[A repost from four years ago. It came to mind when I read this John Hinderaker piece. History might not be perfectly cyclical, but its “greatest hits” surely do get a lot of replays. — FWP]
You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before. – Rahm Emanuel
Crisis-mongering has a long history:
If I read the temper of our people correctly, we now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other; that we cannot merely take but we must give as well; that if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress is made, no leadership becomes effective. We are, I know, ready and willing to submit our lives and property to such discipline, because it makes possible a leadership which aims at a larger good. This I propose to offer, pledging that the larger purposes will bind upon us all as a sacred obligation with a unity of duty hitherto evoked only in time of armed strife.
With this pledge taken, I assume unhesitatingly the leadership of this great army of our people dedicated to a disciplined attack upon our common problems.
[Franklin D. Roosevelt, Inaugural Address, March 4, 1933]
The underlying idea being promoted is unpalatable in its raw form: “You can’t help yourselves. I can help you. Just surrender your rights to me, and all will be well.” If it were presented that way, very few Americans would go for it. We’ve been too deeply steeped in the traditions of limited government and individual rights.
Wait, what did I just say? If that’s so, then how has the federal government grown so large over the century past? Is it possible that when convinced that a crisis is upon us, we’re just as susceptible to the siren call of dictatorship as the people of any other land?
“Even the iron hand of a national dictator is preferable to a paralytic stroke.” – Alf Landon, governor of Kansas and 1936 candidate for President, in a letter to newly elected president Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933
“If this nation ever needed a Mussolini, it needs one now.” – David Reed, United States Senator of Pennsylvania, on the floor of the Senate, 1933
Those two gentlemen were Republicans. One of them ran against FDR in 1936. Ponder that in your spare moments.
Francis Turner at L’Ombre de l’Olivier notes – and makes absolutely plain – the most disturbing pattern ever to intrude on American political discourse:
Step 1: Something must be done.
Step 2: This is something.
Step 3: Therefore we must do this.
Let that sink in for a moment. Doesn’t every call for gun control over the past hundred years conform perfectly to it? Doesn’t the current drive to ban “assault weapons,” afloat on the blood of the victims in Parkland, Florida, conform perfectly? What does it suggest about the attitude of the gun-controllers – people-controllers, really – toward the American electorate? And what does it suggest, given that the Democrats propose the same anti-freedom strokes after each and every “crisis,” about the true, covert motives of the American Left?
It’s time we drew the moral.
I’ve done this before, but now is a good time to repeat it: I cannot recommend Professor Robert Higgs’s superb book Crisis and Leviathan highly enough. The amount of information and insight Higgs compresses into a reasonably compact treatment, written for the intelligent layman, is simply stunning. To the best of my knowledge, no other scholar has approached the thesis Higgs advances – i.e., that the general perception of a crisis creates the best possible grounds for the expansion of State power – in an organized fashion. Yet once presented with Higgs’s lucidity, it becomes, if you’ll pardon the choice of terms, too obvious to be overlooked afterward.
Crises as promoted by politicians and their handmaidens are seldom real. That is, they seldom threaten as greatly or as widely as the promoters would have you believe. But with the media as assistants, they can often convince enough persons to believe…and the media loves nothing better than a crisis. Crises sell column-inches and air time. Indeed, they’re even better for circulation than sex crimes.
Some years ago, a phrase appeared in our political lexicon that achieved considerable resonance: compassion fatigue. Americans, we were told, had grown tired from being harangued about feeling sorry for every group the Left chose to promote as “oppressed” or “underprivileged.” That might have been the case, but it didn’t cause an appreciable reduction in Americans’ charitable action, and none at all in the size, extent, and expense of the welfare state. Though I hoped otherwise, no reductions in government-modulated welfarism occurred.
Perhaps it’s time to start promoting the concept of crisis fatigue: the reaction to being overburdened with shouts that “something must be done.” It has a sound psychological basis: a man overloaded with fear ceases to act on his fears; he becomes enervate. Further attempts to flog him with the lash of crisis have no effect…at least, none that would repay the effort. Might it be possible to elicit a degree of crisis fatigue deliberately, by a shift in rhetoric? If the effort were successful, might we provoke, at long last, Arthur Herzog’s recommended remedy for political overreach: the mass yawn?
Food for thought.