The Tuned Feds

Ralph Hull, an early 20th century Ohio magician, was able to achieve one of the most amazing magic feats of all: He could repeat a trick to fellow magicians, and they couldn’t guess his secret.

According to philosopher Daniel Dennett, Hull called his trick “The Tuned Deck.” It was a variant of the old “pick a card, any card” routine. After you put your card back in the deck, Ralph would riffle the deck and listen to the sound it made to figure out your card, then produce it with a flourish. The secret, Dennett explained, is that, “The trick, in its entirety, is in the name of the trick… and more specifically, in one word: ‘The!'”

The audience thought he did the trick the same way each time. A trained magician might suspect him of doing a palm, but the next time Ralph made it obvious he wasn’t palming. Maybe it was a false cut? But next time, there was no cut at all. Because Ralph kept changing the method but keeping the illusion the same, no one ever figured out his secret.

The federal government is using the same trick. “The” federal government. As if it was a single entity with all parts operating in unison, always increasing its power over us in the exact same way.

Though the size and power of the government does increase under any administration, the mechanism changes each time. Government grew under Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II and now Obama, but in different ways. Government grows with any combination of Democrats and Republicans controlling the legislative and executive branches. It grew when everything was under Republican control, it grew when the two parties split control, and it grows now under Democrat control.

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Sometimes it grows primarily through foreign policy, as under Bush II, and sometimes through domestic policy, as under Obama. But previous policies of growth are rarely reversed: Our military is still in Iraq and Afghanistan and Germany and South Korea. We still have the Departments of Energy, Labor and Education. We still have the Federal Reserve.

Just when the populace figures out what tricks the current incarnation of the federal government is pulling, the government changes the method.

So what is a citizen to do?

Are we really supposed to waste our time reading bills when those who vote on them don’t bother? Must we pore over the minutiae of politics and protest each particular attack on our freedom? Who has that kind of time?

The lesson from Ralph Hull is that it wouldn’t matter. Pick a politician, any politician. Maybe one particular election swings because of a hanging chad. Maybe another is a choice between two candidates who differ in no substantive way. No matter who you vote for, the Patriot Act is presented with a flourish. So is war and socialized medicine and bailed-out banks.

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No, trying to expose the federal government’s tricks is a pointless endeavor, because the tricks change but the performance does not.

What happened with the magicians who kept trying to figure out Hull’s secret? With each repetition, and each rejected hypothesis, their resolve grew weaker and weaker until they simply stopped trying to figure it out.

And that’s what will happen to us too if we just keep fighting each particular infraction on our liberty as it occurs. We’ll get tired, and they’ll keep going. We tried protesting the war under the previous administration. We tried Tea Party protests and Town Hall attendance under this administration. Did it help? Are we out of Iraq or Afghanistan? Have we stopped bailing out banks? Have we removed regulations limiting our health care options?

If Ralph Hull's secret had gotten out, people would simply stop watching him; when you ignore a magician, he doesn’t get your money. But that's the difference with government: they will take it anyway. The government is like one of those annoying guys at parties who says, “Give me a twenty and I’ll make it disappear.” The only solution is to not let them take your money.

So how do we get the federal government out of our wallets, when they can tax us anything they choose and print however much more they want? We need some magic of our own. We need to saw some laws in half, levitate a couple amendments, and make many government agencies disappear.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Fairfield Weekly.

September 9, 2009