The unnatural nature of Jeffersonian government

M. Simon just sent me a wonderful quote about progress:

"The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground. This is so because those who gain positions of power tend always to extend the bounds of it. Power must always be constrained or limited else it will increase to the level that it will be despotic. T. Jefferson of course.
Reminds me of the way the Patriot Act was passed ostensibly for the limited purpose of fighting terrorism, only to end up being used against nearly anything and everything police and prosecutors might want (including sudafed, gambling, cockfighting, counterfeiting, and drugs).

The problem with power is that to anyone except anarchists it's an ugly necessity. I often wish there were some way of preventing those who want it from ever getting it. The problem with the political system (and the main reason activists rule) is that the people who most want to go into government are the ones most motivated to mess with other people's lives and tell them what to do. Those who want the government to leave people alone tend to hate the government, and thus are disinclined to be part of it. (Similar to the way guys who hate cops are the last people who would ever go into police work -- or people who oppose drug laws tend not to apply for DEA jobs!) An endless, seemingly hopeless paradox which empowers only supporters -- but never opponents -- of power.

Stay with the drug model for a moment. Power has often been likened to drugs. To the extent this is true, it would follow that addiction to power is similar to addiction to drugs. Few pharmacists or hospitals would hire a drug addict to dispense medications to which they were addicted, for obvious reasons. So, if it wouldn't make sense to hire a junkie to work in a pharmacy (or a child molester to run a day care center), why is power so routinely handed out to those who seek it? Simply because they want it?

On the other hand, people who go to work for the DEA tend to be morally opposed to drugs, tend to believe in drug laws, and strict enforcement thereof. The DEA would not hire someone who was morally opposed to drug laws, and such a person would not waste his time applying for a job there.

My worry is that it's the same way with government. People who go into it are the true believers.

Those who think like Jefferson need not apply.

MORE: On the other hand, this piece by Ed Driscoll provides optimism, by way of a reminder of a fascinating dynamic:

Historian Robert Conquest's Third Law of Politics posits that "The simplest way to explain the behavior of any bureaucratic organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies."
That certainly explains why the FDA and FCC are considered little more than industry police for drug companies broadcasters.

Hmmm.... It would be nice to think that the regulators are controlled by those they regulate (although I'm not sure about the implications for the DEA), but is this true in all cases? Ordinary people -- say, commuters on their way to work -- are not drug companies or broadcasters. If the bureaucrats decided to employ "red light cameras" to extort money from commuters, the commuters might become their enemies, but how and at what point would that lead to the former becoming a powerful cabal?

posted by Eric on 04.15.09 at 09:54 AM


Red-light cameras are just another weapon in the eternal attack by the cabal of whoever can against whoever they can. The Third Law is funny, but it doesn't fit the example. It generally hides more than it reveals, I think.

It seems truer that cabals create their own 'enemy' bureaucracies to use as weapons against their real enemies. "Regulatory capture" is so rare I'm surprised the idea exists.

The DEA might be an example. I'd guess so, but really, it's too big to understand. There are too many incentives.

guy on internet   ·  April 16, 2009 6:31 AM

I would suggest that at least part of what the third law means is that they act so out of control, they appear to be plants to discredit their ideas.

Like how if I were to make up a smug, ignorant, hate-filled "journalist" to discredit Minitru, that "journalist" probably would act a lot like the ones at CNN and MSNBC have been acting for the last two days.

Veeshir   ·  April 16, 2009 9:05 AM

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