Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Power, good intentions and moral mayhem

If you've ever wondered why Americans in general and libertarian Americans in particular fear government misuse of power, your answer was spoken more than a century ago. Lord Emerich Edward Dalberag Acton (1834–1902) famously observed that "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Traditionally, the way totalitarian regimes have gotten the public to go along with usurpation of powers properly reserved for individuals is by telling them it's "for your own good." Thus has humanity been led down the primrose path to national socialism, fascism, communism and a host of other poorly-conceived and abysmally executed dystopian dead ends.

Essentially, whenever you're being told "this is for your own good" when every reasonable impulse tells you otherwise, you should hold on to your wallet, gather up your spouse and kids, then duck and cover.

Consider the lobbyist-based scandals of Washington D.C. Please.

There's a funny smell coming out of K Street, and some heads are going to roll before it drifts away. Don't get me wrong, most lobbyists deliver legitimate citizen petitions to a government that needs reminding every so often that real people can be hurt by its best-intentioned acts.

But the other kind of lobbyist gives to laws and ethical rules about the same consideration a bad driver gives to posted speed limits and injunctions against following too closely.

The bad lobbyist figures if influencing legislation is good, then influencing it by hook or crook is better.

The bad driver figures if getting there soon is good, getting there sooner is better.

Like the bad lobbyist, the bad driver considers himself above the law. Speed limits are mere suggestions. The trouble is, he nearly always overestimates his ability control his vehicle at high speeds and in proximity to other vehicles that only a NASCAR pro could handle.

Let a deer leap from the shoulder, or a child run into the street in front of the truck he's tailgating and he discovers he's no Junior Johnson. If he survives, he blames either the truck driver, the dead deer or the (hopefully ) live child. But I digress.

Back to the rotten lobbyist: The only surprising thing about today's scandal is that anyone is surprised by it. Republicans have had control of both elected branches of government just about long enough to have been seriously affected by Lord Acton's First Principle of Power. They simply reek of the same sanctimony as Democrats did just four decades ago - think Lyndon Johnson and his tame Congress- and since power attracts money and money enhances and rewards power, when there's a certain level of juicy chum in the water it's not realistic to think the sharks won't gather and chow down.

Did you notice how quickly the "Contract With America" demands for term limits disappeared once the out-of-power GOP became the in-power GOP? Sure, the Supreme Court helped by ruling states couldn't limit federal office terms, but I didn't notice anyone jumping up and demanding a constitutional amendment to change it.

It's sort of the way our own Virginia GOP whined for about 130 years about gerrymandered districts, right up until they became the gerrymanderers rather than the gerrymanderees. Their operative ethical principle has been borrowed from post-reconstruction Old Dominion Democrats; "Do unto others exactly as they did unto you."

Which is a great way to perpetuate a vendetta.

The justification for the worst nastiness engaged in by members of Congress who are bought and paid for by bad lobbyists is, "it's for the citizens' own good." They figure unless they get big bucks to fuel their next campaign, they won't remain in office and how can they help the citizens if they're not in office?

Adolph Hitler and Jolly Old Uncle Joe Stalin also thought the ends justified the means. It seems that particular pathetic substitute for consistent moral standards never quite goes out of style.

One partial remedy to this mess would be to give up trying to regulate how much money is spent in political campaigns (which is, overall, less money than Americans spend on chewing gum or pornography) and instead require public disclosure of exactly where each candidate's money comes from.

A billion-dollar war chest won't convince me to vote for someone who's received any part of their money from certain groups, and I think most of us feel that way. If government would quit trying to do what's best for us and instead make sure we get the information we need to do what's best for ourselves, a lot of this nonsense would be stopped in its tracks.

Give voters the informational power they need to make up their own minds and the republic will flourish. Spoon-feed them assurances that if government regulates how much money is spent on political free speech every thing will be fine ... and you're just passing power to the elite few doing the regulation.

And the power which truly corrupts is the power held by too few.

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