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Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Great Power Auction

Leonard Read reminded us that state power is like a clenched fist. There’s not much you can do with a fist, except destroy. And yet many of us are still living in the illusion that if we could just get the right people into power, we could use the fist to change the world for the better. 

People we like consistently disappoint us when given access to power. Is it any wonder? They’re just people. But without realizing it, a lot of us attribute abilities and virtues to these people that suggest they are somehow superhuman.

True believers depend on the myth of the virtuous leader. The idea is that the true believers and a small circle of rulers can embody the “will of the people,” so their judgments are fit substitutes for the preferences, desires, and knowledge of everyone on the ground. It’s rarely so explicit. But look through the speeches of the last few U.S. presidents and you’ll find them claiming powers that don’t even exist in comic books. 

But those who would found entirely new societies, cultures, even ways of being can never acquire quite enough power to remake the people over whom they rule. So they work tirelessly to consolidate and expand their power. The consequences in such cases become direr day by day: pervasive surveillance, re-education camps, down the road to serfdom and perhaps into the Gulag. Of course, corruption—lying, cheating, and system-gaming—is always along for the ride. 

Is it unthinkable that this stuff could happen here? Revelations about the NSA and IRS, just in the past months, make it all seem a lot less farfetched. The more extreme, twentieth-century examples serve as a reminder of why State power is the biggest threat we face. 

And people always need motivation. With each successive election, the process of auctioning off bits of power repeats itself. Curtailing power—and returning as much of it as possible to each of us to conduct our lives and build our social networks as we see fit—doesn’t seem to be on the table anymore. Instead, it’s just one set of factions competing with another to see who can force everyone else to underwrite their favored cronies or participate in their social experiments.

If you look, really look, you’ll find a perverse state of affairs. And our national power auction raises serious questions about this rather hoary idea that power can be wielded for good, at least in the long term. The stories of what it winds up doing to people cut across party lines and dog every ideologue who jockeys for a place at the trough. 

The only guaranteed outcome comes from giving up and accepting this as simply the immutable nature of the world. It may be necessary to keep examples of how power actually does corrupt in the front of our minds. But we can choose whether these litanies of abuse become the excuses for giving in or fuel for further innovation and resistance. 

It’s very easy to be swept up in support of the latest expansion of the State—because it purports to help the poor, or save the environment, or end terrorism, or keep people who aren’t like us from coming here. Revisiting the topic of abuse of power can keep us from losing our skepticism of the State. It can wake us up like smelling salts; this stuff always stinks, at any rate. 

Once awake, we can fix our sights again on the enormous task of breaking up power. But how?

There's clearly a problem when power and money connect. The liberal progressive answer is to take money out of politics. This view is naive and illiberal, since political expression costs money. On the other hand, conservatives talk a big game about limiting power but, in practice, accept it—which winds up looking hypocritical. Each “side” finds special interests they can tolerate to help them hold on to power. “Left” and “right” act like a cartel and power grows. 

The classical liberal/libertarian solution is to decentralize power, leaving less to auction off. That leaves more power vested in people to pursue their private lives, building a civil society robust enough to prevent any one group from dominating everyone else. That might seem quaint, but we think it's hard to improve on the wisdom of James Madison:

In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

This policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public. We see it particularly displayed in all the subordinate distributions of power, where the constant aim is to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner that each may be a check on the other—that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights. These inventions of prudence cannot be less requisite in the distribution of the supreme powers of the State.

Madison knew that history was already littered with the detritus of civilizations that failed to decentralize power and went through that corruptive process that has its own predictable pattern. 

What comes first, the power or the money? Who can say? But the greatest insight of the American Founding was that power corrupts. Madison warned us that the seraphim had long ago departed this world and that cherubim grow up fast when confronted with the auction. 

And that’s why our belief, tentative but hopeful, is that there is a way forward in decentralization. Only this decentralization may not be a consequence of any Madisonian statecraft. It may very well be a result of social technologies forged by innovators with a desire to upend the status quo—perhaps readers of this very publication who are ready to change the world.

—The editors


  • The Freeman is the flagship publication of the Foundation for Economic Education and one of the oldest and most respected journals of liberty in America. For more than 50 years it has uncompromisingly defended the ideals of the free society.