Social observers from Aristotle and Juvenal to James Madison and George Orwell have all warned of the dangers of out-of-control government. Lately, we have seen plenty of proof that they were frighteningly correct.
The Environmental Protection Agency spilled 3 million gallons of toxic sludge into a tributary of the Animas River in Colorado. The stinky yellow flume of old mine waste -- rife with cancer-causing mercury and arsenic -- threatens to pollute the drinking and recreational water of three states.
Had a private oil company acted so incompetently and negligently, it would have been fined billions of dollars by the same EPA. The company's top executives might have been subject to criminal prosecutions. The business's reputation would have been tarnished for years. Just ask BP officials what the Obama administration did to the corporation after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico.
But who will police the green police at the EPA?
When EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy promises that the agency will take "full responsibility," what does that tired banality mean? Will she resign? Will bureaucrats responsible for the toxic spill face fines and jail sentences? Will residents be able to sue McCarthy and her subordinates for diminishing their quality of life? Will the Sierra Club and the Environmental Defense Fund rush to federal court to file briefs?
Consider the vast bureaucracy of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Is it culpable for knowingly not enforcing immigration law and thus allowing some undocumented immigrants to commit violent crimes?
In cases where innocent Americans are killed by undocumented immigrants with long histories of felonies and deportations -- such as the recent killing of Kate Steinle in San Francisco -- can the victims' families sue ICE or sanctuary cities for either releasing or hosting criminals who were residing in the U.S. illegally?
In our litigious society in which plaintiffs sue fast-food franchises for serving excessively hot coffee, why do government bureaucrats escape culpability when the innocent die or are injured as a result of bureaucratic negligence?
When the IRS hounds citizens about their taxes, can Americans inform the agency that they are invoking the Fifth Amendment and refusing to answer out of fear of self-incrimination -- and expect to face no criminal consequences?
No? Why, then, was high-ranking IRS official Lois Lerner able to sign off on the excessive scrutiny of some conservative nonprofit groups, lie about it and then invoke the Fifth -- without any legal consequences?
Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton likely broke a number of federal laws while secretary of state in using a private email server at her home to conduct both private and public business. One, she kept documents containing classified information at an unauthorized location. Two, she either destroyed or removed official communications entrusted to her as a public servant. Three, she was legally responsible for the loss of information involving national defense. Four, she likely destroyed documents to block federal agencies' examination of them.
So far, Clinton had escaped any consequences.
What is the common denominator in these government scandals -- as well as the recent scandals involving the needless deaths of veterans waiting for care at Veterans Health Administration facilities, the sex and booze escapades of Secret Service agents, the Las Vegas junketing at the General Services Administration, the snooping at the National Security Agency and the lack of cyber-security at Office of Personnel Management?
The bigger that government gets, the more employees who are hired, and the more unaccountable power that accrues to bureaucracies, the more government takes on a life of its own. Public grandees resemble Hollywood's out-of-control androids or Frankenstein monsters that turn on their creators -- in these cases, us, the taxpayers.
Secure, high-level government administrative jobs -- where dismissal is rare and automatic promotion common -- promote mediocrity. Institutionalized incompetence explains why NASA can no longer launch its own astronauts into space without help from Russia, or why the cost of the California high-speed rail project soars before an inch of track is laid.
Clearly, Clinton and Lerner apparently assumed that as federal officials, they were not subject to the same laws imposed on other Americans. They reckoned that others in the fraternity of big government would protect them from legal jeopardy. And they are probably right.
Under the Obama administration, there is also a more disturbing trend: the equation of big government with social justice and hostility to private enterprise. If the EPA and other federal agencies are felt to be on the "right side" of fairness and equality, then why object when their means to supposedly noble ends violate or neglect the law?
Big government has become the new Terminator, at war with those who created it, who fund it -- and who must obey it.
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Victor Davis Hanson, a classicist and military historian, is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a recipient of the 2007 National Humanities Medal.