In two Tech Central Station columns, Lee Harris displays a certain ham-handedness in his use of political philosophy, setting up Thomas Hobbes as a straw man when he should have been referring to Hegel, Kojeve, and Fukuyama, or at least reading Hobbes with much greater care than he did. Whats more, his version of Aristotle owes a lot more to a Kojevian Hegel than he knows or cares to admit.
Nevertheless, the question he ends up asking is, within limits, a good one:
9/11 made most Americans believe that a strong central government was necessary to protect and defend them from catastrophic terror attacks, but Katrina has left them wondering what is the point of so much discretionary power if the men who possess it lack the wisdom to use it.
In short, in the post-9/11 world, the federal government was looked upon as a bulwark that stands strong; in the post-Katrina world, it is seen as a levee that failed.
Too many Americans may expect too much of government, especially of the federal government. Rightly or wrongly (Id argue, more wrongly than rightly), we
hold the federal government responsible whenever something big goes wrong, all too willingly giving lower levels of government a pass.
I wish I could say that President Bush hadnt contributed to this expectation, but in any number of his speeches he has overpromised what government could deliver. Heres my modest effort at chastisement:
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Bush was even bolder, speaking of "our responsibility to history," namely, "to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil" (emphasis added). Even if, as sinners go, we are relatively good, to assert that we can actually rid the world of evil is superhuman—the very antithesis of humility. Perhaps we could forgive President Bush and his speechwriters for misspeaking in the heat of the moment, but he made a similar point in his 2002 West Point commencement address, where he promised to "lift this dark threat from our country and from the world." Why not simply identify and resist evil wherever it appears, recognizing that it is part and parcel of our fallen human condition? After all, in his prayer service remarks at the National Cathedral on September 14, 2001, he declared that in "every generation, the world has produced enemies of human freedom," which suggests that the struggle against evil is unending.
Heres another smart(er) commentary on the same subject.
It is perhaps impolitic or un-American for anyone to admit that there are limits to what government can do. It sounds to us like an evasion of responsibility, an un-Trumanesque passing of the buck. Of course, both genuinely religious folks and traditional conservatives affirm human finitude. Are they un-American or impolitic?
Here I feel the need for a dose of Steve Haywards wisdom and learning. (Steve, are you listening?) Modern American conservatism came of age with the election of Ronald Reagan as a reaction against the dour and humorless Jimmy Carters claims about our limits. Reagan is often said to offer the sunny and optimistic side of conservatism, just as GWB displays the confident "can-do" American spirit. There is, it seems to me, a fine line here, one that is difficult to tread. Doesnt an optimistic, confident conservatism, one that can be and has been electorally successful in America, run the risk of shading into the very "big government" it seeks to avoid, not just operationally (as one would certainly have to concede about the Bush Administration), but in its very bones? How do we stay humble and cognizant of our limits...and win elections? Or must we choose?