Government does not stay Limited
It is human nature to seek authority without accountability
Humans are both predatory and cooperative. Jonathan Haidt, whose works on moral psychology include The Righteous Mind, says that we are “90 percent chimp, 10 percent bee.” Chimpanzees are violent and competitive, with little ability to cooperate. Bees coordinate effectively and seem willing to sacrifice for the sake of the hive.
Much political theory follows Thomas Hobbes, who wrote that living without a government would mean enduring a “war of all against all.” Without an overriding authority, the chimpanzee component of human nature would not permit us to live peacefully with one another.
We defer to government because we want protection. Criminal behavior poses a threat. Unresolved conflicts, which can escalate into violence, pose a threat. We look to government to resolve conflicts peacefully and to protect us from criminals.
A government that can protect us from conflict and criminality must have power. We speak of government having a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. But that leaves government itself in a position to threaten us with violence and criminality. What we think of as government-provided protection service probably originated as a protection racket, in which the threats to oppress citizens emanated from government.
What can stop government officials from abusing power? For centuries, political theorists have wrestled with this problem, and to me it remains unsolved.
The American Constitution incorporates two attempts at solutions to the problem of political authority. One solution is explicit boundaries on the uses of power. The other solution is checks and balances.
The Constitution as written had tight limits on the powers that political leaders could exercise. Powers that were not explicitly granted to the Federal government were supposed to be reserved for the states or for people as free individuals. However, over the years, the Constitution has been steadily re-interpreted to expand the scope of the Federal government, in some ways at the expense of state governments but most clearly at the expense of individual liberty.
The theory of checks and balances is that by standing up multiple government institutions with differing goals and powers, we can turn competitive human nature against the natural tendency to abuse power. Each branch of government will be held accountable by the other branches.
Unfortunately, checks and balances run afoul of the human tendency to seek authority without accountability. It is in our nature, or at least in the nature of some of us, to seek power and to evade checks on our power. Just as businessmen love competition in theory but try their best to avoid it in practice, public officials do their best to subvert whatever accountability mechanisms are in place. Humorist Mort Sahl captured the mentality of politicians when he quipped that “Richard Nixon stays up all night studying the Constitution. . .He’s looking for loopholes.” (And did he also say it about Obama?)
Officials rationalize stifling dissent as “preserving order.” They rationalize censorship as “correcting misinformation.” They rationalize expanding government authority as “protecting the public from harm” and “making their lives better.” They rationalize secretive operations as “for your own good.”
People tend to accept such rationalizations. We have legitimate fears, and we encounter social problems that appear to be crises. Political leaders promise to solve problems if they are given sufficient authority. We acquiesce, often eagerly.
Such rationalizations seem especially compelling to those in positions of power. But the end result is that officials have sawed through the cage of Constitutional limits as well as checks and balances.
Conceding power and status to public officials creates a selection problem. Political leadership emerges from a competition among people who are particularly ruthless in their striving for status and power.
Today, it appears that we are in a vicious cycle. Government officials have obtained high status and power. Elections have taken on a ritual significance that is mystical or religious. This in turn attracts the most psychopathic, narcissistic, and Machiavellian people to politics. In office, they contrive to increase their power while reducing their accountability. This makes public office even more attractive to people with those Dark Triad psychological traits.
I proposed Designing a Better Regulatory State. Not as a perfect solution, for I believe that the problems embedded in human nature are insoluble. But in the spirit of trying to restore a system of checks and balances. The goal is to greatly increase accountability in government. If that were to succeed, this might attract people into government who are somewhat less determined to evade accountability. Facing an audit agency that could call them out for incompetence and abuse of power, they might not boast to the public about their problem-solving capabilities. Limited government might be more appealing both to politicians and the general public. Ideally, this would lead to a reversal of the cycle of ever-increasing government power attracting leaders with ever-stronger Dark Triad traits.
This essay is part of a series on human interdependence.
I wonder if our country, and several other populous countries, have become too big to be governable. When the states adopted the U.S. Constitution, the national population was on the order of tens of millions of people. We had 13 or 14 states (when was Maine admitted?), so 26 or 28 Senators and one President. Now, we number more than 330 million people in 50 states, and 100 senators. The population has grown tenfold or 20-fold, but we only have 4x the number of Senators, a somewhat larger contingent of Representatives, and still one President and one Supreme Court. Is the country simply too big to be limited through the original form of checks and balances? Is the tradeoff that as a large country we are better able to defend ourselves against other large malign actors (China, Russia, Iran, etc.)?
This is the most incisively written articles that I have seen on Substack for months.