The White House Myth via NBC's The West Wing
[Wednesday, January 24, 2001 7:50:20 PM]
Tibor R. Machan
NBC-TV's Wednesday 9 PM--i.e., prime time--program is The West Wing, a soap opera about the White House occupied by a Liberal Democratic president and his dedicated, earnest staff of big government enthusiast. It is a well done, rapid fire, constantly moving show. Its central purpose seems to be to entertain viewer--and to convince them that Liberal Democrats are the compassionate, humane, sincere and patriotic people Liberal Democrats wish to be known as.
I do not like this show--well not its central thrust, though some scenes are touching and even poignant--but it is undoubtedly "must see TV" for anyone with inclinations toward the study of American political culture. Not because it is realistic in how it depicts Democratic administrations--although, to be sure, there are probably some among Democrats who sometimes feel all the sentiments that are so insistently depicted as everyone's stock in trade in a Liberal Democratic White House. It is "must see TV" because it captures very well what Liberal democrats consider most important in politics. Never mind that most of them probably have few of the sentiments they like to think they have. They probably like power for power's sake. (Well, that is what I think in my more cynical moments. At other times I just think Liberal Democrats are intelligent fools.)
On this program, in particular, everyone agrees with Toby, the ideological guru of the Administration. He believes with great passion and really deep earnestness that government is "where people ought to come together to do good." Never mind that President Martin Sheen--and he is even more type cast than Kevin Kline was as Dave or Michael Douglas as The President--has also exclaimed that people harbor incredible potential. No one seems to notice that if that is so, government isn't needed as our relentless paternal guide.
And indeed, that is the point; the most important attribute of all these folks, who believe government to be the agent of goodness in society, is their earnestness, their feelings of seriousness about their paternalistic mission. They feel all the pain in society and government must be the remedy, period.
In this respect The West Wing is quite realistic. What Liberal Democrats embrace most loyally--when they aren't craving power--is the idea that one must mean well, that in government it is the thought--or rather the feeling--that counts for most. Never mind that nearly all the missionary measures Liberal Democrats deploy to give vent to their earnest feelings, their humanity and compassion toward the poor and the needy, undermines the very thing they are supposedly concerned with. This is to help people flourish in their lives.
As Charles Murray showed in his book Losing Ground, the effort to help the poor and needy via government undermines the poor and the needy, renders them nearly helpless, wholly dependent upon the provisions government designates for them. Like the proverbial nephew who is taken care of no matter what he does, because the family feels for him, the people helped by government tend, in the main, to learn that their own initiative is dispensable in life. Others will take care of them, so why bother with figuring out how to take care of oneself?
Necessity is, as the cliché tells us, the mother of invention. And the poor and helpless need to become inventive in order to escape their lot not just for a month or year but their lifetimes. That is just what they will never learn if they are treated not as persons with great potential but as just the permanently poor and needy.
We know that there are those in the human race who succeed against great odds. This happens when they aren't always bailed out but have to come up with ways to overcome their adversities. Yes, a little help from one's friends is useful in a pinch because that way it does not promise endless care-taking.
But the Liberal Democratic vision of a government, via its legislation and regulation, enshrines the doctrine of paternalism and thus communicates to all those in need of support that this support is now guaranteed. And that is bad for people, however earnest, humane and compassionate the feelings of those who champion such politics.
The West Wing tries hard to show that everyone in favor of more and more government involvement in society is good hearted. Even if this were true in real life, it would not be good enough. Human beings should not be treated as children when they are no longer children. And Liberal Democrats do not know this. Even if they aren't motivated by the love of power, as I am reasonably sure many are, their best motivations are bad for the country. Government isn't supposed to be where good is done--it is the society where that is supposed to happen. Government is supposed to secure our rights so we can do good on our own.