All Commentary
Thursday, August 1, 1974

A Proper Distrust

Mr. Wallis is Chancellor of the University of Rochester. These are excerpts from his remarks at the 124th Annual Commencement, May 12, 1974.

Those who distrust governments are right. For governments everywhere undertake to do many things that cannot be done by governments — least of all by democratic governments — and they even undertake to do some things that cannot be done at all, either by governmental or nongovernmental means. Governments readily promise good incomes, good health, good morals, good taste, and good relations among individuals. They promise equality, justice, tolerance, and safety, as well as peace, progress, prosperity, and purity, and even truth, goodness, beauty, and salvation. They attempt to protect us from our own follies —from the folly of smoking tobacco or marijuana, from the folly of watching indecent movies, from the folly of selling too cheap or buying too high, from the folly of buying too cheap or selling too high, from the folly of wasting our money, from the folly of failing to fasten seat-belts, from the folly of buying pills in containers that can be opened by children or arthritics, and from the folly of setting the wrong temperature on the laundry machine. The list is endless in number, infinite in detail, and growing exponentially.

It is a striking paradox that the more people distrust the government, the more powers and responsibilities they heap upon it, many of the new powers being designed to counterbalance other powers that the government already has. The more powers the government has, the more ruthless, corrupt, and pervasive become the efforts to control those powers, the more numerous and harmful become the failures of the government, and the smaller becomes the respect and confidence that the government receives or deserves.

The appropriate remedy for excessive governmental powers, for abuses of governmental powers, for ruthlessness and corruption in gaining control of governmental powers is not to create new governmental powers but to dismantle those that now exist. Return the power to the people. Give each individual the right and the responsibility for making his own free choices and decisions. Inevitably, some individuals will make unwise decisions, even decisions that harm other people; but in the long run the harm done in this way is likely to be neither as great in the aggregate nor as hard to correct as the harm done by over-government.