Conservative Freedom Lovers: You’re Doing It Wrong

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I love lamp. Photo: Joe Raedle/2009 Getty Images

Even though I do not usually share it, I understand the concept of fearing government power. Sometimes you give the government the power to do something noble, or apparently noble, and government distorts it into an instrument of self-aggrandizement or abuse. It is where this generalized fear of government power translates to specifics that the conservative worldview baffles me.

For instance, Republican judge Roger Vinson authored a seminal — and, at the time, novel and shocking — ruling overturning the Affordable Care Act. Vinson’s argument hinged upon a long chain of tendentious claims, the most important of which was his belief that allowing Congress the power to require people to have health insurance would open the door to an Orwellian nightmare world:

If it has the power to compel an otherwise passive individual into a commercial transaction with a third party merely by asserting — as was done in the Act — that compelling the actual transaction is itself “commercial and economic in nature, and substantially affects interstate commerce,” it is not hyperbolizing to suggest that Congress could do almost anything it wanted.

Anything! You could be forced to buy broccoli, he warned. Really, a world in which people had to buy health insurance — like Massachusetts — was one in which the last embers of freedom were to be snuffed out.

Judge Vinson has reentered the news for having approved the National Security Agency’s program of collecting all of the phone records in America. There’s no way something like that could lead to any kind of abuse.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal editorial page is telling everybody not to worry about wide-ranging government data mining:

We bow to no one in our desire to limit government power, but data-mining is less intrusive on individuals than routine airport security. The data sweep is worth it if it prevents terror attacks that would lead politicians to endorse far greater harm to civil liberties.

But do you know what kind of government power does stoke the Journal’s fear of tyranny? The power to let people rent bicycles, which Journal editorial writer Dorothy Rabinowitz has decried as totalitarian. Not just annoying, not even authoritarian, but totalitarian. (Rabinowitz has made a follow-up video defending her original, unhinged rant.)

Meanwhile, the latest conservative to dismiss any fears of snooping is Jack Welch:

Yes! This Jack Welch, from last October:

Really — if you thought Barack Obama was covertly manipulating well-guarded federal employment statistics, would you be perfectly sanguine about him directing a massive campaign to sweep up everybody’s electronic communications? I don't think Obama could have done that. But if I thought it was even possible, I'd be really concerned about giving his administration sweeping electronic powers.

Conservatives are fond of repeating the line “A government big enough to give you everything you want, is a government big enough to take away everything that you have,” which they often attribute to Thomas Jefferson, who never actually said anything like it. Maybe they should be a little less terrified of the “giving you what you need” parts and a little more skeptical of the “take away everything you have” parts.