Paul Rahe: Petty tyranny

In this post by Professor Paul Rahe, the gentleman Bill Buckley customarily referred to in his columns as the sainted junior senator from New York (i.e., his brother James) makes a surprise appearance. Ronald Reagan appointed the former Senator Buckley to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals in 1985; he took senior status in 1996. Professor Rahe writes:

This weekend, I will spend my Saturday morning in a fashion unheard of in most academic institutions. Because I teach at Hillsdale College, I will be meeting with the parents of my students — at ten minutes intervals — to discuss their progress.
If last year is any guide, something on the order of 800 parents will descend on us this weekend. Those who come to what we call Parents’ Weekend are, for the most part, parents of the 400-freshmen we take in every year.
Most of the conversations that I have with these parents will be inconsequential. They love their children; they worry about their well-being; and they want to be reassured that they are doing well. Once reassured, they relax.
Some conversations will, however, be of genuine importance. For some freshmen run into trouble, and there are occasions in which an intervention on the part of their parents serves a real purpose.
Some parents come back again and again. The parents of sophomores and juniors tend, however, to be more interested in meeting the professors that their children have described than in discussing their sons and daughters. They are no longer worried in the slightest concerning their progeny, and they come back a second and even a third time because they had a good time when they first ventured into the wilds of south-central Michigan.
Where I taught before I came to Hillsdale two years ago, nothing like this was possible. This is not due to the fact that Hillsdale College is well run (which it is) nor to the fact that the University of Tulsa is dysfunctional (which is also the case). It arises from the fact that Hillsdale College takes not one dime from the federal government.
With that money — whether it comes in the form of federal loans to students, research grants, or the GI Bill — comes the heavy hand of regulation. It is, of course, perfectly proper that a granting organization — whether public or private — sees to it that the money it grants is spent for the purpose for which it was granted. But this is not what I have in mind.
When Washington gives money to a state government, a municipality, a school system, or even a private college, it encroaches on the autonomy of the entity whose beneficiary it is. This should come as no surprise. As any teenager will tell you, generosity is wonderful, but there are always strings attached.
In this case, however, the story is especially interesting. For the busybody who attached these particular strings, the man who denied to any institution of higher education that took in as much as a dime in federal funding the right to communicate with the parents of a student with regard to his well-being, was a libertarian.
His name was James F. Buckley. He was the brother of William F. Buckley. In the late 1960s, he was elected a Senator from New York on the Conservative ticket; and in 1974 he authored an amendment to a federal bill, aimed at protecting the putative privacy rights of eighteen-year-olds (among others).
Some years ago, while teaching at the University of Tulsa, I had a freshman in my honors course who showed up for the first class and then disappeared. I thought nothing of it; I presumed that he had dropped the course (as many students do). When he showed up four weeks later, I contacted the Dean’s office and asked that they look into the matter.
It turns out that this student had turned into a binge alcoholic and was sleeping on the floor of a fraternity house, surrounded by empty whiskey bottles. But the university could not contact his parents about the matter without risking the loss of all of its federal funding.
There is, I think, a moral to the story — and I try to draw this moral in the two books mentioned below. We need government, and it is essential that the government be vigorous within its proper sphere. When, however, a government exceeds its prerogatives, especially when that government is far, far away and effectively out of sight, it is quite likely to succumb to tyranny — petty or otherwise.
We are all inclined to think that we know better than our neighbors. We are all inclined to be busybodies. When offered the opportunity to interfere, even a man as sensible as Jim Buckley is apt to succumb.
When our compatriots saw to the ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment in 1913, legalizing the income tax, they created that temptation. What Barack Obama and the thugs with whom he has surrounded himself are trying to do right now on a very grand scale has been taking place on a much more petty scale for a very long time.
It is not enough that we throw the current crowd of rascals out (though that is essential). We need to remove the temptation to which Jim Buckley succumbed thirty-five years ago. As long as there is largesse in Washington on a magnificent scale, as long as the federal government has the wherewithal with which to offer to everyone a helping hand, our ability to govern ourselves in the ordinary business of life will be in peril. Obama may fail, but there will some day be someone who does not.

Paul A. Rahe holds the Charles O. Lee and Louise K. Lee Chair in the Western Heritage at Hillsdale College. He is the author, most recently, of Montesquieu and the Logic of Liberty: War, Religion, Commerce, Climate, Terrain, Technology, Uneasiness of Mind, the Spirit of Political Vigilance, and the Foundations of the Modern Republic and Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect

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