Delegitimizing Government Power
By Joel F. Wade - March 01, 2012

Al Gore excoriates us on how we need to restrict our wasteful lifestyles and limit our “carbon footprint” while flying around the world in private jets, using orders of magnitude more energy than any of us little people.

Barrack Obama attacks the “fat cats” and nags us for not being generous enough – requiring the government to spread the wealth around – while making millions of dollars, giving little to charity, and traveling on exorbitant vacations.

Leftist politicians claim that they support the “99 percent” crowd of the Occupy Wall Street protests, though they personally tend to be among the wealthiest and the most involved in the kind of fascist crony capitalism that is most oppressive to regular citizens.

These are all examples of world-class hypocrites. They say one thing and do another. They go around telling everybody else how to live while they themselves indulge their own appetites.

People in positions of power are very susceptible to behaving in ways that contradict their own public dictates. And the more legitimate they believe their power to be, the more brazenly they will do what they tell others not to do. These are the findings of a study by Lammers, Stapel and Galinsky, “Power Increases Hypocrisy: Moralizing in Reasoning, Immorality in Behavior.”

But we already knew this. Lord Acton told us that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” while Sophocles and Homer, among other ancient Greek writers, described how hubris can play out among the powerful.

The interesting point from this study is that it showed that the less the powerful judge their power as legitimate, the less likely they are to engage in hypocrisy. In other words, if you want to encourage powerful people to live with greater integrity – to live more congruently with what they say, and presumably to stop nagging us and coercing us to live as they will not – then limit their sense of entitlement to their power.

Our founders understood this. George Washington set the example of retiring as president after two terms, demonstrating the limits to that office’s power. These are temporary positions of citizen legislators, and that makes their legitimacy intrinsically fragile – as it should be.

This concept has been lost on politicians of both sides; I think we need to re-assert this attitude. Our representatives, senators, presidents and everybody else who works in government from bureaucrats to public union workers are there at our pleasure. They derive their powers and paychecks from the consent of the governed – that’s us.

This means that they don’t get to become comfortable in their power and paychecks, ever. It means that politicians should never be allowed to lose sight that their power is on loan to them from us; any attempt to pretend otherwise is illegitimate.

If we don’t remind them of this continually most of them will abuse the power they believe they have. You can bet on it; it’s human nature. (Note that I say most of them. We are not passive victims of our nature but it takes courage and self-awareness to counter it. Some people do succeed in this. Unfortunately, we cannot expect such strength of character from a majority of people, though we can and should honor it when we see it.)

I was thinking about this one day while driving down Highway 101 in California. Along the way, I noticed at least one sign dedicating something or other to some politician.

Later, when I was driving through the campus at U.C. Santa Barbara, I saw a couple of buildings named after people. These people donated their own money to make these buildings happen. Their names belong on those buildings because they did something personally to create those buildings.

But a senator or a congressman takes someone else’s money and gives it to somebody they like. This is not a legitimate use of power. This is bribery and manipulation, and it should be called what it is.

There’s a lot of talk about eliminating earmarks because of the waste of taxpayer money. But there’s another facet to earmarks that we should also look at: When taxpayer-funded projects are named after the politicians who finagle the money for them, we give them something that we should not.

Naming projects, buildings, bridges and other things built or provided with our money is one of the ways that powerful politicians cement their own sense of legitimacy. The more things that politicians have named after them, the more those politicians see themselves become part of history – and the more important they can believe that they are.

Thus you get $1,000,000 for the Maxine Waters Employment Preparation Center; $2,000,000 for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service, the Charles Rangel Library at the City College of New York, and the Rangel Conference Center.

You get the 30 or so self-named projects from Senator Robert Byrd: the Robert C. Byrd Locks and Dam, the Robert C. Byrd Academic and Technology Center, the Robert C. Byrd Clinic at the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine, the Robert C. Byrd High School, the Robert C. Byrd Visitor Center at Harpers Ferry National Historic Park and several roads and highways.

And you get the $150,000,000 John Murtha Airport in Johnstown, Pennsylvania together with the John P. Murtha Technology Center and the United States Navy ship the USS John P. Murtha.

We should never, ever allow something to be named for a government employee, unless they use their own money as a private citizen to make it happen – just like any other citizen could.

Honor those who hold to the Constitution, who exhibit the strength of character to live with integrity regardless of the temptations of power and who exhibit courage in preserving our republic. But don’t let anyone get too comfortable holding the reins that we hand to them.

This applies not just to federal officials but at every level of government, down to the state auditor, the county recorder, the high school principal. If you’re working for the government in a position of power, your position should be tentative. You should have to live with a certain level of anxiety about your position, so that you never settle into it completely.

Not just because we want to save money, cut spending and lower taxes but because power tends to corrupt. And when people come to believe that their power over us is more than just a temporary stewardship that we grant to them, we get just what we have right now: irresponsible, unaccountable and self-righteous leaders who are way too impressed with themselves.

Homer and Sophocles could see this coming millennia away. Studies such as that by Lammers, Stapel and Galinsky and endless examples of entitled, power grabbing politicians remind us of it today. Let’s remember to dampen the flames of arrogance and hubris as part of our duty as citizens.

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap