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The Reactionary Utopian (classic)
October 20, 2011

A Large Whiskey
A classic by Joseph Sobran
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The bibulous Irish playwright Brendan Behan stated his philosophy crisply: “There’s no such thing as a large whiskey.” He lived by this credo until his liver gave out, before he was 40.

Behan’s words are pertinent when we recall Bill Clinton’s proclamation of five years ago that “the era of big government is over.” We should bear in mind that this was the declaration of an addict who believes there’s no such thing as a big government.

By the time you read this, Clinton will have proposed nearly a hundred new federal “initiatives” in his State of the Union address. In the one year he has left as president, he is eager to leave a “legacy,” and to his way of thinking a “legacy” means a permanent enlargement of the reach of government. But no matter how vast its expansion, it will never be, in Clinton’s mind, “big.”

There used to be presidents who were content to have had the honor of being president and to have conducted themselves honorably in office. Millard Fillmore never dreamed of being a “great” president; he simply tried not to squander the taxpayer’s money or to allow Congress to exceed its allotted powers. For men of his generation, honor itself was a sufficient legacy.

By that standard, it’s too late for Clinton. A single year of honorable conduct would hardly erase the record of the previous seven, in which he set all-time records for disgraceful behavior that are likely to last as long as the presidency itself.

When Clinton leaves the White House and can no longer control access to information, we are sure to learn even more than we already know about scandals that are now considered “minor,” such as his illegal possession of FBI files. Future historians may marvel that he was impeached only for perjury and obstruction in a sexual scandal.

Clinton’s defenders argued that it was disproportionate to impeach him for crimes that were “only about sex.” Posterity may agree, but from an opposite perspective: Why was this man impeached for the least of his offenses?

Meanwhile, Clinton hopes the history books will link his name with something other than Monica Lewinsky. So for the next twelve months the Republic will have to stave off his desperate final attempts to build legislative monuments to himself.

Clinton still insists that he was “defending the Constitution” when he lied about his sexual (or rather, subsexual) relations with Miss Lewinsky. But he constantly assaults the Constitution by asserting powers that were never, by the remotest implication or most strenuous inference, delegated to the federal government.

Clinton stands for that modern monstrosity, autonomous government: the state that defines its own powers as it pleases, with no particular rationale.

In a sense, Clinton is the price we pay for decades of tolerating autonomous government. We no longer demand either constitutional or philosophical justification for the expansion of the state. We merely bicker over whether we like this or that particular measure, on the maxim De gustibus non est disputandum. To be guided by principle is to incur the odium of being “ideological.”

Our two “greatest” presidents, by general agreement, were Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, who were, as it happens, the two presidents under whom hundreds of thousands of American boys died in war. It is as if the most honored surgeons were those who had lost the most patients on the operating table.

Government, George Washington is said to have remarked, is neither eloquence nor persuasion: it is force. And there can be few occasions when a government is warranted in using force — including the power to tax — against the people. That is why the Constitution gave the federal government only a few specific powers, strictly leaving all others to the states and the people.

The more extensive the government, the greater the ratio of force to freedom in society. Today the coercive powers that were supposed to be exercised sparingly are used promiscuously.

Worse, the use of force is always disguised as benevolence. Politicians like Clinton count on our failing to understand that every promise of benefits to some citizens is an implicit threat against the others who will be forced to pay for it.

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Copyright © 2011 by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. This column was published originally by Griffin Internet Syndicate on January 27, 2000.

Joe Sobran was an author and a syndicated columnist. See bio and archives of some of his columns.

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