Senator Linthicum: How government power corrupts


Dennis Linthicum

Oregon State Senate 28

This week I am in Washington, D.C. I, like yourselves have been shocked and horrified by the evil that was committed in Las Vegas a couple of days ago. However, I will not deal with the underlying issues, the control, politics, stability or religion that might shed insight into this tragedy.

Instead, I will continue my series of articles concerning government over-reach of and the seemingly unending costs associated with running the government enterprise. While writing these articles, I receive numerous letters, emails and phone calls telling me about the good things that government accomplishes. I am, in fact, fully aware of the good people who have dedicated their lives to performing some service to the rest of us. Ofttimes these services are provided under the flag of government responsibility, or jurisdiction, while at other times they are services provided by great-hearted people.

That there are hundreds of thousands of good men and women employed and doing valuable and necessary services for the rest of us is unquestionably true. For example, in one response from last week’s article about federal forest policy a friend wrote to describe the story of he and his wife. They experienced first-hand what it was like to be under evacuation orders.

He wrote:

“Our home was in the direct path of the advancing fire. I am positive without the excellent firefighting skills of all government jurisdictions our home may not be here today. Everyone at all levels of government were so genuinely helpful, honest and transparent. It was clear to me that these government employees live in the area and are fully aware of the citizen’s needs. We found that refreshing.”

This letter underscores the point with powerful clarity – Good people provide Good service. Additionally, their service furnishes warmth to the soul and provides an uplifting sense of comfort and safety to our communities.

As I write my newsletters, my issue with statism is not about necessary, and legitimate, rules and regulations. To even invoke the possibility that our extremely complex and modern society could function without any rules, regulations or governance structures is less than a straw man. It simply can’t be done. In the same way, however, it can be overdone.

This is my point – When is too much, too much? Do we even know what too much looks like?

In general, too much means monopoly. Monopolies, in turn, are too expensive, non-competitive, unresponsive and deliver poorer results with little to no recourse for the affected souls.

Adam Smith’s teacher was Adam Ferguson at the University of Edinburgh. In 1792, he wrote about the relationship between freedom and anarchy, “Liberty or freedom is not as the origin of the name may seem to imply, and exemption from all restraint, but rather a most effectual application of every just restraint to all members of a free state, whether they be magistrates or subjects.”

Best Regards,

He continued, “It is under just restraints only that every person is safe, and cannot be invaded, either in the freedom of his person, his property, or innocent action…”

To ensure that liberty remained a fundamental characteristic of our constitutionally federated Republic the notion of Separation of Powers was introduced. First, this was specifically instituted among the three separate branches of the national government. Also, a degree of separation existed among office holders, through elections. Elections were further separated by varied lengths of terms in office.
Further separation was mandated among the free and independent states which are also constitutionally required to be organized as republics. Then, within each state, among their various counties, municipalities and townships there was a further delineation of jurisdiction and authority. These separations were designed to lessen the possibility of any local despot gaining complete control over a council or municipality.

But, James Madison saw the weakness. He addressed the failings that might result from a false faith in constitutionally structured offices. In Federalist 47, he writes, “The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”

These checks and balances were instituted because one of the major goals of the Constitution, as stated in the preamble, is to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” The separation of powers with appropriate checks and balances was expressly forwarded to combat the tendency of conspiring men to seek power while neglecting their public offices and duties.

Our Nation’s founders recognized Lord Acton’s apothegm, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” They knew and had first-hand experience with the most powerful empire on the earth and they tried to protect us from tyrannical governments both large and small.

Thomas Jefferson is known to have championed a smaller, more decentralized idea of governance by independent yeomen−citizens.

However, the potential for over-reach even exists amongst local counties and townships led by their yeomen−citizenry. Alexander Hamilton termed these jurisdictions as societies and he highlights the potential for over-reach in terms of size. Today, we can add financial or economic where-with-all to Hamilton’s warnings. Hamilton notes that any acts which are “not pursuant to its constitutional powers, but which are invasions of the residuary authorities of the smaller societies,” should never become the supreme law of the land. He summarizes saying, “These [unconstitutional acts] will be merely acts of usurpation, and will deserve to be treated as such.”

It is this closing that deserves our attention. Will we suffer the collapse of these separations, checks and balances? Will we allow unconstitutional acts to become the new-fangled, supreme law of the land or will we respond to them as mere acts of usurpation?

My contention is that Lord Acton’s apothegm is still relevant – “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Remember, if we don’t stand for rural Oregon values and common-sense – No one will!

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  • Ron Glynn

    Here, in Oregon, during my working career, I worked for the Federal Government, State Government, and a Large County Government. By and large, I found Public Employees to be hard working decent people. However, more than once, I had to remind some fellow employees with caviler attitudes that we were dealing with taxpayer money.
    One thing I noticed, was the larger government operation, the larger the waste, fraud, and abuse will be. I remember seeing a Congressional Hearing in the early 80’s with Reagan’s OMB budget director testify about the Federal Budget. He said, “We really do not know where all the money goes.”
    When I worked for the State, I noticed money was spent by agencies at the end of budget cycle so more money could be sought when the Legislature met the next time to figure out the budget for the next cycle. Ever hear of an Agency head testifying before a Legislature committee and saying something like this: “We have done such an excellent job that we actually have a lot of money leftover. I figure that you will only have to give us 90% if what you gave us last time.” No, that only exists in the dreams of hardworking taxpayers.

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