Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Government

Ever since there was government, there have been those who want to purify it from its excesses and corruptions, rid it of its grafters and operators, and cleanse it from any taint of the sin of private interest.

Government should serve the people with an eye to the common good, they declare, and it should be part of the solution to the problem of evil in the world, and not contribute to the problem itself. Government, in short, should be good!

The navet of good government ideology is more widespread than is usually supposed. Those who want government to do some things always, but do other things never, embrace the same ideal.

The left is scandalized by a government that plunders foreign nations and spies on its citizens’ private lives but urges that same government to plunder property owners and spy on their commercial lives. The right is disgusted by a government that slathers billions on deadbeats and ne’r-do-wells but wants the same government to squander billions on military contractors and goons that enforce bad law.

If only we could separate the good from the evil!

Of course there is no agreement on what constitutes the good and evil, but both left and right will forever agonize about why they must put up with what they don’t like in order to get what they do like out of government. But it is an unstable compromise, and thus do both sides work constantly to somehow make government do the good things (however defined) but not the bad things (however defined).

Now to the literary metaphor.

Robert L. Stevenson’s classic novel Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was not just about a person whose personality changed because of a potion he drank. Dr. Jekyll was an idealist who was annoyed at the constant presence of the tension between good and evil that lived within him. He sought to separate them from each other, so that Dr. Jekyll could have pure motives in all he did and never be tempted toward evil, while his alter ego could pursue bad works without tainting the good Doctor.

As he puts it:

It was on the moral side, and in my own person, that I learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both; and from an early date, even before the course of my scientific discoveries had begun to suggest the most naked possibility of such a miracle, I had learned to dwell with pleasure, as a beloved daydream, on the thought of the separation of these elements. If each, I told myself, could be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust might go his way, delivered from the aspirations and remorse of his more upright twin; and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path, doing the good things in which he found his pleasure, and no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil. It was the curse of mankind that these incongruous faggots were thus bound together — that in the agonised womb of consciousness, these polar twins should be continuously struggling. How, then were they dissociated?

Dr. Jekyll finds a way, thanks to a scientific process he fails to reveal that involves some scarce salts. He drinks the potion. Incredibly, he is transformed into another person who is shorter, hairier, more primitive in emotions and desires, and completely callous toward the fate of everyone but himself. Mr. Hyde is a loathsome character who feels no remorse, and whose very presence discombobulates everyone around him. He is the very embodiment of evil. Eventually he is guilty of murder.

He drinks the potion again, and turns back into Dr. Jekyll. But there is a hitch. Whereas Dr. Hyde was pure evil, Dr. Jekyll is not pure good. He is the same mix of tensions that he was before. Reverting to his old self, he was nothing more than “that incongruous compound of whose reformation and improvement I had already learned to despair. The movement was thus wholly toward the worse.”

Well, that’s a pretty good description of the results of most good-government legislation. It creates new obstacles for the old evil forms to get through but strengthens the evil by making the public less wary of it. A government perceived as righteous is more dangerous than one that is looked upon with suspicion. Sometimes corrupt government can actually be better than good government, if it means that unjust and unworkable laws can be bypassed through bribes and graft.

Every few years, for example, Washington, D.C., elects a mayor who promises a clean sweep of the bad and a restoration of the good. A bar owner there once told a reporter that he always dreads these changes, because it means that absurd fire codes and license requirements are enforced to the hilt. Under a corrupt regime, he needs only to bribe a few policemen and bureaucrats. Under good government, he has to cough up tens of thousands for lobbying groups, lawyers, and legislative specialists in order to keep his business running.

Good-government seeks to give us all the government we pay for, and who can but rue the day that this happens?

In the Stevenson book, Mr. Hyde grows stronger as he spends time separate from Dr. Jekyll. He is unleashed, unchecked by conscience. Whereas he was once a temporary indulgence, he eventually becomes a full-time obsession even as the good side of Dr. Jekyll seems to become less robust and shrink.

So it is with good-government movements. Once the state is reformed, the next step is obvious: a clean state that does wonderful things, untainted by nefarious practices, should be permitted to expand to do those good things with more liberality and efficacy. Thus has every government reform movement in the last century and a half ended up expanding rather than shrinking the state. And the expanded state does not end up doing good; it draws ever more evil to its side and results in an expansion rather than a shrinking of corruption.

The same is true of the pressure groups that have a selective interest in the activities of the state. The right believes the government should provide for the common defense but in so believing turn a blind eye to ghastly abuses that occur in wartime. The left believes that the government should redistribute wealth and thereby pretends not to notice that this requires increasing violence against property and subsidizes the worst propensities of human nature.

As government grows ever bigger in the guise of doing good, its capacity for doing evil expands at a far more rapid rate. Whatever true good that government might be capable of doing is swamped by growing levels of corruption, graft, payoffs, violence, arbitrary rule, and all the rest of the institutions that the movement was trying to make go away.

Here we have the real lesson of the misbegotten idea that government can be purified. As Dr. Jekyll admits later: “I have been made to learn that the doom and burthen of our life is bound for ever on man’s shoulders, and when the attempt is made to cast it off, it but returns upon us with more unfamiliar and more awful pressure.”

Don’t administer a potion. Just shrink it until it goes away.

Jeffrey Tucker [send him mail] is editorial vice president of

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