Tag: power

Power Always Attracts Friends and Supplicants

Napoleon Trump

A month ago Politico reported:

Donald Trump is trying to win over a skeptical Republican donor class, but they’ve closed their wallets — and they’re angry.

Today the New York Times reports a different view:

G.O.P.’s Moneyed Class Finds Its Place in New Trump World

In his unlikely rise to the Republican nomination Donald J. Trump attacked lobbyists, disparaged big donors and railed against the party’s establishment. But on the shores of Lake Erie this week, beyond the glare of television cameras, the power of the permanent political class seemed virtually undisturbed.

Though Mr. Trump promises to topple Washington’s “rigged system,” the opening rounds of his party’s quadrennial meeting accentuated a more enduring maxim: Money always adapts to power.

At a downtown barbecue joint, lobbyists cheerfully passed out stickers reading “Make Lobbying Great Again” as they schmoozed on Monday with Republican ambassadors, lawmakers and executives. At a windowless bar tucked behind the Ritz-Carlton hotel, whose rooms were set aside for the party’s most generous benefactors, allies of Mr. Trump pitched a clutch of receptive party donors on contributing to a pro-Trump “super PAC.”

To be sure, a number of individual and corporate donors stayed away from the Republican convention and seem to be unwilling to support Donald Trump. Still, the reconciliation of so many principled conservatives, prudent donors, and former targets of vicious personal attacks puts me in mind, again, of the following headlines that may have appeared in a Paris newspaper, perhaps Le Moniteur Universel, in 1815 as Napoleon escaped from exile on Elba and advanced through France:

Scandals Keep Eroding Our Faith in Benevolent Government

George Will, Michael Gerson, and our own Gene Healy are among the columnists who reminded us – in the wake of the IRS and AP snooping scandals – of President Obama’s stirring words just two days before the IRS story broke:

Unfortunately, you’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity. . . . They’ll warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices.

No road to serfdom here. Just us folks working together, to protect ourselves from sneaky reporters and organized taxpayers.

And now lots of people are noting that a series of scandals in government just might undermine people’s faith in government. John Dickerson of Slate writes:

The Obama administration is doing a far better job making the case for conservatism than Mitt Romney, Mitch McConnell, or John Boehner ever did. Showing is always better than telling, and when the government overreaches in so many ways it gives support to the conservative argument about the inherently rapacious nature of government….

Conservatives argue that the more government you have, the more opportunities you will have for it to grow out of control.

And Paul Begala, the Bill Clinton operative, notes:

This hurts the Obama Administration more than similar issues hurt the Bush administration because a central underpinning of the progressive philosophy is a belief in the efficacy of government. In the main almost all of the Obama agenda requires expanding folks’ faith in government, and these issues erode that faith.

“Faith in government” indeed. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, putting your faith in government is, like a second marriage, a triumph of hope over experience.

But most particularly this week I’m reminded of Murray Rothbard’s comment in 1975 about what the era of Vietnam, Watergate, and stagflation had done to trust in government:

Twenty years ago, the historian Cecelia Kenyon, writing of the Anti-Federalist opponents of the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, chided them for being “men of little faith” – little faith, that is, in a strong central government. It is hard to think of anyone having such unexamined faith in government today.

Another 38 years later, it should be even more difficult to retain such faith.

Politics Is Better as Fiction

If the season’s got you thinking cynically about politics and politicians, TCM has the movies for you. It’s running a series all this month called “American Politics on Film.” You’ve missed classics like “A Face in the Crowd,” but there’s still time to catch “All the King’s Men” this Thursday night, about a Southern reformer who becomes corrupted by power, and “All the President’s Men” on Friday night, about an ambitious Westerner who was probably corrupt long before he got power. Also on Friday night: “Advise and Consent” and “Seven Days in May,” made from the great political novels of the 50s and 60s. Whatever happened to great political novels, anyway?

For movies about freedom, click here.

Why the Worst Get on Top

Susan Stamberg reports on Martha Gellhorn, “one of the first great female war correspondents,” whose marriage to Ernest Hemingway is being dramatized by HBO next week. Gellhorn had a healthy skepticism toward power:

In 1983, a British TV interviewer posed this loaded question to Gellhorn, then 75 and still gorgeous: “I.F. Stone once described governments as comprised entirely of liars and nothing they say should ever be believed.”

The response was a typical no-holds-barred Gellhorn opinion: “Quite right. And Tolstoy once said governments are a collection of men who do violence to the rest of us. Between Izzy Stone and Tolstoy, you’ve got it about right.”

The title of this post is of course a chapter title from Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom.

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Power Corrupts (Now With Science!)

The humor site Cracked rounds up some serious social science on the psychological effects of power and authority. The results are sobering—if not entirely surprising. When people in experimental environments were made to feel as though they were powerful—either by recalling actual instances for their lives or by being placed in simulated positions of power for a few hours—researchers found that they became less compassionate, less prone to take the perspective of others, more able to lie without feeling guilty about it, and more prone to consider themselves exempt from the rules and standards they righteously insist apply to others. What’s striking is how quickly and easily the experimenters elicited dramatic behavioral differences given that (unlike people who actively seek power) their “powerful” and control groups were randomly chosen.

It’s useful to keep this in mind because, while the overwhelming lesson of the last half century of social psychology is that situational influences can easily swamp the effect of individual differences in character, our political rhetoric takes scant account of this. Political campaigns focus heavily on questions of “character”—which especially in the case of “outsider” campaigns should be of limited predictive value. Republican candidates and officials try to portray Democrats as arrogant and out of touch, while Democrats cast Republicans as callous and greedy. In each case, the message is that these are bad people, and their character flaws are somehow related to their specific ideologies. The remedy is, invariably, to replace them in positions of power with better people from the other team. These social science results suggest that this is unlikely to work: The problem is power itself.

Liberty, Even for People You Don’t Like

In a conversation about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council admitted that he wants to re-criminalize sodomy:

…which is easy for him to say, of course, because he’s unlikely to be affected by the law. As someone who is likely to be affected by the law, I’m tempted to criminalize Peter Sprigg. Liberty is never more negotiable than when it’s liberty for someone you don’t like.

What is it that I don’t like? I don’t like putting people in cages. Whenever we can reasonably avoid it, we should. Liberty means liberty even for people we think are weird, or disgusting, or immoral – provided that they do not hurt us or our own legitimate interests. Lawrence v. Texas, for which the Cato Institute filed an amicus brief, is one of the most important expressions of this idea in our time.

Once liberty applies only to the things that we like, we have abandoned the true idea of liberty entirely. From that point on, you and I, as enforcers, must cling ever more tightly to arbitrary power. If we don’t, then someone else may come along, take that power, and criminalize us. A free society leaves the misfits alone, because sooner or later, everyone is a misfit, in some way or another.

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