The Way It Is

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Some truths — probably most of them — are not subject to scientific proof. Thus, when we ponder modern life, and the role of government, we may find ourselves puzzled. It is obvious that government is an organization that, in its actions, varies between terrible malignancy, and breathtaking inanity. We wonder why that should be, and seek an answer. But the answer, if we find it at all, is not scientifically demonstrable, as is the fact that the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides.

The answer is something that most of us already know; it was first put forth by Lord Action (1834-1902). "Power corrupts." The full quote is: "Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end. — Liberty is the only object which benefits all alike, and provokes no sincere opposition — The danger is not that a particular class is unfit to govern. Every class is unfit to govern. — Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." And that’s it! That’s the way it is.

While not subject to verification by experimentation, the way gravity is, the truth of Lord Acton’s claim is everywhere to be seen. It explains modern government — indeed, all government. "Power corrupts."

And it corrupts at all levels. You may be the mayor of a town of no great political significance, but you can be pretty sure that when you go out to eat, you will be given preferential treatment. If you are the chief of police, you do not expect to get a ticket for parking your car in a no-parking zone. As mayor, or police chief, you may bristle at the suggestion that power corrupts, but you will probably nod agreement to "Rank has its privileges." Of course it does! Why do so many compete for jobs in government? Because they want to be public servants? Hardly!

At higher levels of government, the privilege (corruption) that accompanies rank (power) sets you above such hindrances as a Constitution. No antique document must interfere with your work for the benefit of the country — and, perhaps, your own benefit and that of your friends, as well. And looking around, we can readily appreciate that almost none of our government’s activities are legal; i.e., consistent with the Constitution, which, in theory, is to limit the power of government. The consequences of this "higher power" are awesome. Corruption exists, and must necessarily exist, at all levels.

Jesus warned us that a house divided against itself cannot stand. Government, if it is to survive, must be a monolith — at least to outward appearance. Can any government prosecutor refuse to pursue a case that has important political ramifications because the "law" which the accused is said to have violated is itself unconstitutional, if not downright absurd? Not if he wants to keep his job. Can any judge dismiss charges brought by the IRS, on the grounds that they have no lawful basis, without expecting that he himself will become a target of that malign entity? Is a local cop going to keep his job if he announces that he doesn’t want to set up a speed trap on a lonely stretch of road, because it’s nothing more than a revenue-enhancing maneuver?

You can’t wallow in the mud without getting dirty. When the people who comprise government allow themselves to be corrupted by power, that corruption extends through the organization. Righteous consciences must be molded to political expediency. In time, the conscience dies, or at least becomes moribund. At that stage, any reminder by a member of the public that the official’s actions are simply wrong will be met by hostility. Those who daily commit, or participate in, unlawful and improper acts don’t like to be reminded of it. To publicly admit that they have done wrong is out of the question; the only possible response is aggression. Like the alcoholic who cannot allow himself to acknowledge his addiction, those in government practice denial to avoid confronting their own wrongdoing. They substitute aggression for repentance.

The process is inexorable. If you have power, you will use it, (otherwise, why have it?) and it will corrupt you. Is there a solution? Not unless some way can be found to absolutely limit the power of those who have it. And how can that be done? If we would eliminate corruption, we must eliminate power, which, in turn, means eliminating, or drastically reducing the scope of, government.

I don’t really mind if the mayor gets the best seat in the restaurant, or the police chief doesn’t get ticketed for illegal parking, but that’s about as far as I’m willing to go.

Dr. Hein [send him mail] is a retired ophthalmologist in St. Louis, and the author of All Work & No Pay.

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