Historian Julian Zelizer writes that Watergate-style investigations are OK sometimes, but we shouldn’t go overboard in being mistrustful of the government. After all, “faith in government,” Zelizer writes, “is necessary for a healthy society.” As Rothbard notes below, the watergate scandal was an excellent event precisely because it undermined faith in government. Zelizer, however, tells us to “banish the memories of Watergate” so we can get over all this unhealthy suspicion of government.
Often, this outlook [of suspicion of government] has salutary effects by encouraging politicians to make sure that similar levels of corruption don’t happen again.
But, too often, as many would say has been the case with the IRS, stories of administrative mismanagement are blown out of proportion, consuming Washington’s time and taking their attention away from major problems.
The worst effect of Watergate is that it created a climate where Americans fundamentally don’t trust their government. It is one thing to be suspicious, another to reject altogether. Recent approval ratings for Congress tanked to 7% and for the President 29%. This is part of the broader trend we have seen since the 1960s.
It is extremely difficult for government to do its job or for voters to have the kind of faith in government, which is necessary for a healthy society.
Writing in 1973, on the other hand, Murray Rothbard took a rather different view. In his “Notes on Watergate” Rothbard early on saw some of the benefits of the scandal, and comparing Rothbard’s view here with the current situation we can draw a few conclusions:
- The Watergate conspiracy now seems quaint compared to the non-stop flood of government abuses we now face.
- The American public, if presented with a similar conspiracy today, would yawn and simply accept it. “The president is just trying to keep us safe” we would be told. Indeed, Rothbard notes below that Ronald Reagan defended the conspirators as spying for “a good cause.”
- The Watergate controversy was wonderful for at least two reasons: 1) It put impeachment of a president on the table. 2) It led to “rapid desanctification of our national secret police.” It’s no accident that after Watergate, Congress passed multiple pieces of legislation attempting to rein in the CIA, the FBI and other organs of the American secret police. Most of that is all null and void now, however.
Notes on Watergate The Libertarian Forum Volume V, NO. 5, May, 1973 by MNR
NOTES ON WATERGATE
By Murray N. Rothbard
This first appeared in The Libertarian Forum, Volume V, NO.5, May 1973
No doubt about it: we were dead wrong in pooh-poohing the political significance of Watergate (Nov. 1972). In our defense, however, Watergate remained a minor caper of piddling proportions until James W. McCord, Jr., under the hammer blows of Judge “Maximum John” Sirica, broke and began to implicate the higher-ups.