths pummeled into people’s heads from a very early age.
Since it has not been possible to neuter political power, citizens’ thinking on government has been neutered instead. Fear of government is portrayed as a relic of less civilized, unrefined times. There is a concerted effort to make distrusting the government intellectually unacceptable, a sign of bad taste or perhaps ill breeding, if not downright ignoble.
The central mystery of modern political life is: Why are people obliged to presume that politicians and government are more trustworthy than they seem? The question is not, Why do people distrust government? The question is, Why do people follow and applaud politicians who they recognize are lying to them? The mystery is not that politicians lie, but that citizens believe. It is not a question of giving rulers one benefit of the doubt — but of giving such benefits day after day, year after year, ruler after ruler.
America is perhaps the first nation founded on distrust of government. Checks and balances were included in the Constitution because of the danger of vesting too much power in any one man or one branch of government. The Bill of Rights was erected as a permanent leash on the political class. As Rexford Tugwell, one of Franklin Roosevelt’s Brain Trusters and an open admirer of Stalin’s Soviet system, groused, “The Constitution was a negative document, meant mostly to protect citizens from their government.”
The Founding Fathers issued warning after warning of the inherent danger of government power. John Adams wrote in 1772, “There is danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty.” Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1799, “Free government is founded in jealousy, not confidence…. In questions of power, let no more be heard of confidence in men, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.” The term “politician” was in disrepute from 1776 onward (thanks to the antics of Congress during the Revolutionary War and the conniving of some of the state legislators after 1783).
Many of the initial curbs on federal power were maintained for most of the first century of this nation’s history in part because Americans often had a derisive attitude toward government — especially the federal government.
Wariness toward government was one of the most important bulwarks of American freedom. Representative government worked fairly well at times partly because people were skeptical of congressmen, presidents, and government officials across the board. However, beginning in the early 1900s and accelerating in the New Deal, government was placed on a pedestal.
Trust after failure
Trust in government is sometimes demanded most vociferously after some horrendous government blunder or abuse. Such was the case in the aftermath of a deadly no-knock raid by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and an FBI tank-and-toxic-gas assault on the home of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, in 1993, which ended with 80 dead men, women, and children. The Washington establishment almost instantly closed ranks around the federal government, canonizing Attorney General Janet Reno — the person who had approved an FBI plan to destroy the Davidians’ home to bring the siege to an end — as a hero.
The precedents established by one political party are routinely exploited for totally different ends by their opponents. During the 1990s, liberals were in the vanguard, preaching the need to trust government. After 9/11, it was George W. Bush who exploited boundless trust to expand government power in ways that mortified many liberals. The Bush administration could exploit 9/11 because Americans were predisposed to see credulity and obedience as paramount virtues.
The number of Americans who trusted the federal government to do the right thing more than doubled in the weeks after the attack. By the end of September 2001, almost two-thirds of Americans said they “trust the government in Washington to do what is right” either “just about always” or “most of the time.”
The foreign-policy response to 9/11 would have been far more targeted if scores of millions of Americans had not written George Bush a blank check in the form of automatic trust. The adulation and deference that he received in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 encouraged federal officials to believe that they could do practically whatever they pleased. Top administration officials were laying plans to attack Iraq within days after the Twin Towers collapsed, though there was no evidence linking Iraq to the attacks. Less than two weeks after 9/11, senior Bush administration officials were already claiming that the attacks gave the U.S. government carte blanche to attack anywhere in the world. Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo sent White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales a memo on September 25, 2001, suggesting that “an American attack in South America or Southeast Asia might be a surprise to the terrorists,” since they were expecting the United States to target Afghanistan.
The most costly entitlement
Blind trust in government is often portrayed as a harmless error — as if it were of no more account than saying prayers to a pagan deity. However, the notion that rulers are entitled to trust is the most expensive entitlement program of them all. “Follow the leader” has often been a recipe for national suicide. Throughout history, people have tended to trust most governments more than rulers deserved.
Blind trust in government has resulted in far more carnage than distrust of government. The more trust, the less resistance. It was people who believed and who followed orders who carried out the Nazi Holocaust, the Ukrainian terror-famine, the Khmer Rouge blood bath, and the war crimes that characterize conflicts around the globe. It is not just a question of acquiescence but of breeding a docile attitude toward political events and government actions.
Docility is a far greater danger than blind fanaticism, at least in Western societies. It is mass docility that permits fanatics to seize power and wreak havoc. The more people there are who unconditionally trust the government, the more atrocities there are that the government can commit. All that the government needs to do afterward is to label and blame the victim.
Excessive trust in government breeds attention deficits. People assume they do not need to keep an eye on government and politicians because government is no threat to them — because their government tells them so. Ignorance combined with blind trust produces citizens pliable for practically any purpose the ruler decrees.
When people blindly assume that their leaders are trustworthy, the biggest liars win. To believe their lies almost guarantees submission. To accept a false statement from one’s rulers is to submit to a lie — to intellectually submit. And submission is habit-forming. Politicians do not need to promulgate a duty to submit because as long as people believe, most will submit to almost anything. After people lower their mental defenses, political perfidy is halfway home. If people are trained not to doubt — politicians need only to continue lying and denying until all barricades that guard individual rights have been smashed, one by one.
Any politician who violates his oath to uphold the Constitution has proven himself unworthy of trust. What is the case for trusting someone who has proven himself untrustworthy? Should people be proud to trust politicians in a way that they would consider foolish regarding any other profession?
Much of the American public appears to separate the issues of trust and power — as if a person’s character is irrelevant to how much additional power he should be permitted to capture. For instance, regardless of the number of people who believed that Bill Clinton was a liar, his proposals to expand federal power to protect people or to give them specific new benefits generally had high levels of popular approval (excepting his 1993-94 health-care plan). Public support for vesting more power in an untrustworthy ruler is a sign of how few Americans still understand the nature of government.
In the same way that power corrupts, blind trust corrupts. To say that people should not blindly trust the government is not to call for anarchy or for violence in the streets or the torching of city halls across the land. It is not a choice between trusting the government and refusing to drive on the right side of the road. Instead, it is a call for people to cease deluding themselves about those who seek to control them.
Trust in a dishonest government is true escapism — an evasion of responsibility for one’s own life and liberties. Deference to lying rulers is self-betrayal.