Obama and the Road to Tyranny

The venerable economist Thomas Sowell asks,  “Is United States is Now on the Slippery Slope to Tyranny?

His intro sets the bar quite high, indeed:

When Adolf Hitler was building up the Nazi movement in the 1920s, leading up to his taking power in the 1930s, he deliberately sought to activate people who did not normally pay much attention to politics.  Such people were a valuable addition to his political base, since they were particularly susceptible to Hitler’s rhetoric and had far less basis for questioning his assumptions or his conclusions.

“Useful idiots” was the term supposedly coined by V.I. Lenin to describe similarly unthinking supporters of his dictatorship in the Soviet Union.

Put differently, a democracy needs informed citizens if it is to thrive, or ultimately even survive.

In our times, American democracy is being dismantled, piece by piece, before our very eyes by the current administration in Washington, and few people seem to be concerned about it.

Now, look, I’ve got plenty of concerns about the Obama administration.   But, seriously, Hitler and Stalin?!  Two men who, between them, are responsible for the slaughter of tens of millions of innocents?  Who notoriously employed secret police forces that arrested, tortured, and killed anyone who dared disagree?  I’m pretty sure that we’re not only light years away from there but also quite a ways away from a slippery slope leading there.

Anyway, that rhetorical throat-clearing out of the way, here’s Sowell’s first substantive argument:

Just where in the Constitution of the United States does it say that a president has the authority to extract vast sums of money from a private enterprise and distribute it as he sees fit to whomever he deems worthy of compensation? Nowhere.

And yet that is precisely what is happening with a $20 billion fund to be provided by BP to compensate people harmed by their oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  Many among the public and in the media may think that the issue is simply whether BP’s oil spill has damaged many people, who ought to be compensated.

But our government is supposed to be “a government of laws and not of men.”  If our laws and our institutions determine that BP ought to pay $20 billion — or $50 billion or $100 billion — then so be it.

But the Constitution says that private property is not to be confiscated by the government without “due process of law.”

Technically, it has not been confiscated by Barack Obama, but that is a distinction without a difference.  With vastly expanded powers of government available at the discretion of politicians and bureaucrats, private individuals and organizations can be forced into accepting the imposition of powers that were never granted to the government by the Constitution.

Now, I actually agree with Sowell’s basic argument here.   Indeed, I made something like it last week in “Obama Takes Godfather Approach to BP.”  I’m very, very leery of the use of strong-arming by executive branch authorities, whether they be presidents, governors, or local district attorneys.

But tyranny?

If you believe that the end justifies the means, then you don’t believe in constitutional government.

And, without constitutional government, freedom cannot endure. There will always be a “crisis” — which, as the president’s chief of staff has said, cannot be allowed to “go to waste” as an opportunity to expand the government’s power.

That power will of course not be confined to BP or to the particular period of crisis that gave rise to the use of that power, much less to the particular issues.

I agree with every word of that. But Sowell again goes off the deep end in the next sentence:

When Franklin D. Roosevelt arbitrarily took the United States off the gold standard, he cited a law passed during the First World War to prevent trading with the country’s wartime enemies. But there was no war when FDR ended the gold standard’s restrictions on the printing of money.

At about the same time, during the worldwide Great Depression, the German Reichstag passed a law “for the relief of the German people.”  That law gave Hitler dictatorial powers that were used for things going far beyond the relief of the German people — indeed, powers that ultimately brought a rain of destruction down on the German people and on others.

The conflation of FDR’s taking the US off the gold standard and Hitler’s Enabling Act is not only slanderous but absurd.

The man appointed by President Obama to dispense BP’s money as the administration sees fit, to whomever it sees fit, is only the latest in a long line of presidentially appointed “czars” controlling different parts of the economy, without even having to be confirmed by the Senate, as Cabinet members are.

Again, I’m no fan of “czars,” not only because they operate outside the normal checks and balances of our system but because they’re inefficient:  They are able to operate without oversight precisely because they don’t control large budgets and staffs.  But we’ve had “czars” at least as far back as the Reagan administration without serious infringement on our liberty.

Those who cannot see beyond the immediate events to the issues of arbitrary power — vs. the rule of law and the preservation of freedom — are the “useful idiots” of our time. But useful to whom?

But the inability to distinguish between democratically accountable politicians pushing the envelope — something that, in our system, has provenance as far back as the earliest days of George Washington’s presidency — and the worst abuses of the worst tyrants in modern history are idiots without the virtue of usefulness.

FILED UNDER: James Joyner, US Politics, , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Command and Staff College, Marine Corps University, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He earned a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. I’ve been a fan of Dr. Sowell’s since I first read him in the 90s, but that column of his was just one long Godwin Law-violating screed




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  2. I must confess that as much as I am concerned about the long-term growth of executive power in the US, I am having a hard time seeing a threat posed by this escrow fund, let alone the first step on the long road to totalitarian, genocidal governance.

    It seems to me that BP is trying to demonstrate their commitment for paying for their mess and that the escrow fund is a step in that direction. I am open to the idea that I am missing something about the fund, but so far I am not seeing the major problem and certainly not on the scale that Sowell is suggesting.




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  3. Tim says:

    I’ll give you that Sowell’s tilt toward the dramatic is unecessary, but your statement: “But we’ve had “czars” at least as far back as the Reagan administration without serious infringement on our liberty.” I find as insulting. Do you seriously consider yourself to be as free of intrusion, as free of regulation, as free of taxation, as free of movement as you were in the 1980’s? Or, weren’t you born yet?
    The fact that czars existed is not a validation of their existence. Every step taken outside the Constitution is a step toward tyranny. I don’t know where that line is exactly drawn, as distinguished from prior to tyranny, but just because Reagan had czars does not make them legitimate. That is the road they like to lead us down that leads to tyranny…the “well, the Republicans did it, so it’s okay for us” argument. “nothing bad happened before when the Democrats did it, so it’s okay for us.”
    The “nothing bad has happened” is probably the most specious argument you could make. Who says? Have you asked everyone? Did you research every use of a czar to make sure general liberties were not impinged, or was it just some stupid platitude?




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  4. bob says:

    Useful idiot?




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  5. James Joyner says:

    Do you seriously consider yourself to be as free of intrusion, as free of regulation, as free of taxation, as free of movement as you were in the 1980′s? Or, weren’t you born yet?

    Born in 1965. My taxes are of course much higher now, since I make a lot more money, although our federal tax rates are actually lower now than they were then.

    The fact that czars existed is not a validation of their existence.

    No, but the fact that czars have existed and no secret police has shown up is a good sign!

    Have you asked everyone? Did you research every use of a czar to make sure general liberties were not impinged, or was it just some stupid platitude?

    It’s not up to me to prove a negative. Those asserting that we’re on a slippery slope to Stalinism, on the other hand . . . .




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  6. James Joyner says:

    I am having a hard time seeing a threat posed by this escrow fund

    The argument — really, the suspicion — is that Obama threatened to make life miserable for BP if they didn’t do it. Because presidents have so much quasi-legal power, that’s not a good thing even if BP isn’t a sympathetic victim.




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  7. […] James Joyner notes this morning, some commentators are objecting rather strenuously to the $20 billion escrow […]




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  8. Steven,

    I must confess that as much as I am concerned about the long-term growth of executive power in the US, I am having a hard time seeing a threat posed by this escrow fund, let alone the first step on the long road to totalitarian, genocidal governance.

    I tend to agree, but there are several problems I have with the fund, or at least what we’ve been told about it so far.

    What are the standards by which claims will be paid ?
    Where is the oversight ?
    Who does Feinberg report to, if anyone ?

    I’ve been trying to put together a blog post dealing with these questions but, so far, I have not found a single piece of information that even tries to answer them.




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  9. rodney dill says:

    Godwin Law-violating screed

    Its not violating Godwin’s law if you really are talking about Nazi’s.
    😉




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  10. The argument — really, the suspicion — is that Obama threatened to make life miserable for BP if they didn’t do it. Because presidents have so much quasi-legal power, that’s not a good thing even if BP isn’t a sympathetic victim.

    My question remains as to what evidence we have about that suspicion. I concur that if the president really did stong-arm/threaten (directly or by implication) BP if they didn’t do what he wanted that there is a grave problem with such behavior. However, do we really know that that what was done. It seems equally as plausible that the whole thing was BP’s idea as both a PR move (which they gravely needed) and a means of communicating longer-term stability and information to the marketplace (see, for example, the post I just put up).




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  11. @Doug:

    Those are great questions, and ones that I, too, would like answered and find concerning.

    However, I would note, they really don’t have all that much (if anything) to do with a) the establishment of the fund in a general sense, nor b) whether the fund itself is offensive.

    Now, I would agree that the exact process of birthing the fund (so to speak) left too many questions (such as the ones you note), which itself is a good critique of the process, but not, per se the fund itself. It certainly isn’t Stalin 101 😉




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  12. sashal says:

    thanks for the voice of reason, so rare in the modern conservative movement:
    http://www.amconmag.com/larison/2010/06/19/what-shakedown/




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  13. Steven,

    I don’t really find the fund offensive in an of itself, especially since it’s something that was being talked about as necessary by financial analysts, people in the Gulf region, and BP itself well before the White House got involved.

    If there was “pressure” involved on the White House’s end, I suspect that it had less to do with threats of legal action and more to do with the fact that government contracts are a very big source of income for BP. If those contracts come to an end, that would be a big deal to a company that’s already on the ropes financially thanks to this crisis, a crisis of their own making.

    Stalin ? Certainly not.

    Like I said in response to James, I usually respect what Sowell has to say but this is just over-the-top.




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  14. john personna says:

    I personally thought the creation of a “Homeland Security” was scarier than anything Obama has invented. We had nice compartmentalized Federal institutions. We had the G-men (who possibly needed to do a better job). But you know, a “small government Republican” did it, so it was OK.

    In fact, largely, the greatest threats to personal freedom under Obama are extensions of Bush innovations. “Criminal combatants” anyone?




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  15. PD Shaw says:

    I heard fund administrator Feinberg on MSNBC yesterday morning and was not reassured.

    Who does he work for?

    He says he works for the People of the Gulf.

    How will he decide what claims to pay, specifically how far down the causation chain will he go.

    He says that he will do what Congress directed him to do with the 9/11 Fund and look to state law.

    He appears to be a lawyer untethered to the rule of law, whose judgement appears unrestrained by any process, law or principle.




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  16. PD,

    I heard that too and had much the same reaction.

    I would prefer if this entire process were overseen by a court of law




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  17. john personna says:

    God help us when an insurance claim fund is a greater threat to the country that warrantless wiretaps.




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  18. G.A.Phillips says:

    ***In fact, largely, the greatest threats to personal freedom under Obama are extensions of Bush innovations.*** yup, by Obama. Trillions of dollars any one? Well that’s if you belong to one of his insiders clubs or for the lucky few a minion of one of his insiders clubs……

    ***I personally thought the creation of a “Homeland Security” was scarier than anything Obama has invented.***

    A radical Marxist in charge of Homeland Security? Well Obama’s Indoctrination has invented him….

    This is the same guy who says there is to much information on the Internet, lol…….

    And a hundred other dictatorish things…..

    And does dictatorish things daily…….

    With all the apparatus that he campaigned against and then some times a mountainous crap load of new moslty unvoted on green Marxist crap…..




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  19. john personna says:

    “Trillions of dollars any one?”

    Actually most of those trillions are extensions as well:

    http://zfacts.com/p/318.html




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  20. […] OTB James Joyner notes a rather odd (to be kind) column that links the $20 billion BP escrow fund to Hitler and […]




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  21. […] Obama and the Road to Tyranny (outsidethebeltway.com) […]




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  22. Michael Reynolds says:

    I’m older than James, born in 1954, and I am far freer now than I or anyone else was back in 1954. I was in school through the 60’s when I still had to fear retaliation for having black friends in our home, when I was threatened with a beating for having longish hair, when I had to conceal my atheism or lose a job.

    A short list of people who are more free today than they were when I was growing up: blacks, women, gays, non-Christians. That would be a solid majority of Americans. But of course even the white male is freer today in a multitude of ways.




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  23. John P. (Tupelo) says:

    The issue has been well covered by the OTB crew. I tend to lean more towards Dr. Taylor’s line of thinking and questions, but the article itself is too much in the suspension of disbelief category for me.

    The massive fallacy that I couldn’t get past in the open, the point that was the crux of the article, that Obama is supposed to be walking a similar line (in and of itself a highly debatable point) to that of Hitler and Lenin. The author himself mentions the amount of time Hitler took to cultivate and employ his plan. Guess what – the president has 4 years, 8 if he is good (or better). Only half of that time is spent in full policy mode.

    If Obama can cram his policies down the throats of Americans and Congress in two years (spoiler alert: he can’t) perhaps we should listen to the guy.




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  24. An Interested Party says:

    It really is amazing how batsh*t insane some on the right are acting towards the president…I mean, talk about a bad case of ODS…he can only hope that more people will act this way, making these ridiculous analogies, as that will certainly help him to get reelected…what’s even more amazing, though, is all this whining about freedoms being taken away…did any of these loons whine in the same way when all of the programs after 9/11 where installed to supposedly “protect” us from the evil terrorists…




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  25. Pug says:

    Republicans and conservatives suddenly seem to have a “rule of law” fetish caused by the BP escrow fund. Strange, considering they have defended warrantless wiretaps, arrest without right to an attorney (American citizens included) as well as torture for the better part of ten years now.

    And exactly what does ‘the rule of law” mean in the current situation? Would conservatives, who hate trial lawyers almost as much as they hate unions, really prefer that thousands of trial lawyers were filing hundreds of thousands of “frivilous” law suits against BP right now? That, of course, would be followed by decades of litigation and 40% of the money would go to attorneys in the end. Is that what Thomas Sowell prefers? Sowell’s comparisons to Hitler and Stalin is pearl clutching stupidity on a grand scale. He isn’t a useless idiot, he is a useless idiot.

    Do you seriously consider yourself to be as free of intrusion, as free of regulation, as free of taxation, as free of movement as you were in the 1980′s?

    The answer to that is, of course, yes. Taxes are lower, there has been thirty years of deregulation from airlines to banks (banking crisis, anyone?) to stock brokerages. It is up to you to show how your freedom of movement has been restricted in any sense. Mine certainly hasn’t.

    A lot of conservatives need to calm down a little. Just because a guy they don’t like won the presidential election it doesn’t mean we are on the brink of Stalinism. If we were anywhere near that point, Mr. Sowell would have disappeared a while back. Casual comparisons to Hitler and Stalin insult the victims of real tyrants.




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  26. James Joyner says:

    Republicans and conservatives suddenly seem to have a “rule of law” fetish caused by the BP escrow fund. Strange, considering they have defended warrantless wiretaps, arrest without right to an attorney (American citizens included) as well as torture for the better part of ten years now.

    These are all very different things.

    In the one case, the argument is that the president is using his authority to pressure a private company to give up its rights, mostly for the purpose of domestic politics. It’s debatable whether 1) he’s actually doing that, 2) whether it’s actually in BP’s best interests. But that’s the charge.

    I defended “warrantless wiretaps” to the extent that they were essentially data mining operations aimed at protecting us from foreign terrorists.

    I opposed “arrest without right to an attorney (American citizens included)” but acknowledged that the exact set of rights that those arrested as unprivileged belligerents in combat against our forces had.

    I’ve been pretty adamant that torture — and most of the near-torture techniques we used — was not only illegal in most instances but detrimental to the goals being sought.

    Still, there’s always been a much higher amount of leeway given presidents in the conduct of national security policy than in settling domestic disputes.




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  27. mantis says:

    Thomas Sowell has been a steadfast supporter of torture by American military and security forces.

    Thomas Sowell thinks BP voluntarily setting up an escrow fund to more quickly compensate the many thousands of people whose livelihoods are being destroyed by the company’s gross negligence, and Obama taking credit for urging them to do so, makes him exactly like Hitler and Stalin.

    This is someone you usually agree with? You ought to reconsider who you consider intelligent. Anyway, in for a penny…




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  28. G.A.Phillips says:

    ***If Obama can cram his policies down the throats of Americans and Congress in two years (spoiler alert: he can’t) perhaps we should listen to the guy.***uguguguurururururugguuurruggg what?




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  29. Otto Maddox says:

    What is it about with so many human beings that want to be dominated by strongmen and other abusers of power?

    And how can anybody with a clear conscience want to oppress and deny the freedoms of others?

    Isn’t this what we’re really talking about here?

    This planet is a cosmic insane asylum.




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  30. John P. (Tupelo) says:

    @G.A. – it appears my well rounded statement, punctuated with hyperbole has caused you to pass out on your keyboard. It happens and you’re welcome.




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  31. anjin-san says:

    that they were essentially data mining operations aimed at protecting us from foreign terrorists.

    Well, that’s how it starts. But it boils down to “if we want to spy on our own citizens, we will. done it before and can do it again”.




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  32. Michael Reynolds says:

    Republicans and conservatives suddenly seem to have a “rule of law” fetish caused by the BP escrow fund.

    It’s simple compassion. When a multinational weeps in the night the GOP is there to wipe away their tears.

    People not so much. But a fortune 500 corporation? They just can’t contain their empathy.




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  33. Juneau: says:

    Again, I’m no fan of “czars,” not only because they operate outside the normal checks and balances of our system…

    Operating outside the normal checks and balances while acting with the power to impose the government’s will on the people is the definition of a government out of control. Because there is no control in that situation.

    The word “czar” used to mean someone who was at the top of the pyramid in a governmental focus area (i.e. drug czar). It never had the same attendant powers that have been granted under this administration. The “drug czars” of administrations past didn’t supplant the checks and balances inherent in our Constitution.

    He who controls the language controls the conversation. Same old words, with new and unsettling definitions. Sleep well America, you’re in great hands…




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  34. mantis says:

    The word “czar” used to mean someone who was at the top of the pyramid in a governmental focus area (i.e. drug czar). It never had the same attendant powers that have been granted under this administration.

    Wrong. Try again, wingnut.




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  35. Sonia says:

    Do you all honestly think that dictactors rise suddenly. Any violation of due process is wrong! Obama is a narcissist who uses strong armed tactics to rule. I guarantee you that if he had half a chance he would use tyranny on a wide scale. Tyrannizing BP should not be tolerated. We are a free country of laws that apply to everyone, even the potus. Obama ignores the will of the people in favor of his ideological goals. He has violated the US Constitution by refusing to protect Arizona from invaders and by allowing enemies to have our lands. Obama is a dangerous man!




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  36. […] James Joyner noted earlier this week, Thomas Sowell penned a column for Investor’s Business Daily in which […]




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  37. […] agree with James Joyner, who thinks Sowell’s reference to Hitler elsewhere in the op-ed from which I just quoted undermines his […]




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