By Jonah Goldberg
Longtime readers of mine will recall that one of my bugaboos is the liberal obsession with the “moral equivalent of war.” Ever since William James coined the phrase, liberalism has essentially become a cargo cult to the idea. The core idea, expressed in myriad different ways, is that normal democratic capitalism is insufficient. Society needs an organizing principle that causes the citizenry to drop their individual pursuits, petty ambitions, and disorganized lifestyles and unite around common purposes.
Naturally, the State must provide leadership and coordination in this effort, just as it does in a war. That was the essential rationale behind the New Deal – war mobilization without war.
Barack Obama has spent much of his presidency all but begging the American people to imbue themselves with a moral equivalent of war spirit. Sometimes he’s used the phrase explicitly, other times he’s dreamed that America could act like the military. Other times he’s droned on about the need for unity and dedicating ourselves to a “cause larger than ourselves” – that cause invariably being the government. He’s talked a lot about “Sputnik moments” and the need for Americans to rally around his green agenda the way we rallied around the space program.
I loathe all of this. The whole point of a free society is that people will do what their hearts and consciences tell them to do, individually and in voluntary association. We have a military to keep us free, not to provide examples of how best to surrender our freedom. Moreover, the exhortation to give ourselves over to the spirit of wartime mobilization when there is no war is frightening because, unlike real wars, not only is “victory” not defined, it cannot be defined. We will never have a kingdom of heaven on earth, so any call to mobilize the people to fight for one necessarily means permanent mobilization, which means the permanent surrender of what this country was founded to establish.
Personally, I think some of Obama’s rhetoric is partly to blame for the climate that led to the IRS scandal. When you talk incessantly about how the good, smart, and patriotic people support an ever-larger role for government, people who want a smaller role for government are going to be treated with suspicion.
But that’s not the point I want to make here. Rather, I want to shine a light on what is a relatively minor scandal: the ludicrous conferences the IRS has organized for itself. Defenders of the IRS say, What’s the big deal? Everybody has conventions and motivational videos, why shouldn’t the IRS? As one person said to me on Twitter, “What do people find shocking that govt employees go to conferences and training. Happens in the private sector all the time.” This overlooks the fact that the IRS is quite glaringly not “the private sector.” Rather it is a unique government agency empowered to extract money from the private sector. If you don’t comply men (or women!) with guns will take your money by force or put you in jail or both. This fact alone should impose a certain humility and frugality on IRS culture.
But, more importantly, if the President of the United States is going to relentlessly hector the American people to behave as if we are at war, the least he could do is expect a certain espirit de corps from the people already working for the government. If we were in a real all-out war, would government agencies be spending time and money producing Star Trek and Gilligan’s Island spoofs? How would we respond during World War II if the War Department spent millions teaching bureaucrats to dance? “Do the Electric Boogaloo to Beat Hitler!” During the Apollo program, NASA engineers had a motto: “Waste anything but time.” Surely, filming reenactments of their favorite Twilight Zone episodes would run afoul of that rule?
One of the reasons Obama elicits so much cynicism outside his cult of personality is that many of us suspect that his rhetoric is just so much marketing for protecting the perks and expanding prerogatives of a bloated administrative state. Real wartime governments are prone to bloat and inefficiency too, but there is at least an ethos that says there is a priority higher than protecting the interests of bureaucrats. When you see a government acting as if taxpayer concerns are a joke and a devotion to limited government is cast as something between illegitimate dissent and paranoid dementia, hearing the head of that government exhort the citizenry to shut up and fall in line is nothing short of infuriating.