DangerHigh Voltage: The Perils of Power

Dr. Carson is a specialist in American social and intellectual history. He is President of the Canter for Individual and Family Enterprise. For further information, write him at Route 1, Box 13, Wadley, Alabama 36276.

On my walk to and from elementary school when I was a boy I used to pass a fenced enclosure. A metal sign bearing this legend was attached to the fence: “Danger—High Voltage.” Inside the fence were several large transformers to which wires from a high tension power line were attached. There was a factory across the road which got its power for running large machines from the transformers. Although boys often do daring and foolish things I never heard of anyone who breached this fence to examine the transformers. The warning sign might have served only as an invitation, but it was mightily reinforced by our knowledge of the dangers of electricity.

The recollection of these things set me to thinking about another kind of danger—that posed by government. At first glance, there might appear to be no connecting links between government and electricity. After all, electricity is a physical phenomenon, while government is political and social. Even so, it turns out that upon deeper reflection there are some interesting and instructive parallels between the two. Even some of the differences are enlightening, once the parallels have been brought into focus.

The most obvious parallel between government and electricity is that both are kinds of power. This attribute is acknowledged in the language we use to describe them. Thus, we speak of the power of government. Companies that provide electricity are often referred to as power companies, and some contain the word in their formal titles.

The power of government resides in its capacity to intimidate, coerce, or use force against its enemies, domestic or foreign. Governments are sometimes compared with one another in terms of which is the more powerful. Common measurements for making such determinations are the size of the armed forces, the amount of its armor and weapons of various sizes and kinds, the resources it can bring to bear in a military effort, the morale of its troops, and so on. Sometimes, too, we speak of political power, by which we mean such things as influence and status in bringing the power to bear on others. Such power is sometimes distributed within chains of command, but its actual exercise is often modified by the will to assert power by those in position to do so, and other informal relations.

Electric vs. Governmental Power

The power of electricity resides in its capacity to produce heat or to perform such varied functions as lighting, cooling, activating motors, and so on, depending upon the instrument to which it is applied. The power is measured in such terms as volts, ohms, amps, and watts. The basic unit of electricity is the electron. The basic unit of government is a person. The power of electricity stems from infinitesimal electrons; the power of government arises from exceedingly complex persons.

Both government and electricity work on similar principles in regard to distance. The principle can be stated this way: The farther the distance each must travel before it is applied the greater the amount of the force must be.

For the effective transmission of electricity through metal lines the amount of force required can be stated with fair precision. The amount required to transmit a current one mile is 1,000 volts or a kilovolt. The amount increases proportionally for each additional mile, e.g., 13,000 volts for a distance of 10-20 miles, 110,000 volts for a hundred miles, and so on. For the short distance involved between a transformer and various points in a house 110 volts is ordinarily sufficient. For the much shorter distances in an automobile 6 volts may be adequate. The simplest and most direct explanation of this requirement of proportionally greater force in relation to distance is that it is necessary to overcome the resistance in the wires.

The size of the force of government must be proportional to distances, too, to be effective. This relationship is most apparent in defending a border against an invader. The longer the border is the greater the size of the force that will be needed to defend it, other things being equal. The size of police force needed for the effective patrol increases with the area, though density of population is also a factor. The more functions that government attempts to perform the more power it requires. In this, the requirements of government are directly analogous to those for electricity.

But the most significant parallel between government and electricity is that both are dangerous. Electricity is dangerous to property, to life, to plants, lower animals, and man. A short in a wire can burn down a house. A stroke of lightning which strikes the ground can destroy all the life in the surrounding soil, making the area barren for a season. Electricity can shock, burn, destroy organs of the body, and kill.

A Dangerous Power

History is replete with instances which demonstrate the danger of government. The unleashed power of government has wrought devastation and destruction upon whole peoples. Government is an ever-present danger to the life, liberty, and property of those over whom it rules and to others upon whom it may make war. It can confiscate property, imprison, compel attendance upon its proceedings, and execute people. In different senses, both electricity and government are elemental forces: the one physical, the other social or political.

The dangers of electricity are well known, and great care is taken in generating, transmitting, and distributing it. High tension wires are usually conveyed high above the ground and are held in place by tall poles or metal towers. They are hung from cross bars on heavy insulators, and are well out of reach of men in their ordinary pursuits. Before the electricity is brought into homes and factories its voltage is reduced to levels that are much less dangerous by transformers. All wires are insulated, and at any place where they are exposed, they are ordinarily covered by plates or other shields. Electrical devices and appliances are usually rated for the voltages they will tolerate or require, and light fixtures specify maximum wattage bulbs to be used. Fuse or breaker boxes protect against high surges of electricity as well as sustained overloads to appliances. In short, electricity is insulated, transformed, grounded, shielded, and monitored so as to reduce its dangers to a minimum and to enable us to use it in many constructive ways.

The widespread use of electricity is a relatively recent development. At the time of the making of the United States Constitution scientists were familiar with it as a natural phenomenon, but no means had yet been devised for producing it in quantity nor potential uses conceived for it. Interest at the time was focused on controlling lightning, the most devastating manifestation of electricity in nature. Benjamin Franklin had only lately proved that lightning is electricity with his famous kite experiment. Enough was known about conducting electricity for the subsequent invention of the lightning rod to protect structures.

A Profound Understanding

By contrast, the men who formed and shaped the political institutions of the United States knew a great deal about government. They were especially aware of its dangers. Of course, they believed that government was necessary and when rightly used beneficial, but they were probably more aware of the perils of power than any generation of men who ever lived. This awareness was attributable, in part at least, to the fact that government for them had been largely de- mystified. Something akin to the de-mystification of government had also occurred in the field of electricity. By de-mystification, I mean that something was no longer considered as being primarily a mystery but rather as capable of being understood by reason, and hence could be altered and controlled.

From time immemorial, lightning had been a mystery; it had been looked upon with awe, in fear, and with superstitious wonder. Most commonly, lightning had been thought of as an instrument or play-thing of the gods. Bolts of lightning were directed at men as punishment or retribution for their wrongdoing or defiance of the gods. Franklin demystified it; he brought it into the realm of the natural and made of it something to which reason could be applied.

A parallel, though not nearly so universal, view of government has often prevailed. In the age immediately preceding that of the founding of the United States Europeans generally believed in the divine right of kings. They were instruments of God. Their selection was an accident of birth. Their duty was to do the will of God; the duty of the subject was to obey those placed over him in authority. Their powers were such as were appropriate to the fallen state of man and they were hedged about with mystery such as belonged to beings who did not belong to ordinary experience. A major de-mystification of government occurred in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, though similar developments had occurred at other times and places in history.

The founders of the United States were beneficiaries of this de-mystification of government. The change that had taken place in the outlook on government lent a special importance to their awareness of the dangers of government. Men had undoubtedly known that government was dangerous in times past, much as they had known that lightning was dangerous. But if there was nothing much to be done about them there was no need to keep these dangers at the forefront of consciousness. De-mystification changed that.

The documents of the era of the founding of the United States abound with references to the dangers of government. John Dickinson, in his objections to British taxes, provided a primer in how governments gradually increase their powers and become despotic. He said:

Indeed nations, in general, are not apt to think until they feel; and therefore nations in general have lost their liberty: For as violations of the rights of the governed, are commonly not only specious, but small at the beginning, they spread over the multitude in such a manner, as to touch individuals but slightly. Thus they are disregarded . . . . They regularly increase the first injuries, till at length the inattentive people are compelled to perceive the heaviness of their burdens—They begin to complain and inquire—but too late. They find their oppressors so strengthened by success, and themselves so entangled in examples of express authority on the part of their rulers, and of tacit recognition on their own part, that they are quite confounded . . . .

From these reflections I conclude that every free state should incessantly watch, and instantly take alarm on any addition being made to the power exercised over them. Innumerable instances might be produced to show, from what slight beginnings the most extensive consequences have flowed . . . . [1]

Benjamin Franklin pointed out in 1785 how governments may become instruments of injustice. “I see, in the last newspaper from London,” he declared, “that a Woman is capitally convicted at the Old Bailey, for privately stealing out of a Shop some Gauze, value 14 Shillings and threepence; is there any Proportion between the Injury done by a Theft . . . . and the Punishment of a human Creature, by Death, on a Gibbet?” Franklin ruminated on this injustice to one of its own citizens by the British government and moved to the conclusion that it was of a piece with the behavior of the government generally. He gave the following instances of mistreatment of other peoples and nations: “View the long-persisted-in, unjust monopolizing Treatment of Ireland . . . . View the plundering Government exer-cis’d by your Merchants in the Indies, the confiscating War made upon the American colonies; and, to say nothing of those upon France and Spain . . . .” He concluded with these stirring words:

Justice is as strictly due between neighbour Nations as between neighbour Citizens. A Highwayman is as much a Robber when he plunders in a Gang as when single; and a Nation that makes an unjust War, is only a great Gang . . . . [2]

The danger of government was palpable to Thomas Jefferson, and none exceeded him in their fears of it and desire to see it restrained. He even declared that “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.”[3] Of the governments of Europe in his time, he said that “under pretence of governing they have divided their nations into two classes, wolves and sheep.”[4] Further, “to constrain the brute force of the people, they deem it necessary to keep them down by hard labor, poverty, and ignorance; and to take from them, as from bees, so much of their earnings as that unremitting labor shall be necessary to obtain a sufficient surplus barely to sustain a scanty and miserable life. And these earnings they apply to maintain their privileged orders in splendor and idleness . . . .”[5]

Fear of Conscription

John Adams expressed his fears about military conscription to Thomas Jefferson in a letter in 1777. Jefferson had written him that Virginia had been able to fill its quota of troops without resort to a draft. Adams could but “rejoice to learn that your Battallions, were so far fill’d, as to render a Draught from the Militia, unnecessary. It is a dangerous Measure, and only to be adopted in great Extremities, even by popular Governments.” He noted that monarchs often utilized the draft with “no Interest of their own nor any other object in View, than the Gratification of the Avarice, Ambition, Envy, Revenge, or Vanity of a Single Tyrant.”[6]

Richard Henry Lee, in his Letters from the Federal Farmer, expressed agreement with John Adams’ view “that unbridled passions produce the same effect, whether in a king, nobility, or a mob. The experience of all mankind has proved the prevalence of a disposition to use power wantonly. It is therefore as necessary to defend an individual against the majority in a republick as against the king in a monarchy.”[7]

The dangers of government were rehearsed in full measure in the Constitutional Convention. For example, Rufus King of Massachusetts objected to setting a date for Congress to meet each year because he “could not think there would be a necessity for a meeting every year. A great vice in our system was that of legislating too much.”[8] Roger Sherman of Connecticut wanted to make the President absolutely dependent on Congress because “An independence of the Executive . . . was in his opinion the very essence of tyranny . . . .”[9] Benjamin Franklin opposed salaries for those in the executive branch because, he said, “there are two passions which have a powerful influence on the affairs of men. These are ambition and avarice; the love of power, and the love of money. Separately each of these has great force in prompting men to action; but when united in view of the same object, they have in many minds the most violent effects. Place before the eyes of such men, a post of honour that shall be at the same time a place of profit, and they will move heaven and earth to obtain it.”[10]

Majority Rule and Tyranny

James Madison pointed up the dangers of unrestricted majority rule: “In all cases where a majority are united by a common interest or passion, the rights of the minority are in danger.” Among others, he gave the following examples:

We have seen the mere distinction of colour made . . . a ground of the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man . . . . Debtors have defrauded their creditors. The landed interest has borne hard on the mercantile interest. The Holders of one species of property have thrown a disproportion of taxes on the holders of another species. The lesson we are to draw from the whole is that where a majority are united by a common sentiment, and have an opportunity, the rights of the minor party become insecure.[11]

Some feared that the Congress might be tyrannical. For example, Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania thought that “It is necessary then that the Executive Magistrate should be the guardian of the people, even of the lower classes, against Legislative tyranny, against the Great & wealthy who in the course of things will necessarily compose the Legislative body.”[12] On the other hand, Madison pointed out the need for “defending the Community against the incapacity, negligence or perfidy of the chief Magistrate [President]. The limitation of the period of his service, was not a sufficient security. He might lose his capacity after his appointment. He might pervert his administration into a scheme of peculation or oppression. He might betray his trust to foreign powers.”[13]

Beyond all the particular dangers which this one or that one saw in one branch or another or in particular powers there was a general danger which a goodly number saw. We might well call it the danger of high voltage. They often referred to it as the danger of centralized and consolidated government, the danger of a government remote from the people with large powers, the peril of such powers for the liberties of the people. Patrick Henry described it this way in the debates over ratification in the Virginia convention:

. . . Had the delegates who were sent to Philadelphia a power to propose a consolidated government . . . ? Here is a resolution as radical as that which separated us from Great Britain. It is radical in this . . . ; our rights and privileges are endangered, and the sovereignty of the states will be relinquished . . . . The rights of conscience, trial by jury, liberty of the press, all pretensions to human rights and privileges, are rendered insecure . . . A number of characters, of the greatest eminence in this country object to this government for its consolidating tendency . . . . The government will operate like an ambuscade. It will destroy the state governments, and swallow the liberties of the people.[14]

For a Bill of Rights

The overarching danger which many perceived in the proposed government, then, was that the liberties of the people were not secured against it. Thomas Jefferson asserted his view of what was wanted succinctly: “Let me add that a bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government, general or particular, and what no just government should refuse . . .”[15] To those who argued that no powers were granted in the Constitution to invade the rights of the people, Patrick Henry gave this ringing rebuttal: “Mr. Chairman, the necessity of a bill of rights appears to me to be greater in this government than ever it was in any government before. I have observed already that the sense of European nations, and particularly Great Britain, is against the construction of rights being retained which are not expressly relinquished. I repeat, that all nations have adopted the construction, that all rights not expressly and unequivocally reserved to the people, are impliedly and incidentally relinquished to rulers, as necessarily inseparable from delegated powers . . . . If you intend to reserve your unalienable rights, you must have the most express stipulation; for, if implication be allowed, you are ousted of those rights.”[16]

Our complex Constitution is the product of this awareness of the danger of government. The men who devised it, debated its features, and who demanded protection from the government, were aware that every line extending from it was hot, so to speak. It was a conduit for power. It was a potential source of oppression, because it carried the power of government. To guard against its concentration, they separated the power into three branches: legislative, executive, and judicial. The powers of government were dispersed between the state and Federal governments. Some powers were denied to the states. Other powers were denied to the genera] government. The branches of government were made dependent upon one another in various ways, so as to discourage unilateral action. Basic rights were reserved to the people in a Bill of Rights and by provisions in the original Constitution. The government was based upon popular consent, yet that, too, was filtered so as to guard against precipitate action spurred by popular passions.

In short, and to return to the parallel with electricity, the power of government was insulated, grounded, transformed, and its use restricted, so to speak. Of course, the power of government is always potentially dangerous, as is that within electricity. Protections against these dangers always must be arrived at by compromises, compromises which will allow the power to flow with a minimum of danger to the beneficiaries. Something like that was attempted in the United States Constitution.

Since the time of the making of the Constitution the available knowledge about electricity has increased manyfold. Great generators have been devised to produce it in vast quantities. It has been transmitted over considerable distances in high tension wires, and is now distributed to virtually every home and place of business in the United States. We are so used to its being applied in so many ways for our convenience that we tend to take it for granted. Even so, except for occasional carelessness, we have not lost sight of the fact that it is dangerous and must be handled, if at all, with great care.

By contrast, there is much evidence that our knowledge of government, and particularly its dangers, is inferior to that of the Founding Fathers. We have, if anything, retrogressed in our understanding of its nature. A good case could be made that as the de-mystification of electricity has proceeded a re-mystification of government has occurred. Although new evidence of the dangers of government has accumulated in vast quantities in this century, as yet, it appears to have made little impact on the public consciousness.

Shifting the Blame

A part of the explanation for this lies in differences between government and electricity. Damages from electricity are readily attributed to properties inherent in electricity. By contrast, government always acts through human agents, and the blame for any harm done can be laid on them. Thus, policemen, jailors, judges, and other agents of government may abuse their powers. In such cases, it would be an error to blame their actions on government itself. But even the abuses heaped on peoples by dictators, who originated and caused the acts to be executed, have frequently been attributed to evil men rather than to unrestrained government. The differences can be sorted out usually, but it is a work of the imagination and intellect of a fairly high order.

There is this difference, too. Those who are made to suffer inconveniences and disabilities by law enforcement officials are usually blamed for their own difficulties. That is, they are held morally responsible socially for having come to the unfavorable attention of the government. True, a person who touches an exposed electric wire and is injured may have been negligent or careless, but his behavior is not reckoned to be morally reprehensible. Thus, the tendency to attribute moral culpability to the person harmed by government, however appropriate it may be otherwise, places the blame for damage at an even further remove from government itself.

Such differences do tend to obscure the dangers of government, but they do not explain the re- mystification of government. Much of this has been more or less deliberately accomplished. The notion has been spread that the way to make government benign so far as danger is concerned and wholly beneficial is by making it democratic. A pseudo religion of democracy has been pro mulgated in the schools and spread throughout the society. The people are good, according to this belief, and when the government becomes the agent of their will it is purified of all its dross. The powers of government have been applied ever more broadly and many steps taken to loosen the restraints upon it under the animus of democracy. Democracy has been equated with equality, and the power of government has been intruded into every realm in order to redistribute goods and take those actions which will move us in the direction of equality. The only danger, according to this view, is that government should lose its democratic character.

For more than a generation now students in schools have been inculcated with the notion of benign and benevolent democratic government. Their textbooks have hymned the praises of government activity in every field. Here is an example of the sort of thing they have often been assigned to read:

To stimulate economic growth, an expanded public-housing program is advocated by those who believe that the greatest amount of employment at the smallest cost to the taxpayer can be obtained through public housing. One dollar spent for housing subsidies by the federal government will produce about forty dollars’ worth of new construction. Immediate large-scale employment would be provided. Private enterprise would be stimulated to employ more people. Government agencies would direct the housing program while allowing local participation and responsibility. Standards of health and national morale would be increased by this type of public works. While helping to solve the problem of unemployment, it would wipe out slums and provide livable homes for those families.

Millions of unsatisfactory houses in the United States today make more serious the problems of poor health, broken homes, crime, and juvenile delinquency. Private enterprise will need to work with the government in order to provide decent housing for every family in the United States.[17]

It would appear from the above that government is not only benign and benevolent but also capable of working miracles—“One dollar spent for housing subsidies by the federal government will produce about forty dollars’ worth of new construction.” Such claims are truly redolent of a mystique of government.

Of course, there have been those who never succumbed to the notion of benign and benevolent government. There have been those, too, who have called attention to the fact that government is force, and that its use is always pregnant with dangers. But for many years theirs were voices crying in the wilderness. There are some signs today of a reviving awareness of the dangers of government. If it should take hold and spread we might eventually advance to the level of understanding of the matter which many of the Founding Fathers had. If that takes place, it would then be possible to explain the dangers of electricity by comparing them to government. “Danger—High Voltage” signs might be attached to government buildings as well as to transformer sta tions. []

1.   John Dickinson, Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania in Empire and Interest, Forrest McDonald, intro. (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962), pp. 72-73.

2.   Ralph L. Ketchum, The Political Thought of Benjamin Franklin (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Mer- rill, 1965), pp. 373-75.

3.   Edward Dumbauld, ed., The Political Writings of Thomas Jefferson (New York: The Liberal Arts Press, 1955), p. 138.

4.   Ibid., p. 65.

5.   Ibid., p. 74.

6.   Lester J. Cappon, ed., The Adams-Jefferson Letters, vol. I (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959), p. 5.

7.   Jack P. Greene, ed., Colonies to Nation, 17631789 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967), p. 562.

8.   James Madison, Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, Adrienne Koch, intro. (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1966), p. 398.

9.   ibid., p. 48.

10.   Ibid., p. 53.

11.   iIbid., pp. 76-77.

12.   Ibid., pp. 322-23.

13.   Ibid., p. 332.

14.   Moses C. Tyler, Patrick Henry (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1887), pp. 288-89.

15.   Alfred Young, ed., The Debate over the Constitution, 1787-1789 (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1965), p. 49.

16.   Tyler, op. cit., p. 290.

17.   Leo J. Alilunas and J. Woodrow Sayre, Youth Faces American Citizenship (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1970, 4th edition), pp. 112-13.

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