Erik Larson

Nov 2, 2008

The Bogey Man

Liberals fulminate endlessly about the moral corruption in Big Business (Ralph Nader is far and away the most energetic and clear spokesman here); Conservatives seem endlessly wary of Big Government. There’s something about the human psyche, apparently, that requires a bogey man. Concentrates the thoughts. We’re best when we’re in full fighting mode.

So then, reign in Big Business, says the Left, and reduce the size of Government, says the Right (the real Right). And curiously, those that would shrink the power of one, would grow the power of the other. What gives?

Lord Acton’s famous refrain that “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is the philosphical flame that illuminates the positions of Left and Right. But I think there’s an important difference. Government is a more absolute power; people can quit jobs, and switch employers, or just opt out of working completely. But Government occupies a more intimate and comprehensive space. Acton’s wisdom, while applying to all institutions that have power, ought particularly to be heeded with regard to Government. This thought I’ll explain momentarily, but first let’s discuss business.

The virtue (and vice) of business is to maximize profit . It’s the stated objective, and well-known to all. It’s out in the open and transparent. We all know this, and pretending otherwise is rediculous (recall the scene in the movie “Aviator” when Senator Owen Brewster assures everyone that President of Pan-American Airways Juan Trippe “is not interested in making a profit… he’s a great American”. To which Leonardo DiCaprios’ Howard Hughes replies “I’m sure his stock holders will be happy to here that”.)

Thus businesses rise or fall on their ability to fulfill the profit objective. When they succeed, they create jobs, employing more and more people as they grow, and they raise the standard of living in the direct, healthy sense of providing liquid cash to people in exchange for work. They’re (ideally and mostly) meritocratic as well, in the sense that people with demonstrable skills and knowledge tend toward promotion, and salaries are based on responsibility (businesses give more according to responsibility, while Government takes more according to income).

Government, on the other hand, spreads an umbrella over the entirety of its citizens. You can’t “quit” government, unless you expatriate. It also—and unlike business—exersizes a specifically moral activity in that it is with government that fundamental notions of fairness are given action with policy. Government, in this sense, plays more the role of a parent or family to its citizens than business ever can. Which is why Acton’s caution ought to be heeded all the more: power does indeed corrupt, and absolute power (read: Government) corrupts absolutely.

To review the point: Government’s relation to people tends to be comprehensive in a way that business cannot be. It tells us whether we should wear helmets when we ride bicycles, how many drinks are acceptable before driving, how much income we ought to give back for the public good (a term which is, of course, interpreted by Government itself), what we ought to eat, what the penalties for various infractions are, and on and on and on. Its natural tendency as an institution is to act in a parental manner, instructing us in various ways, shaming and prodding us into various behaviours, and slapping our wrists when we do otherwise. Much of this control is of course necessary (I’m well aware), but the present point remains. Pejorative phrases like “Nanny State” for an over reaching government are apt.

So the full point is: because of the tendency for Government to reach into every aspect of human life , this particular institution tends much more toward absolute corruption then businesses existing under the umbrella of governments can ever manage. We ought, therefore, to heed Acton’s warning accordingly. We shouldn’t grow Government gleefully, we should find ways to limit it.

Now, for some reason completely lost on me, many of us never get this. Liberals—and I have many Liberal friends, and they are otherwise quite intelligent—recoil instinctively at the suggestion that we ought to treat Government with caution (although I’ve noticed that they’re much more receptive when Conservatives are in charge). They regard (Liberal) Government in almost autonomic, unquestioning fashion, as the sole, singular force for good. This is of course certainly the case in a properly circumscribed sense—I’d rather not act as my own police force during a murderous riot—but without qualification its absurd. Government is an institution that, as it grows larger, tends naturally to reduce the autonomy of its citizens. How is this good?

To conclude, Government’s inertia, like all institutions with power, is always toward more power, not naturally toward the good. And because the relation between citizens and Government tends to be one of dependency (think Welfare State), its thrust as a function of its size will tend to be away from personal liberty and autonomy. It is, in this sense, a Bogey Man, although I’ll admit that it’s one we certainly can’t do without.

In some other post, I’ll weigh in on the recent 700 billion bail out, and why I think conservatives should have opposed it, with the hopes of both preserving principle and benefiting in economic practice.