The Czars come to America (Part I)
On Monday I was a guest for a 15-minute segment on the Rusty Humphries radio show. We were talking about our government’s imminent $800 billion spending spree and the parallels between the present situation and the story of Atlas Shrugged. (In Atlas, the government takes over more and more areas of the U.S. economy, culminating in a dictatorship and the disintegration of the nation.)
During the conversation I made a point that, unfortunately, we didn’t have time to explore in the depth that it warrants: one of the disturbing features of the past few months is how the term “czar” has been bandied about in an approving tone.
You’ve of course heard of both the “climate czar” and the “energy czar,” who supposedly know how to “reform” America’s energy industry. States are busy appointing “stimulus czars,” alleged experts in how to spend other people’s money. Many people are eagerly awaiting the appointment of a “car czar.” Obama has already appointed a “regulatory czar” (Cass Sustein).
This authoritarianism is ominous. Ayn Rand repeatedly warned, after Atlas was published in 1957, that America was slowly drifting toward dictatorship (of a fascist kind). But she also argued, in the 70s, that unlike Europe, which had welcomed and been ravaged by various forms of tyranny in the 20th century, America was not yet ripe for dictatorship. The sense of life of Americans would not yet tolerate that level of authoritarianism.
Writing during a similar economic period to our own and a similar response by the government–Nixon’s wage and price controls–she said:
The emotional keynote of most Europeans is the feeling that man belongs to the State, as a property to be used and disposed of, in compliance with his natural, metaphysically determined fate. A typical European may disapprove of a given State and may rebel, seeking to establish what he regards as a better one, like a slave who might seek a better master to serve–but the idea that he is the sovereign and the government is his servant, has no emotional reality in his consciousness. . . . An American is an independent entity. The popular expression of protest against “being pushed around” is emotionally unintelligible to Europeans, who believe that to be pushed around is their natural condition.
And a bit later:
A European is disarmed in the face of a dictatorship: he may hate it, but he feels that he is wrong and, metaphysically, the State is right. An American would rebel to the bottom of his soul. . . . a dictatorship cannot take hold in America today. This country, as yet, cannot be ruled . . . . It cannot be cowed into submission, passivity, malevolence, resignation. It cannot be “pushed around.” Defiance, not obedience, is the American’s answer to overbearing authority. The nation that ran an underground railroad to help human beings escape from slavery, or began drinking on principle in the face of Prohibition, will not say “Yes, sir,” to the enforcers of ration coupons and cereal prices. Not yet. (“Don’t Let It Go” in Philosophy: Who Needs It)
But she also cautioned that the American sense of life was eroding. (The entire article is definitely worth reading.)
Today’s embrace of “czars”–this overt authoritarianism–is a small piece of evidence of the erosion. But to really appreciate this, we need to get clearer on the meaning of “czars,” which I’ll try to do in my concluding post on Tuesday (Feb 17).