Time to abandon the preferential option for the federal government?
The historian Lord Acton is famed for reflecting that “power tends to corrupt.” This is less an observation about power itself than it is about human nature. Whatever our aspirations or ideals, we are also goaded by instincts, biased by prejudices, and prone to self-serving rationalizations. In other words, to use an old-fashioned expression, man is fallen. (For first-hand proof, observe children at play or legislators at work.)
Our imperfect and egocentric nature makes it perilous for any of us to gain coercive power over our fellow men, since such power lets us indulge in selfishness, hubris, sadism, and other symptoms of the hunger to be “as gods.” Give someone the power to dominate, and these dark drives will rise and begin to corrupt the man, who might have otherwise been virtuous, until (as Acton warned) “absolute” power corrupts him “absolutely.”
Clearly, this statement alone is a little too pessimistic, and might, if applied too crudely, become a counsel of despair. A parent deserves the power to coerce her minor children, an officer to coerce his soldiers, and a policeman to force a tipsy driver out of his car. While such powers can be (and frequently are) abused, only a truly delusional utopian would imagine that human society can liquidate every trace of hierarchy or compulsion. It is a sad fact that many of the most destructive ideologies that emerged to mar modern life found their first motives in the urge to eliminate injustice and the abuse of power, only to become themselves more destructive than any of the old abuses. In twentieth century politics, as in nineteenth century medicine, the cure was often worse than the disease — or it was simply bad in a new and unexpected way.
Justified complaints about the coercive powers of fathers and husbands helped to generate forms of feminism that threaten to liquidate family life altogether. We have seen it in fact disappear from major sectors of Western society, with large swathes of the poor born out of wedlock and raised by mothers alone, dependent on distant government aid instead of husbands and fathers.
Outrage at abusive work relationships and unjust working conditions gave birth to the various forms of socialism, from the murderous Marxist-Leninism that collapsed in 1989 to the ossified modes of socialism that prevail now in Western Europe, which make it so hard to fire any employee that it is hazardous even to hire one, and swaddle every citizen in tissues of guarantees and subsidies that have somehow become “human rights.”
The racial biases and petty tyrannies that sometimes marked local government in America have encouraged two equal and opposite errors: the radical libertarianism that seeks to dismantle the state altogether, and its evil twin, the fervent centralism that would concentrate all power in the hands of federal bureaucrats charged with enforcing a uniform, utilitarian code of conduct on every community in America.
This last tendency — bureaucratic centralism — is the one that most gravely threatens us in America, as our federal government cheerfully contemplates the prospect of closing every Catholic institution in the country rather than let employers follow their consciences on what kind of health care they will offer. Reformers who see in every kind of existing inequality prima facie proof of injustice are willing to steamroll over religious freedom, property rights, and economic freedom in their relentless drive to ensure that every citizen receive a full menu of “basic human rights” that accrues at the moment of birth (and not, we must note, at conception) without imposing any responsibilities beyond one’s duty to pay his taxes. The state will take care of the rest, and it will see to it that there is no escape from its all-encompassing power, which invades every nook and cranny of private life, demonizes and then suppresses dissent, until the agenda of those who control the central power has imposed its ultimate goal: a political and intellectual uniformity that the Jacobins dared not dream of.