John Kerry’s Consistency

Joseph M. Knippenberg

October 1, 2004

Yesterday, Al Gore asserted that "the original sin" of the Bush presidency is "the love of power for its own sake." I happen to think that this accusation applies more directly to John Kerry, who appears to be positively enthralled with the power of government.

Let’s start with stem cell research. Kerry’s advocacy of governmental sponsorship of research is an example of how he’s the candidate, he says, who "believes in science." He and his running mate, John Edwards, have imagined expansive—nay, unlimited—prospects for doing good, if only government unleashes and then harnesses the power of human ingenuity. We’ll conquer Parkinson’s, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and spinal cord injuries, among others. In a Kerry Administration, Edwards claimed, Christopher Reeve would be walking. Aside from the unfortunate (and blasphemous) Biblical resonance of that example, it overlooks a whole series of scientific, technical, and moral problems.

Yes, I have a problem with creating and exploiting blastocysts (potential human lives), even if the purpose is potentially relieving human ills. But that’s not my point here. Once we’ve unleashed science, we have to turn around and control it. After all, the power that comes from scientific knowledge isn’t unambiguously good. Genetic engineering could be used both to cure diseases and create superbugs. It’s also only a small step from discovering therapies that alleviate disabilities to discovering those that enhance abilities. What’s the problem, you ask? Won’t "ability enhancements" (like certain fertility treatments now) be available only to those who can afford them? Or will the government have to step in, either to prevent the distribution of such enhancements or to make them equally available to everyone? Yes, this sounds like science fiction. But here’s a fact: big science isn’t possible without big government, both to fund the research and to control its consequences. A president who is committed to expanding the scope and power of science must also be committed to expanding the scope and power of government.

Then there’s Kerry’s newly voiced religious theme: his domestic policy flows in large part from the injunction to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Not surprisingly, George W. Bush has dined out many a night on what he terms "the universal call." But there’s a big difference: while for the President, individuals are called to love, for Kerry it’s government that is the instrument of love. For Bush, it’s a relationship between one individual and another, perhaps underwritten and protected by government, which he at one point called "the giant check-writer." For Kerry, it’s the spirit animating a vast bureaucracy. Conservatives who blanch at the President’s moderate embrace of big government must be having nightmares over Kerry’s advocacy of even bigger government.

But we’re not done yet. The logic of Kerry’s foreign policy, expressed perhaps infelicitously in terms of a "global test," points toward an increasingly prominent role for multilateral bodies, like the United Nations and the International Criminal Court. The existence of great governmental power is inevitable, he would certainly admit, but it must be subjected to or put in the service of egalitarian constraints. The best way to control American superpower is effectively to subject it to international public opinion. Big power requires even bigger governmental controls, or else it produces inequality (at a minimum) and tremendous abuses (at a maximum). Someone has to administer the global tests.

Thus John Kerry is the candidate not only of big American government but ultimately of big global government. It all begins with stem cells. Given his commitment to the infinite horizons of scientific research, there are no limits in "the laws of nature and nature’s God" to which we can hold that government. Indeed, according to Kerry, human rights are granted by government, apparently not derived from nature or God. So there is ultimately no limit to what government can be or do, ostensibly on our behalf, to increase "our" power. And no principled reason to rest with one level of government when another more effectively promotes the ends or power we crave.

John Kerry is supposed to offer us a sustained account of his faith sometime before Election Day. He might pleasantly surprise me, but I’m not hopeful, for he has thus far campaigned as the candidate of unlimited, illimitable human power. His works do indeed reveal his faith, and that’s precisely what I fear.

Joseph M. Knippenberg is Professor of Politics and Associate Provost for Student Achievement at Oglethorpe University.