Some of the passing contrasts of our age present quite a scene for us. While our nation’s revenue collection service harasses Americans at home, obstructs the Congress from inquiring into its activities, hounds Americans abroad, adopting a most comprehensive and punitive concept of income tax disclosure, even unto renunciation of citizenship; this selfsame clutch of inquisitors then cries “computer crash!” or “dog ate my homework!” when asked to disclose.
While liberty for those private associations, business, charitable, religious, literary, community, which in legal form supply the sinews and muscle to civil society, is under constant threat of truncation, normally sensible men conjecture wildly about stripping them of legal standing at all. They would trade civil society for a slogan: “corporations are not people!” As if anyone ever imagined that by chartering a corporation a man had become a father to a child. The government is right now doing everything it can to truss and curtail the freedom of Catholic businesses and charities, by among other things coercing them into supplying contraceptives; while normally less excitable Catholics have plunged into a debate about whether Catholic business corporations should exist at all, since they are the very evidence of every avarice and excess upon the earth.
We are lectured about frugality and prudence with resources, while every other reckless or worthless boondoggle chartered as a clean energy enterprise, is laden with gifts and largess and favor and celebrity. Hollywood churns out grotesqueries of capitalist depravity; and then runs back to every third state legislator in the country for another production subsidy.
Hardly a week passes without exposure of new abuses and perfidies by prosecutors, generally having to do with their obligation to turn over exculpatory evidence; while new calls for aggressive prosecutions of various nuisances or offenses against propriety ring down from lofty media perches unceasingly. Even the stolid old patent office clerks now grow narrow-eyed and red-faced with umbrage at negligible infractions. Maybe it’s high time we prosecuted a prosecutor; and left venal aggravations and minor vices to the scorn of society and judgment of God.
We are fast becoming, not a nation ruled by law, not even a nation ruled by men, but a nation ruled by whim. Whim of social media fashion, whim of bureaucratic caprice, whim of officious grandstanding, whim of judicial hauteur, whim of meddlesome gossip, whim of puritanical licentiousness. At last we might find that the whim of a despot ain’t so bad compared to this. After all, a single despot must sleep.
The inquisitors of our day do not sleep. Ben Domenech put it in an essay on his newsletter The Transom: “One of the big lessons of life in the Obama era is that it’s important to avoid the attention of the ruling class – lest you be audited, harassed, or generally become a hot topic of media conversation as a proxy for some other battle. . . . If you live within the consciousness of a critical mass of people in power for whom all life is politicized, you will be made to bend to their will, by whatever means necessary.”
To preserve their liberty a people must keep their equipoise. Freedom is incompatible with a dominating urge to race off in sanctimonious purges whenever the fancy strikes. It is incompatible with the supreme powers of the revenue service made lawless. It is incompatible with boundless discretion for bureaucrats and rigid obligation for private citizens. It is incompatible with an eagerness for punitive reaction that issues in prosecutors who, secure behind their immunity, think little of disregarding their duties when the matter is urgent.
This rule by whim is for the birds, and we need to arrest it while will still have some liberty left to protect.