If eternal vigilance is the price of freedom, incessant distractions are the way that politicians take away our freedoms, in order to enhance their own power and longevity in office. Dire alarms and heady crusades are among the many distractions of our attention from the ever-increasing ways that government finds to take away more of our money and more of our freedom.
Magicians have long known that distracting an audience is the key to creating the illusion of magic. It is also the key to political magic.
Alarms ranging from "overpopulation" to "global warming" and crusades ranging from "affordable housing" to "universal health care" have been among the distractions of political magicians. But few distractions have had such a long and impressive political track record as getting people to resent and, if necessary, hate other people.
The most politically effective totalitarian systems have gotten people to give up their own freedom in order to vent their resentment or hatred at other people — under Communism, the capitalists; under Nazis, the Jews.
Under extremist Islamic regimes today, hatred is directed at the infidels in general and the "great Satan," the United States, in particular. There some people have been induced to give up not only their freedom but even their lives, in order to strike a blow against those they have been taught to hate.
We have not yet reached these levels of hostility, but those who are taking away our freedoms, bit by bit, on the installment plan, have been incessantly supplying us with people to resent.
One of the most audacious attempts to take away our freedom to live our lives as we see fit has been the so-called "health care reform" bills that were being rushed through Congress before either the public or the members of Congress themselves had a chance to discover all that was in them.
For this, we were taught to resent doctors, insurance companies and even people with "Cadillac health insurance plans," who were to be singled out for special taxes. Meanwhile, our freedom to make our own medical decisions — on which life and death can depend — was to be quietly taken from us and transferred to our betters in Washington. Only the recent Massachusetts election results have put that on hold.
Another dangerous power toward which we are moving, bit by bit, on the installment plan, is the power of politicians to tell people what their incomes can and cannot be. Here the resentment is being directed against "the rich."
The distracting phrases here include "obscene" wealth and "unconscionable" profits. But, if we stop and think about it — which politicians don't expect us to — what is obscene about wealth? Wouldn't we consider it great if every human being on earth had a billion dollars and lived in a place that could rival the Taj Mahal?
Poverty is obscene. It is poverty that needs to be reduced — and increasing a country's productivity has done that far more widely than redistributing income by targeting "the rich."
You can see the agenda behind the rhetoric when profits are called "unconscionable" but taxes never are, even when taxes take more than half of what someone has earned or add much more to the prices we have to pay than profits do.
The assumption that what A pays B is any business of C is an assumption that means a dangerous power being transferred to politicians to tell us all what incomes we can and cannot receive. It will not apply to everyone all at once. Like the income tax, which at first applied only to the truly rich and then slowly but steadily moved down the income scale to hit the rest of us, the power to say what incomes people can be allowed to make will inevitably move down the income scale to make us all dependents and supplicants of politicians.
The phrase "public servants" is increasingly misleading. They are well on their way to becoming public masters — like aptly named White House "czars." The more they can get us all to resent those they designate, the more they can distract us from their increasing control of our own lives — but only if we sell our freedom cheap. We can sell our birthright and not even get the mess of pottage.
Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.