“Good intentions will always be pleaded for every assumption of authority. It is hardly too strong to say that the Constitution was made to guard the people against the dangers of good intentions. There are men in all ages who mean to govern well, but they mean to govern. They promise to be good masters, but they mean to be masters.” — Daniel Webster
When I was a bright-eyed political science undergrad at the University of Michigan (last century!), one of my professors predicted that the technology driving the information era would make the United States one of the easiest nations to convert into a dictatorship. He argued that unrestricted access to a nation’s citizens’ personal information – their buying habits, preferences, physical locations, likes, friends, etc. – would make it easy for anyone who tapped into that treasure trove of data to influence and eventually control a vast swath of the population in short order.
He went on to say that if history was a guide, it would not be some nefarious leader who took the reins, but a few generations of well-intentioned leaders who tipped the scale by virtue of misguided virtue, not vice. The final nail in the coffin, of course, would be apathy on the part of the common man in relation to this threat.
After seeing the general lack of concern relative to Edward Snowden’s ringing of the alarm bell on this very point and after reading subsequent articles on the US Government’s relentless drive for information about not just its sworn enemies, but its allies and even citizens(!), I am beginning to wonder if that professor may have been less of a whack-job than he seemed at the time. Not being one to indulge in conspiracy theories, I have long discounted such thoughts, but it occurred to me this morning that I was missing the most important point, which Webster described so well in his statement that: “There are men in all ages who mean to govern well, but they mean to govern.”
Representative democracies are robust political systems. They are more likely to fail from internal corruption than they are to wilt from the attacks of a foreign enemy. The leadership is important, but the quality of leadership is only a byproduct of the quality of the general populace. In a republic, poor leadership is simply a symptom of a weak and apathetic public.
It’s no wonder that this is happening in our era. A quick read of the paper will point to many of our societal ills: humanities on the decline in US colleges, funding for and interest in the arts is evaporating, the world’s major religions have squandered their opportunity to strengthen the moral fabric of society, etc.
This is not a partisan matter; it is people problem. It is not an issue of “they the government,” but “we the people.” We have got to get off of our collective, comfort-seeking derrieres and do something to change the tide!