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.
— English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, Queen Mab (1813), Part III.
Vicious, partisan and never-ending drama defines politics in Washington these days. On top of it, add the brazen lies of demagogues claiming that trillions in new spending will cost “zero.” The shameful spectacle should teach us a larger lesson about government and political power: We have way too much of both.
If America’s Founders could observe this sad course of events, they would be appalled. They would admonish us in terms like this: “We warned you! We told you to keep government small, but under both parties you created a monstrosity so big and powerful that you now find yourselves at each other’s throats. We told you that big government is incompatible with good government, but you didn’t listen. We told you never to sacrifice your character for power or handouts, but you forgot that too.”
In my book, Was Jesus a Socialist?, I wrote about this toxic, soul-crushing thing called power. The pursuit of it is evidence not of a love of others, but rather, love of oneself. Power is about the lust for control, the desire to push others around, take their stuff, punish somebody just because of who they are or what they have, and puff yourself up by dragging somebody else down.
Nothing brings forth bad people and licenses them to do evil more thoroughly than concentrated power. It never advertises itself honestly. Nobody says, “Vote for me because I want to live your life for you.” From the outside, it sounds reasonable. The state will care for you! The state will relieve you of worries and responsibilities! We will give you free stuff! We will help the poor and punish the rich!
Inside the velvet glove of power’s seductive promises is the iron fist of arrogance and compulsion. The promises to care for you are the bait. Concentrating power in the hands of greedy politicians means having to painfully learn for the thousandth time, as William F. Buckley put it, “Government can’t do anything FOR you except in proportion as it can do something TO you.”
As a Christian, I look to the teachings of Jesus for guidance. He never made false or unaffordable promises. He didn’t curry favor with certain constituencies at the expense of others. He didn’t play cynical class-warfare games. He focused on eternal truths, not temporary, earthly advantages. He never said anything like, “Put government in charge. Demand that the politicians rob Peter to pay Paul.” He never said “Thou shalt neither covet nor steal unless you’re sure you can spend it better than the men and women who earned it.” Nor did he say, “The way to build yourself up is to tear others down. Count the other guy’s blessings instead of your own.”
Government, the instrument of concentrated power, is composed of mortals, prone to all the temptations all mortals face. It has nothing to give anybody except what it first takes from somebody. If it’s big enough to give you everything you want it’s also big enough to take away everything you’ve got.
Power rots the soul. Rare is the individual who becomes a better person for having possessed it. History is littered with the corpses of tyrants who came to power promising great things and who, in fact, were widely admired until they were widely hated.
The lust for power is evidence of 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. The talk from the big government crowd about “free this” and “free that” 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 more sinister by the deception and concealment.
We would do well to remember, as economist Milton Friedman instructed, 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.”
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. It’s 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 are three of the most incisive remarks ever said or written about power, beginning with the famous one 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.
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 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.
When Jesus walked the Earth, Rome was an imperial tyranny. A century before, it was a republic. The collapse of character had provided evil, power-besotted men the opportunities they craved. Demagogues promising “bread and circuses” corrupted almost everybody. In the end, none of that “free stuff” was worth what Romans forfeited in the pursuit of it—namely, their lives, their liberties and their republic.
So please, can you give me one good reason why we should repeat those horrific mistakes of the past?