Abuse of power comes as no surprise

Lynne Kiesling

I was in Texas on Tuesday for a meeting with an electricity retailer, and when the CEO came in and greeted me with “nice to see you again; did you hear that your governor was just arrested?”, I thought it was fallout from the long-standing investigation of Illinois political corruption that the U.S. Attorney’s office has been pursuing. Yes, such graft and corruption is business as usual in Illinois politics. But then to hear that Rod Blagoevich had the arrogance and stupidity to try to peddle President-elect Obama’s Senate seat while he was being investigated for past “pay to play” activity — this is absolutely mind-boggling.

My initial reaction was to channel my inner Jenny Holzer:

Abuse of power comes as no surprise.

Jenny Holzer: avant-garde artist AND public choice theorist, who knew?

But really, how surprised are you? I’m only surprised at the unmitigated gall of this particular individual in this particular instance (OK, yes, I’m also surprised and disappointed at his, and his wife’s, lack of decorum, but I’m old-fashioned). I agree with Steve Horwitz’s observations on the matter:

So the big news today is that the governor of Illinois has been caught doing explicitly what most politicians do with more subtlety every single day: selling off their power to the highest bidder. I can’t help but note that yet another politician is indicted on corruption charges at the very same time we are handing over unprecedented power to the political class as we partially nationalize the banking system and, apparently, the Big Three auto companies. …

Look at it this way: the bailouts are already becoming just a legal form of the essentially the same behavior for which the governor has been indicted.

The fact that some elected representatives discharge their representative responsibilities with honor and integrity does not change the inescapable reality that political institutions are grounded in the legally-protected ability to exercise power over others. When some party can exercise power over others, that power creates incentives for some of those “others” to persuade, lobby, or even bribe those to whom this power has been granted. Given that reality, Congressional approval of taxpayer-funded industry bailouts and Governor Blagoevich’s bald-faced graft and attempted extortion are variations on a theme, different points on a continuum of the ability and willingness to manipulate outcomes in return for some personal gain. That personal gain may simply be re-election, or it may be, say, an ambassadorship and a job for the wife. But at its core the transaction is still one of the exercise of power over others.


3 thoughts on “Abuse of power comes as no surprise

  1. When some party can exercise power over others, that power creates incentives for some of those “others” to persuade, lobby, or even bribe those to whom this power has been granted.

    Yes, sure, the incentives are there. But I disagree with you on how much cynicism is warranted. People with power do not necessarily use that power to benefit themselves at the expense of those they’re supposed to serve. I know that for absolute certain.

    When cynicism is adopted as a default position, we disincent honorable people from taking important jobs. If you express blanket disdain for cops, then don’t call the police when you need ’em, and don’t expect good people to go into police work.

  2. “People with power do not necessarily use that power to benefit themselves at the expense of those they’re supposed to serve. I know that for absolute certain.”

    Yes, which is why I emphasized that not all people with power act without honor and integrity. But they are not the people for whom we have to design our political institutions; we have to design political institutions to reduce the incentive to use power to benefit themselves. If we design our political institutions based on the expectation that our elected representatives will be benevolent conduits for the interests of those whom they represent, we have designed a set of institutions that will not limit the possibilities and incentives of the rapacious. And psychologically, at the margin it’s often the case that the benevolent can become rapacious once they have power (more on that in a separate post).

    In one of his moments of blinding clarity James Madison said “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

    That’s why formal institutions like the Constitution are so crucial; they specify the rules that limit the ability of governments to exercise power. It’s the erosion of limited government that disturbs me the most in the government cluster#$@% that we are currently enduring.

  3. In one of his moments of blinding clarity James Madison said “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

    Totally agree with you, and with Jimbo there. Trust in God, but tie your camel. Both clauses matter.

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