In his essay, “Of the First Principles of Government,” David Hume wrote:
Nothing appears more surprizing to those, who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye, than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and the implicit submission, with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers. When we enquire by what means this wonder is effected, we shall find, that, as FORCE is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is therefore, on opinion only that government is founded.
Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, is complaining loudly that the federal government is not doing enough about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Jindal lays the fault mainly at the feet of President Obama. My co-blogger Grover Cleveland has linked to a couple articles critical of the attitude of many—including, apparently, Jindal—that (a) the president should just do something, anything; that (b) the president is responsible for all problems, big or small; and that (c) no matter what the problem is, the president can, as if by magic, fix it. Of course, this president has done his share to court these attitudes by enjoying the posture of the I-can-do-anything superhero. (Remember his 2008 “This Is Our Moment” speech, in which he said that his election would mark the moment when, among many other things, the “rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal”?)
The catastrophe in the Gulf is showing us once again the silliness of believing that the president, or any other person, can, like Zeus, change the world merely by nodding his head.
But back to Jindal for a moment. Why doesn’t he just do what he wants to do? Why is he waiting for permission from President Obama, or from anyone else? I understand that while Louisiana has authority over its own coastline the federal government has jurisdiction in the Gulf where the oil leak is, but so what? This is clearly an emergency situation in which standard operating procedures may not apply. If there is something Jindal believes needs to be done, and he is ready and prepared to do it—both of which he is claiming are the case—then by all means go ahead!
The power that the federal government enjoys in this case may have statutory authority, but I think Hume’s dictum is right: It rests ultimately on opinion. Jindal has been waiting for permission because it is his opinion, and that of most others, that he needs to ask for permission. It is a habit of obedience and subservience that might serve well in other, normal circumstances. This is a time of crisis, however. So I say: Governor Jindal, become the leader you deride President Obama for failing to be. The near and practical consequence might be a lessening of the consequences of this present disaster; the further consequence might be a healthy challenge to the growing, and I think worrying, consensus that the federal government is the seat of all authority.