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 The Executive Empire 

October 24, 2006 
Executive EmpireThe great sociologist Robert Nisbet once wrote that if America’s Founding Fathers could come back, the feature of today’s America that would most astound and appall them would be the vast scale of its military system and Today's column is "The Executive Empire" -- Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.the penetration of militaristic assumptions into American life.

Executive EmpireAs always, Nisbet had a point, but I would put it just a bit more expansively: the salient feature of American government today is the enormous expansion of the executive branch, of which the military is only a fraction. Though we commonly speak of our form of government as democracy, it is really bureaucracy — unelected officials. The bigger the government gets, the greater the ratio of unelected to elected rulers.

Executive EmpireTo put it as simply as possible, if somebody from the government pays you a call today (not a highly improbable event), it won’t be someone you voted for. And if he treats you with contempt, see how much good your vote does you. The vast majority of those who rule us — who wield direct power over us — are hardly affected by elections and have no reason at all to fear voters.

Executive EmpireYet, in defiance of common sense, everyone talks as if this were a democracy. Again, our Founding Fathers would be amazed — not only by the metamorphosis of their constitutional republic into this gigantic bureaucracy, but by our blindness to the change. Little changes may make headlines; the really big ones pass unnoticed.

Executive EmpireIt’s almost enough to make Darwinism plausible. If the modest republic of Washington and Jefferson could evolve into this Hydra, why can’t an amoeba evolve into an elephant?

Executive EmpireOur language has evolved too. Fewer and fewer of us can speak plain English. The other day at the local McDonald’s, I met one who still speaks it. He was a young black working man who doesn’t seem to have spent too much time in classrooms, and his sanity is unimpaired. He pays taxes, and he remarked that taxation is “extortion.” Pay, or else.

Executive EmpireI laughed. I’d have been wasting my time trying to explain to that kid that extortion is now a “service,” just as war is now “defense” and bureaucracy is “democracy.” Of course he had a big advantage over me: he hadn’t had so much education to unlearn. He is still free to utter thoughts no politician (“public servant”) can afford to entertain.

[Breaker quote for 
The Executive Empire: Whately's Law]Executive EmpirePolitics breeds evasion, abstraction, and euphemism. A politician is someone who can discuss abortion for hours without using the word kill.

Executive EmpireAh, the gift of remembering the simple things! The great Anglican bishop Richard Whately once wrote, “He who is unaware of his ignorance will be only misled by his knowledge.” That is a priceless observation, worth several encyclopedias — indeed, it’s a reminder of how little encyclopedias are really worth if misused.

Executive EmpireThink of a movie based on historical events, like the recent United 93. It’s a plausible, painstaking attempt to recreate one of the 9/11 hijackings. Though as accurate a guess as I can imagine, it’s still only a guess. If we could miraculously get an eyewitness account from one of the passengers, it might be very different from the film. All our history is like that; even the best of it is more or less misleading. Though we have to try to recreate and imagine the past — it’s almost a duty — we can never fully succeed.

Executive EmpireThe Iraq war illustrates Whately’s point. The government amasses fantastic amounts of information, most of it withheld from us but available to the president, who is then said to “know more than we do.” This has turned out to be a very weak reason for trusting his judgment. And yet the mantra of this administration has been no doubt. As when there was “no doubt” about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and the threat he posed. Today the administration is embarrassed to be reminded of the very things it once insisted there was no doubt about!

Executive EmpireDonald Rumsfeld once made a valuable distinction, worthy of Whately himself, between “the known unknowns” and “the unknown unknowns.” But then he seemed to forget his own words, and the unknown unknowns he failed to consider may prove his undoing.

EmpireThat’s the trouble. Our Executive Empire is run by clever, Ivy League-educated men who have never absorbed Whately’s Law.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2006 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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