But one particular quote that hasn’t made much news stood out to me. And it seems to speak volumes about how Barr views both himself and perhaps President Trump, as well as the choice confronting the American people.
While making his case against career prosecutors, Barr referenced a famous 1948 quote from C.S. Lewis pitting “omnipotent moral busybodies” against “robber barons.” The below passage is from his prepared remarks:
This risk is inevitable and cannot be avoided simply by — as we certainly strive to do — hiring as prosecutors only moral people with righteous motivations. I am reminded of a passage by C.S. Lewis:“It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth.”Even the most well-meaning people can do great damage if they lose perspective. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, as they say.
On one level, using the quote makes perfect sense in the context of Barr’s tenure, which has been marked by controversies — most notably his repeated interventions in cases involving Trump. He’s allowing that perhaps the prosecutors mean well, but as the Lewis quote suggests, even those good intentions can give way to overzealousness. He’s standing himself up as a check on that.
But who exactly are the “robber barons” in this comparison? That’s a phrase used by historians to refer to 19th-century industrialists who amassed wealth and power through often unscrupulous and unethical methods. Lewis’s concept was that even that would be preferable to “omnipotent moral busybodies” being in charge, because he said that could lead to what “may be the most oppressive” form of tyranny.
But it’s still setting up a choice — a choice that Barr apparently believes carries parallels to today — in which people might have to sacrifice moral leadership for better leadership, even if it means elevating ruthless people of questionable character.
Barr is a smart man, and it’s unlikely he would pick such a quote without knowing that the “robber barons” in it might be understood as either himself, Trump or both. Trump’s business history certainly includes unsavory elements, more notably his scheme to inherit his father’s wealth, which a lengthy New York Times investigation reported included instances of what it labeled outright “fraud.” Similarly, Barr is often accused of undermining core Justice Department norms, particularly with his interventions in the Roger Stone and Michael Flynn cases and in his demand for an investigation into the origins of the Russia investigation.
Barr’s argument would seem to be, then, that even if you think that he or Trump is heavy-handed or objectionable, they’re at least preferable to letting the moralists run wild within the U.S. government. But that’s still quite a choice that he’s setting up — and it’s one that, conveniently, involves investing plenty of faith in and giving plenty of latitude to people whose motives may be suspect.