The Problem with Power

Most people are familiar with Lord Acton’s dictum: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I’m not sure if the dictum is quite right, but it is a useful principle when thinking about power and who ought to have it. It’s possible to exercise a significant amount of power without being corrupted by it, but the people who end up with the ability to exercise significant power tend to be the ones that are already corrupt.

After all, what kind of person wants to rule over others? There are two main characteristics that we can expect to see in the typical power-seeker. First, the power-seeker believes that he would do a better job at exercising power than others. Second, the power-seeker enjoys the exercise of power in itself, regardless of the consequences.

Neither of these rules apply to all people who exercise power. There are undoubtedly leaders who are humble and who exercise their power reluctantly. George Washington is perhaps the ideal example. Nevertheless, the mechanisms by which power is gained tend to reward arrogance and selfish ambition, rather than humility and an earnest desire to do good.

This problem is impossible to avoid when power is available for the taking. In a hereditary monarchy, a person in the line of succession may rise to power by having the king and his heirs killed. In a democracy, a demagogue can manipulate the passions of the people, spouting misinformation and lies to arouse a wave of fury which he can ride to office. The heir who simply waits for the king to die and the scrupulous politician campaigning on truth hardly stand a chance.

And this is why the United States government is structured so as to minimize the amount of power exercised by any one person. Each branch has limitations placed on the exercise of its powers, and there are checks and balances galore to reduce the sphere of unilateral action as much as possible. This makes the exercise of power less immediately effective, and also less enjoyable for those who wield it.

By minimizing the effect of power (and the pleasure that its exercise affords), we make positions of power less appealing for the unscrupulous. Holding office becomes an act of public service, rather than a means of imposing one’s will on the world.

Unfortunately, the checks and balances built into the Constitution have been largely eroded or erased. The President of the United States now commands an army of bureaucrats to regulate domestic affairs, as well as an actual army to regulate international affairs. The President not only has the ability to wage drone warfare in many parts of the world without seeking authorization from Congress, but he can also control the sex lives of college students via nonsensical interpretations of Title IX regulations.

In framing a government, it’s important to strike a balance between liberty and effectiveness. Power which cannot be used for evil cannot be used for good, either. A government which can do no evil probably won’t accomplish much at all. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but there is a need for some kind of centralized power to ensure that the country isn’t plunged into chaos. This is why the Articles of Confederation were a failure. The Constitution provided for a substantially stronger central government because the Union needed greater centralization to survive.

At the same time, however, too much effectiveness results in an excess of order, otherwise known as tyranny. Absolutely effective power may achieve its goals quickly, but there’s nothing that requires those goals to be desirable. Moreover, even if we can count on the desirability of the goals of our ruler, we cannot necessarily count on his knowing the best way to accomplish those goals. Policies enacted with one effect in mind can often have the exact opposite effect.

A disturbingly large proportion of the American population seems to want a more powerful government, one in which partisan bickering doesn’t prevent significant legislation from being passed, in which the federal government does more to help people who are in economic distress, and in which individual conduct and speech are heavily regulated. Both sides of the political spectrum suffer from this hunger for a stronger government. Authoritarianism is just at home on the left as it is on the right.

As dissatisfaction with our limited government grows, the potential for a truly authoritarian figure to rise to power grows with it. If you think Trump is bad, wait for whoever comes next. Trump is merely one of a long line of presidents who have expanded executive authority. His presidency will not significantly alter the path we’re on. As partisan polarization grows, the public perception of the government will continue to decline. The people will look to Congress and see only chaos. They will want a hero to come in and clean things up, sort things out, make things happen. And when that hero fails, the process will repeat, with each successive hero coming closer to getting rid of the freedom which makes our current state of political disorder possible.

Free government is necessarily somewhat messy. As James Madison put it in Federalist No. 10:

Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.

We don’t need a hero to come in and put out the fire. What we need is a civic culture that acknowledges the necessity of placing limitations on the powers of the government. The system will always be broken, because all systems are always broken, to some degree. The best we can do is create a sphere of freedom in which individuals can do as they see fit, slowly but surely discovering what does and does not work. Eliminating this sphere would all but guarantee our doom.


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