Practical Implications of Governance By the Power-Hungry

Monday, August 31st, 2009

We’re fated to be ruled by the sort of people who are really desperate to cling to power, Will Wilkinson notes, and Matt Yglesias responds:

I know some people are inclined to respond to these facts by saying “and so you see, that’s why we should believe in small government and limit the power of politicians” but I don’t really understand how to operationalize that idea.

The only practical alternative to rule by politicians is rule by dictators, which seems to work out well in Singapore but not elsewhere, and the election of politicians who profess belief in small government has, in practice, brought the United States illegal surveillance, torture, indefinite detention, aggressive war, a boondogglish drug benefit for senior citizens, and then on the small government side of the ledger cuts in the very inoffensive Section 8 housing voucher program.

I can understand his doubts about “operationalizing” the idea of small government. After all, a couple hundred years ago, the Founding Fathers designed what appeared to be a very libertarian government, and that didn’t last long at all.

And he’s right that “politicians who profess belief in small government” rarely act on those professed beliefs when in power. (This surprises some people.)

On the other hand, I wouldn’t call rule by dictators the only alternative to rule by democratically elected politicians. (In fact, they’re not necessarily even alternatives.)

I also disagree with Yglesias’s mostly progressive commenters, who draw the wrong conclusion from the right idea:

The other problem with small government is that if you take power out of the political system and put it somewhere else, power-hungry people will go to the somewhere else. Right now that’s corporations, but wherever you hide the power in your society, that’s where the power-hungry people are going to go to get it.

For example, power-hungry people used to go into the Church, when the Church had tremendous power. Churches do still have some power, and some power-hungry people do go into them, but not like they used to. But I don’t think churches fully appreciate that it is *because* they have less power today that they have fewer problems with power-hungry people trying to take them over.

Governments are pretty much in the business of having and using power. But even if you were to somehow get them out of that business, it wouldn’t solve the general problem of power-hungry people — it would just push it somewhere else. Therefore, the existence of power-hungry people is an argument for scrutinizing powerholders, but not an argument for taking power out of government (or any other particular institution).

Yes, power-hungry people would simply go someplace else, but they would cause much less harm someplace else, because they wouldn’t have the coercive power of the state to serve their power-hungry ends. A power-hungry CEO only has power over his own employees, whom he’s paying, and who can leave to work elsewhere, and he only has that power as long as the board, representing the shareholders, leaves him in power. If he exercises his power profitably, he stays in power; if he fails, he loses power.

This is where Dan Kervick misses the point:

This is what puzzles me so much about libertarians. They get all bent out of shape by the requirement that they should follow some piddly regulation written by the Minister of Money, who at least might be forced to work under some measure of democratic accountability, but they profess to have no problem about being bought, sold and dominated by the men who actually own most of the money. Why do they only care about some of their liberty and not all of it? Why do they take the “private” realm to be less in need of institutionalized checks and balances than the “public” realm? How can they understand liberty if they don’t understand power?

Democratic accountability is not much in the way of accountability — especially as a state grows in size and complexity — and there’s a fundamental distinction between public and private actors and their need for such accountability: public actors aren’t spending their own money or trying to maximize a clear bottom line on behalf of shareholders. There’s already accountability built into any decent private system, because it’s entirely voluntary with clear ownership.

As I said over at Aretae‘s blog, most examples of corporations misusing their power are examples of corporations misusing political power:

A Progressive sees corporations buy political power and concludes that corporations are corrupt.

A Libertarian sees corporations buy political power and concludes that politics is corrupt.

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