Thoughts on Bryan Caplan and David Henderson’s discussion of power’s corrupting effects
Longtime readers may recall my posts trying to catalogue the various ways in which political “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I have written about power’s subtle but corrosive effects on those who wield it, even once they no longer do; about the violence that those who exercise power inflict on others; and about power’s inextricable connection with lies. I have occasion to return to this topic, thank to a discussion between Bryan Caplan and David Henderson over at EconLog.
Prof. Caplan argues that “politicians are, by and large, evil people.” They might be well-intentioned, but good intentions are not enough:
virtuous people can’t just conform to the expectations of their society. Everyone has at least a modest moral obligation to … investigate whether their society’s expectations are immoral.
Moreover, this obligation weighs more heavily on people exercising political power:
[i]f you’re in a position to pass or enforce laws, lives and freedom are in your hands. Common decency requires you to act with extreme moral trepidation at all times.
But politicians never do that, since “[t]hey’re too busy passing laws and giving orders to face the possibility that they’re wielding power illegitimately.” Indeed, they have no incentive to exercise this moral “due diligence,” because “[p]olitical systems reward them for seeming good by conventional standards.” At best, they will “do what most people consider good.” At worst, they will just pretend.
Prof. Caplan’s point about incentives is particularly important for the inquiry into the corrupting effects of power. Even if aspiring politicians start out agreeing with prof. Caplan about the importance of questioning prevailing moral standards, they will soon abandon such questions, which are only likely to land them in electoral trouble. The quest for power and the struggle to retain it do not just allow a person’s bad sides to shine; they also mar the good ones.
(Prof. Caplan also has a follow-up post in which he discusses politicians’ propensity to lie, and ties to his argument about their being evil. It’s worth a look, but since I have already dealt with that particular topic in a prior post, I will say no more of it here.)
Prof. Henderson responds that, though well put, prof. Caplan’s case is not “compelling,” in the sense that nothing much follows from it. For one thing, “politicians aren’t equally evil. In fact, a few seem to be quite good.” And for another, prof. Henderson reminds us of the inconvenient truth that, to achieve our goals ― he speaks of liberty, but of course it is no different if you believe in “justice,” or “equality,” or anything else ― we probably have to “deal with politicians.” And if we want to do that, we might as well treat them respectfully, even if suspect them of actually being evil.
Turning, as I did in my first post on this topic, to The Lord of the Rings, we might call this the Gondor problem. The ring of power might be dangerous, says Boromir, but we’ve got a country to save, and we’d be silly not to use it. And note that, in a very real way, Tolkien lets himself out of this problem a little easily. His characters, other than Boromir (and the more obvious “bad guys”) forswear the use of the One Ring, to be sure, but many of them are quite comfortable with wielding the more conventional instruments of power ― notably military force ― as well as the Three Elvish rings. While we are consistently told that these instruments cannot stop Sauron, especially if he get hold of the One Ring, they are nonetheless necessary tools to allow the One to be destroyed, as well as for solving the more minor problems characters face (such as the occupation of the Shire).
The most significant exception to this trend is, tellingly, Frodo, who pointedly refuses to take up arms during “the scouring of the Shire.” Frodo is clearly engaging in something like prof. Caplan’s moral due diligence, asking himself and others whether it is permissible to engage in violence to get rid of the “ruffians” who are occupying and exploiting the Shire. But his conclusion that violence is to be avoided to the greatest extent possible, and there is to be no killing of hobbits, does not make him very popular at all. He is, we are told, more or less sidelined during the events, and is not acknowledged as “the famousest of hobbits” in their aftermath. This is, of course, in keeping with what prof. Caplan says about politicians ― and, tellingly too, Frodo never seeks public office in the Shire, unlike all of his less morally diligent (or at least more morally conventional) companions.
But while Frodo does the right thing, is he right? It is painfully clear that that his attempts to operate by persuasion alone are not enough. If the hobbits want to live in their libertarian quasi-paradise instead of the semi-socialist dystopia, they have to fight for it. The conventional morality of Merry and Pippin leads them to what seems to be the only right conclusion, even though they fail to engage in right thought process. Perhaps this is accidental; Frodo just happened to be wrong, and his companions, right. Maybe Tolkien should have written a different book if he really wanted to be consistent in his message about the corrupting effects of power. But I’m not sure that this alternative book would have spoken to us in the way The Lord of the Rings does; that its dilemmas would have been as recognizable and as gripping.
One way in which power corrupts those who exercise it and even those who merely seek to do so is by giving them incentives to blind themselves to the possible immorality of their actions. Yet it is not obvious that there is a way to renounce the use of power completely. As in my prior posts, I conclude, therefore, with a reminder of the importance of the instruments we have developed to limit both the scope and the duration of the power any one person as able to wield. Of particular importance to this post is constitutionalism enforced by independent courts. An entrenched constitution provides a set of (partly) moral constraints on the exercise of power, which if effectively enforced ought to limit the damage that morally negligent or even wilfully blind politicians are able to inflict on those whom they govern. Like other power-constraining instruments, this one is far from being perfect, but it is better ― a good deal better, sometimes ― than nothing.