What Drives the Lust for Power?


"The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground."

~ Thomas Jefferson

Perhaps the two longest and most intractable trends in this country are the growth of the state and the receding of liberty at least since the days of the Lincoln administration. For over a century and a half, the accumulation and centralization of power have been driven by at least five factors: ignorance, greed, fear, envy, and fantasy.


Sadly, most Americans are ignorant of their own heritage. They confuse freedom with democracy when the Founders knew these were mutually exclusive. "Democracy was the right of the majority to choose its own tyrants," according to Madison. How many references are there to "democracy" in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution? None. The Founders handed us a foreign policy of free trade and neutrality. Avoid "entangling alliances," advised Washington. Do not go abroad "in search of monsters to destroy," warned John Quincy Adams. "If Tyranny and Oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy," predicted Madison, well in advance of the Patriot Act. Where have their words of wisdom gone? Right down the memory hole.

Most people lack a basic understanding of how a market economy functions. They equate a lack of planning on the part of government with chaos, or that some things simply will not get done. For example, if the government does not take care of the poor, most assume they will starve. They fall for the "fatal conceit" that planners possess enough knowledge to actually do their job. They do not stop to think that three hundred million people (or 7 billion for that matter) acting voluntarily to cooperate, compete, and improve their lives possess far greater knowledge than the "Gang of 535" inside the Beltway ever could. Knowledge is decentralized. They overlook the immeasurable contribution of the price system which enables economic calculation — the ability for individuals to weigh trade-offs and make choices in a world of scarcity. They forget that centrally planned economies have been a disaster throughout history, including the early settlements in this country.


Most fail to differentiate between the public and private sectors. The former is coercive in nature, the latter peaceful and voluntary. They focus instead on the supposed greed of the businessman. The real greed is the businessman who crosses the line and uses the gun of the state to gain special privileges at the expense of everyone else. This is mercantilism (the very system Americans originally fought a War of Independence to overturn), synonymous with “political capitalism” and “crony capitalism.” It is not laissez faire capitalism. Yet the free market gets the blame whenever the government’s meddling in the economy backfires. The response is always more intervention, which ultimately means even less economic freedom and more problems down the road. Meanwhile, the state official is assumed to be selfless and above temptation.


Any centralizer of power worth his salt knows people are most willing to surrender their liberties during periods of crisis. As John Adams observed, "Fear is the foundation of most governments." Thomas Jefferson famously warned, "A nation that limits freedom in the name of security will have neither." H.L. Mencken was even more emphatic: "The one permanent emotion of the inferior man is fear — fear of the unknown, the complex, the inexplicable. What he wants above everything else is safety." Fear comes in many forms — fear of foreign attack (e.g., the Cold War and War on Terror), fear that the economy will crumble without adult supervision, fear that roads, schools and parks would not exist without government provision, fear that the exhaust from our cars will melt the polar ice caps and flood our coastal cities, and even fear that one of the two political parties poses a greater threat to our livelihoods than the other.


Some apologists for Big Government are motivated by the resentment of achievement itself. According to the Foundation for Economic Education’s Sheldon Richman, envy can take a large share of the blame for our current welfare apparatus: "It is bad enough that the administrators of the welfare state are moved by a hatred of ability. The greater tragedy is that they poison the minds of the constituency they so desperately need. Instead of the poor learning to admire the productive and aspire to be like them, they are taught by the system that their poverty is caused by others’ affluence. They learn to resent achievement and to prefer seeing the achievers dragged down. That is all the welfare state can bring about." According to Richman, what the poor really need more than a handout is the “invisible hand” of markets: "The welfare statist will cry out that we have responsibility to those less fortunate. We do, but in a sense other than the egalitarian imagines. We have a responsibility to create and maintain a free society so that all may go as far as their abilities and determination will take them."


Finally, we have the dreamer, the idealist. He navely imagines a world of harmony and abundance which, of course, someone must plan and run. The only inconvenience? At the end of the day his Utopia requires brute force. That such fantasy provided the basic foundation of the great atrocities of the 20th century — Stalin’s collectivist famines in the Ukraine, Hitler’s gas chambers, and Pol Pot’s killing fields in Cambodia — always escapes the dreamer. Perhaps this is why Hollywood celebrities routinely fawn all over tyrants like Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, or why Western journalists were enamored of the mass murderer Joe Stalin during the 1920s and 1930s. To the Utopian, it is always the particular implementers at fault, never the system or the theory itself.

As Milton Friedman pointed out three decades ago, it is the knaves and the naïve who primarily drive the inexorable upswing of centralized power and planning. "You almost always, when you have bad programs, have an unholy coalition of the do-gooders on the one hand and the special interests on the other."

When will these trends of expanding government and contracting freedom end? Likely when they exhaust themselves. Trends tend to move through several phases: disbelief, gradualism, acceleration, blow off (accompanied by signs of hubris and rationalization), decline (with denial and desperate acts to keep the game going), and collapse (i.e., a return to sanity). Perhaps the Iraq War was the blow off stage of the foreign policy engine that drove the bull market in state power. And perhaps our recent credit bubble was the blow off phase of the monetary engine. If so, a major change in trend is mercifully upon us.