24 June 1994

On little cat feet

It took only two weeks after enactment of the long-awaited Brady Bill for its supporters to begin braying of its "success", measured by the number of handgun purchases which had been rejected. The new bureaucracy measures its success in the classic bureaucratic fashion: by how much it is doing, not how much it is doing right. This bureaucratic reality is at once amusing and frightening.


Bureaucracy is tyranny, though it is almost never recognized as such. Just this spring, in response to a federal judge's ruling which had forbidden searches of public housing without a warrant, President Clinton proposed new rules for housing projects which are designed to make circumvention of the Fourth Amendment simple and legal. Too quickly, we all breathe a sigh of relief. Violence, especially in the Chicago projects, is epidemic, and the quarters, after all, are not private property. They are owned and administered by the housing bureaucracy. But, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau once asked, "What does it benefit the people if their very condition of civil tranquility is one of their hardships?"


This Administration proposes to pre-bug our phones and computer modems with the "clipper chip". The U.S. Postal Service levies fines against companies deemed to have overused Federal Express. Federal agents put a bullet in a woman's head while she stands at the window holding her baby, because her husband is suspected of sawing a shotgun barrel an inch shorter than the bureaucracy allows. A contractor goes to prison for landscaping on private property. A woman faces fines and jail for picking up the wrong kind of feathers from the ground, and using them in a picture. The Federal government is suing a Ford tractor for running over a rat. All this in a land of elected representatives and appointed bureaucrats. All this in America.


Now we stand on a great precipice, ready to hand over more of our lives to bureaucratic control with sweeping "reform" of health care. It really doesn't matter how "limited" this initial bill may turn out to be; by accepting a Federal government role in administering health care, we have made socialized medicine a fait accompli. When the Environmental Protection Agency was created, it seemed benign enough. Its unelected administrators can now over-rule state and local governments by fiat. Governments do not give up power, and bureaucracies do not grow smaller.


James Madison once observed that "there are more instances of abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations" . Liberty is seldom lost all at once. Tyranny rarely makes its first appearance goose-stepping down Main Street; it comes, with apologies to Carl Sandburg, on little cat feet. While we sit complacently, satisfied with our cable televisions and microwave popcorn, tyranny, in its larval form, slowly metamorphoses from civil servant to fuhrer.


It is not the bureaucracy which is to blame, but ourselves. We have grown so accustomed to the results of liberty, we no longer concern ourselves with the process by which they were obtained. We have enough to eat, a place to live, schools, entertainment, health care; we are so accustomed to our wealth it seems to us a necessity, and we cringe at the thought of any of our neighbors doing without all the creature comforts. "Yes!" we cry. "Give them health care!" Bureaucracies, though, like the governments which spawn them, have nothing of their own to give. Governments must first take, and, as the inevitable waste, politics and inefficiency require more and more to sustain the bureaucracy, we the people are left with less and less. If your neighbor needs help, do not trust empty promises of official compassion; help your neighbor.


It has been said that a family which achieves wealth can expect it to last only three generations. As the younger generations become further removed from the work, risk and responsibility required to attain material success, they lose not only the ability to earn, but even to keep their inheritance. As the distant grandchildren of a revolution we still celebrate, we are the fated third generation of a wealth of liberty. We claim to know the value of our treasure, but we steadily trade it away for promises of comfort, pleasure and possessions. We did not earn our liberty, nor have we ever lived without it. Are we, then, like the progeny of old wealth, fated to leave our own children destitute?

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