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Variations | No we can’t

PRESENTED with a long list of global and historic evidence of government’s inadequacies, inefficiencies and overall ineptness that often result in frustration and then violence, many believers in big-g Government (who also pride themselves as believers of science, i.e. facts, i.e., verifiable evidence) will usually resort to...slogans.

Hope. Change. Yes We Can. Arc of History. (There is no God, but there is History with a capital H and it is more, well, divine.)

Let me be clear — to quote an Arc of History disciple, the sainted Barack Obama. To point out government incompetence doesn’t mean there should be no government. (Incidentally, there is an ideology that wants government to “wither away”: scientific socialism, a.k.a. Marxism.) Government is like a sledgehammer which is very useful for certain specific tasks such as breaking up rocks and concrete. But you won’t use a sledgehammer to, say, repair holes in a shirt.

Yet listen to some well-meaning folks when they talk about government and society. Name any concern and more often than not the recommended “solution” is...government. As if it’s cost-free let alone efficient. As if people in government by virtue of being in government cease to be mere mortals like us, and become angels. (If man were angels, Madison famously said, no government would be necessary.)

Some say there was a time when government officials were angel-like and inspiring. Maybe. But then again, in those days, the media couldn’t just publish anything about public officials. When FDR was president, historian Matthew Pressman said, “mentions of Roosevelt’s wheelchair were extremely rare. Far more commonly, news coverage depicted him as someone who had been stricken by polio but who had triumphed over his affliction — which of course he had, despite the fact that he remained paralyzed.”

In his 1986 book about the U.S. Senate, LBJ’s press secretary George E. Reedy mentioned his admiration for Sen. Eugene Millikin of Colorado. Millikin “had an earthy sense of humor that delighted the whole press corps even though very few stories were written about him.” How come? “He had mastered a number of techniques to keep his name out of stories in which he was the principal actor. One of his ploys was the use of profanity, which could not be printed.” This was in the 1940s and 1950s. “Asked about a difficult situation, he would invariably reply, ‘I’m going to paint my a** white and run with the antelopes.’ ” When told that Congressman Daniel Reed of New York criticized the senator’s stand on tax policies, Millikin told reporters, “You are not going to get me into a pissing match with Dan Reed.” In those days, George Reedy said, such statements were taboo. “They could not even be paraphrased.”

It is unlikely that JFK would have been elected president or would have remained president if the media did not look the other way. Writing for the U.K.’s center-left newspaper, The Independent in 1994, Nick Bryant mused: How did President Kennedy get away with being both president and promiscuous?

“John F. Kennedy was addicted to sex. His short spell in office, romantically dubbed ‘the thousand days,’ is almost as noteworthy for its ‘thousand nights.’ He suffered from an acute case of satyriasis and lacked all self-restraint. He celebrated the success of his spellbinding inaugural address by seducing a leading Hollywood actress and bedded scores of women thereafter.

“Nor does the scandal end there. One of Kennedy’s girlfriends, Judith Exner, was used to pass classified CIA plans for the assassination of Fidel Castro to Chicago mafia boss Sam Giancana, while another shared a joint of marijuana with the president, having been promised that cocaine was readily available if she preferred.”

Bryant said “one key to Kennedy’s immunity was his relationship with the press…. While it is almost inconceivable that journalists were unaware of his womanizing, Kennedy had built up enough goodwill among editors to ensure it was discreetly overlooked.”

Those days are long gone.

Most of us are now aware that government officials are humans. But it seems that we still trust them to fix what so many of their previous and ongoing efforts have only made worse.

“While every day chronicles [government] failure,” Herbert Spencer wrote in 1884 (not a typo), “there every day reappears the belief that it needs but an Act of Parliament and a staff of officers to effect any end desired. Nowhere is the perennial faith of mankind better seen. Ever since society existed Disappointment has been preaching, ‘Put not your trust in legislation’; and yet the trust in legislation seems scarcely diminished.”

The facts, Spencer added, “cannot yet get recognized as facts. As the alchemist attributed his successive disappointments to some disproportion in the ingredients, some impurity, or some too great temperature, and never to the futility of his process or the impossibility of his aim; so, every failure of State-regulations the law-worshipper explains away as being caused by this trifling oversight, or that little mistake: all which oversights and mistakes he assures you will in future be avoided.”

The future, alas, cannot be avoided.

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