'Power, like a desolating pestilence,
Pollutes whate’er it touches; and obedience,
Bane of all genius, virtue, freedom, truth,
Makes slaves of men, and of the human frame
A mechanized automaton.'
- Percy Bysshe Shelley, Queen Mab (1813), Part III
Is there any plainer evidence of Shelley’s admonition than Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s thuggish threat aimed at two Supreme Court Justices recently?
The headline to a National Review article by David Harsanyi summed it up beautifully: “Schumer to Gorsuch and Kavanaugh: Nice Little Court Ya Got There; Hate to See Anything Happen to It.”
A proud, self-proclaimed “progressive” from a large state and the highest-ranking Democrat in the upper house of Congress, Schumer is a politician of considerable influence and responsibility. His threats drew cheers from his audience but widespread opprobrium from decent, thoughtful people everywhere.
Civil Society, Uncivil Behavior
Where does ugly intimidation fit into a civil society? Does it comport with a government built upon separation of powers, checks and balances, the rule of law and protection for individual rights and liberties? No it doesn’t, period. No ifs, ands, or buts about it.
Schumer’s menacing rhetoric is only a shade less graphic than “We want our way, so burn the Reichstag.” It betrays an end-justifies-the-means mentality. It illustrates an elitist ‘we’re better than you” attitude. It shows disdain for the concepts and institutions that keep the ancient beast of tyranny at bay. And, if I may read between the lines, it suggests that at its core, “progressivism” is all about one thing—and it’s not “compassion” or “the people” or “doing good.”
It’s all about raw power, something which Henry Kissinger once labeled “the ultimate aphrodisiac.”
Could you really trust someone who does evil in the name of doing good? Not me, not for a second. There’s a fundamental contradiction in that formula and it never ends well. It invariably reveals a fatal character flaw, made all the more sinister by the deception and concealment.
We would do well to remember, as economist Milton Friedman put it, that “The power to do good is also the power to do harm. Concentrated power is not rendered harmless by the good intentions of those who create it.”
Schumer may think it’s cute to throw his weight around in such cavalier fashion. When called on it, his first response was to compound the sin by lying about it. But this is deadly serious business, as the history of the decline of republics shows. Let’s take a look at this thing we call power, the lust for which was expressed in Schumer’s fulmination.
As I wrote in an article about the collapse of the ancient Roman Republic, power "is the most corrosive influence in the affairs of humankind. It’s a mental poison that twists and warps even the best of men and women if they allow it to take root in their souls."
As I explained then, power is an unhealthy desire to exercise control over others and “simply the pursuit of it, whether one ultimately attains it or not, is itself an intoxicant.”
Don’t just take my word for it. Here’s a selection of some of the most incisive remarks ever said or written about power, beginning with the famous passage from Lord Acton in 1887:
- "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you super-add the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it."
- "Every Communist must grasp the truth: Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun." – Mao Tse Tung, the bloodiest dictator in world history.
- "All history is only one long story to this effect: Men have struggled for power over their fellow men in order that they might win the joys of earth at the expense of others, and might shift the burdens of life from their own shoulders upon those of others." – Classical liberal and social scientist William Graham Sumner.
- "The impulse of power is to turn every variable into a constant, and give to commands the inexorableness and relentlessness of laws of nature. Hence absolute power corrupts even when exercised for humane purposes. The benevolent despot who sees himself as a shepherd of the people still demands from others the submissiveness of sheep. The taint inherent in absolute power is not its inhumanity but its anti-humanity." – Longshoreman and philosopher Eric Hoffer.
- "The intoxication with power is worse than drunkenness with liquor and such, for he who is drunk with power does not come to his senses before he falls." – From The Mahābhārata, a Sanskrit epic poem, said to be the longest poem in world literature.
- "The most improper job of any man, even saints (who at any rate were at least unwilling to take it on), is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity." – Fantasy author J. R. R. Tolkien in a 1943 letter to his son Christopher.
- "Power will intoxicate the best hearts, as wine the strongest heads. No man is wise enough, nor good enough to be trusted with unlimited power." – English cleric Charles Caleb Colton.
- "The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from the oligarchies of the past in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites…We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power." – Novelist George Orwell in 1984.
The face of power rarely gives itself away so blatantly as Senator Schumer’s ugly remarks. That’s another reason why it’s able to deceive. Most of the time, the power-besotted are smart enough to smile, to kiss babies, to promise you free stuff and otherwise suck you into their “loving” embrace. Take a look at the grandmotherly photos of Nexhmije Hoxha in her recent obituary in The New York Times.
Hoxha looks so sweet in that sweater, you might think. If you read the obituary itself, however, you’ll discover what a vicious, unrepentant tyrant she was. She’ll not be missed by anyone with even half a conscience. Power was her modus operandi and her raison d'être.
Given what I’ve learned from history, politics, economics, and human nature, my advice to my fellow citizens regarding power is this: Don’t be smitten or dazzled by it; as public choice theory proves, those who exercise it put their pants on one leg at a time just like you. Be wary of it in the hands of anyone; it can take even the best of people and turn them into monsters. Recognize the inherent trade-off; the more that power is bestowed on others, the less liberty and choice you’ll retain for yourself.
And finally, let’s take to heart this wise observation attributed to British Prime Minister (and classical liberal) William Ewart Gladstone:
We look forward to the time when the power of love will replace the love of power. Then will our world know the blessings of peace.