While I was growing up I read and reread an old collection of Grimm’s Fairy Tales that was unaccountably sitting on the shelf (kids never wonder where those books come from, or who bought them, but I’m wondering now). One of my favorites was “The Flounder,” several versions of which appear in many cultures. In the Grimm version, a poor fisherman catches a flounder that turns out to be magic. She grants him a wish in return for her life, but he can’t think of anything he needs. So he simply lets her go—because who wants to eat a talking fish?
Upon hearing the fisherman’s tale, his wife calls him a fool and demands he go back to request a nicer house. The flounder grants that wish, but the wife isn’t satisfied: She wants to be duchess, then queen, then empress, then pope. The flounder grants all these, with more and more elaborate trappings, until the wife wants to be master of the universe. Instantly, all her accoutrements disappear, and she’s back in a smoky hovel with her long-suffering husband.
She should have counted herself lucky. Similar ambitions worked out much worse for Satan.
Icarus flew too close to the sun, and a certain rich man determined to build bigger barns to hold his bountiful produce. It’s called overreach, a well-known phenomenon in human history—both in individuals and in political systems.
In fact, many political commentators have remarked recently how overreach is a peculiar weakness of liberalism, with the spectacular failure of the Obamacare rollout as Exhibit A. It would certainly seem so, but Obamacare is more like a perfect storm, in which all the worries and warnings about Big Government join together in one mighty wind. Such as:
Incompetence concerns, of the sort that plague any enterprise with a huge pot and a multitude of cooks. Healthcare.gov was put together in too short a time with too many last-minute decisions that screwed up previous decisions, rammed through (like the law itself) by an administration that was dead set on launching it, ready or not.
Security concerns like our uneasiness about NSA spying and big-data collection. Cybersecurity experts are advising us not to leave any personal information on the website (provided we can get there) because its exemption from many privacy rules make it a “hacker’s dream.”
Abuse-of-power concerns, as we experienced with Fast and Furious and the IRS intimidation of opposition groups. The projected millions of Americans kicked off their current insurance plans is only the beginning; wait until medical rationing kicks in.
Moral concerns raised by the administration’s homosexual policies and birth-control mandates. Abortions could be subsidized under Obamacare, despite promises to the contrary. What other monuments to sexual irresponsibility and deviancy will taxpayers be forced to support?
Because of its immediate impact on lifestyles and bank balances, some commentators see Obamacare as a tsunami roaring in from the sea to sweep away liberalism as a political force, at least for the next 100 years or so. That’s how long it took for it to build up to its current muscle-flexing, public-swaying power. Like any system based on a false view of human nature, liberalism is bound to fail or falter. The excesses of the French Revolution met a bloody end in the Reign of Terror, and War on Poverty programs slowed a bit during the Reagan years. At the same time, many commentators tell us, conservatism is slowly growing as more individuals identify with conservative positions (at least the fiscal variety) than in the 1930s.
Well, maybe. Contemporary liberalism is due for a takedown, but not death. It’s one of those basic human yearnings that can’t be killed this side of eternity: something for nothing and the checks for free. But this sort of liberalism is only plausible in the stable, prosperous societies that conservatism builds. And conservatives have their signature fault, too: not overreach but complacency. Both are prey to totalitarianism, which could be the second perfect storm if there aren’t enough freedom-loving people around to pick up the pieces after the first.