February 15, 1936 - Editorial - Power Over Liberty, by George Lorimer
Three months before he was elected, Mr. Roosevelt was saying: "We must eliminate actual perfunctions of government - functions, in fact, that are not essential to the continuance of government." Three years after his election, in his annual message to Congress, he is calling for popular admiration of the fact that "in 34 months we have built up new instruments of public power." And saying at the same time of those who distrust this sudden extension of the government's power, who oppose it, who criticize it, that they are the "unscrupulous" and the "incompetent," that they "steal the livery of great national constitutional ideals," that they represent "entrenched greed," that they "hide in a cowardly cloak." Then he challenges them to say which of the new instruments of power they would do away with.
The dramatic value of this challenge is that it bears witness to the President's personal conviction that the results are wholly beneficent. Its political value is that it tends to force the debate on that one point, so that people shall be discussing what the Government has done, and tends to do, for them, as if that could be the only question.
The flaw in the dramatic value is that a conviction of well-doing is no more a sign of good government than it is a sign of bad government. Some of the worst governments that have ever existed in the world fanatically possessed this conviction. One can think of at least three contemporary dictators who fairly sweat with it. Never has power disbelieved in itself; seldom if ever has great power failed to touch the minds of those who exercised it with the obsession that anyone who utters a contrary opinion, anyone who resists even in a lawful manner, is a public enemy - this be all the more if the power be seized with a zealotry of righteous intent.
But the political value of the President's challenge is flawless. By raising debate on the magnificence of the New Deal's acts, supposing the beneficiaries to be very numerous, attention is distracted from the meaning of the fact that the extension of executive and bureaucratic power over the lives of people in these 34 months is such as never occurred before in the world in time of peace, without violence.
The President says: "In the hands of a people's government this power is wholesome and proper. But in the hands of political puppets of an economic autocracy, such power would provide shackles for the liberties of the people."
This is a very significant utterance, apparently unguarded. The President is saying that the new instruments of government power in the bad hands could be used to shackle liberty. All that now saves liberty, therefore, is that the instruments are in good hands.
These things we know about such power: First, that the instruments thereof, once created, never are surrendered; secondly, that in the course of human events they are bound to change hands; thirdly, that no authority, no administration, can guarantee the character of its succession.
Whether the present Administration is a people's government or not is a matter of opinion. Certainly it is not the government they thought they were voting for in 1932 - not the kind of government that was represented to them then.
If the President really believes that those who stand against him are but predatory public enemies, wishing only they had the power to enslave the people, he must shudder to think what would happen if the instruments he has created should fall into their hands. He must know, as everyone else knows, that this was one of the dangers foreseen when a people who cherished liberty above security or beneficence instituted in this country a system of representative, constitutional government of limited powers. The Federal Government was invested with three powers, executive, legislative, and judicial, so balance that each one was a limit to the two others, all three being limited by the Constitution. The total power of the Federal Government, again, was limited by the sovereign powers reserved to the states.
The President's thesis is that the people now much choose between a government of unlimited powers and an economic autocracy of unlimited power. "Give them their way," he says, of he calls the economic autocracy, "and they will take the course of every autocracy of the past - power for themselves, enslavement for the people."
Such a question is not and never was. The power of government to limit the power of economic autocracy, without taking power to itself, was always adequate. If, nevertheless, an economic autocracy appeared, that was not owing to any impotency of government in the American form, but to irreducible human frailty in the conduct of government; and to suppose that the cure for this is to exalt the executive power of government, still in human hands, is one of the great delusions. (pg. 22)