Why does money always get the bad rap, while power–at least the power coveted by those in government–is almost always benign? You know the mantra: If you want to find out who did the dirty deed, it’s always follow the money, never the power. It’s what Woodward claims Deep Throat told him in that garage in Washington D.C., and it’s been repeated ad nauseam ever since. But let me ask you: wouldn’t a quicker route to solving the Watergate mystery have been to follow the power? Who benefited from the break-in? Well, Nixon, of course. And who ended up resigning because of his abuse of power? Nixon again.
Power in government comes almost inevitably to those who first offer you something. They offer to fix your schools. The say they can clean up the environment. Need healthcare? They’re on your doorstep. The list goes on. And yes, they often come through on their offers. We get cleaner water and a safety net. It’s not all bad. Never is. And in any case, your personal cost for anything the offeror does is often obscured by the good deed. But don’t kid yourself; there is a cost. After the transaction, you have less power, and the government that solved (or tried to solve) your problem has more.
In my mind, power is at least as corrupting as money–and in the wrong hands, much more worrisome. For me, the wrong hands are the hands of people I can’t simply walk away from. Thus, though my church may be powerful in some sense, it’s not power I fear because I can walk away from it. Likewise, I’m not too concerned about the power of a G.E. or an ExxonMobile because I can drive across the street and buy from Sears or Texaco. And it’s not power in the hands of the governor or legislature of my state because it’s pretty easy to move to another state.
No, the power I fear most is power in the hands of the federal government because it’s not so easy to leave the United States of America. That takes more money, a passport, and the proper visas. It takes a dislocation of family and friends, of employment, of language, and so on. Besides, if power in the hands of the federal government has reached a point that I would want to move, it’s likely that I may not be able to move in any case.
Now don’t misunderstand; I don’t think we’re anywhere close to that in the U.S. But I do think it’s time to recognize that every time someone in government offers to help us with something in our lives, be it healthcare or soda, the environment or gun violence, we need to ask who really benefits. In other words, we need to follow the power. Almost inevitably, that offer to help results in a loss of my power and an accretion of the power in the hands of the offeror, power in the hands of people and institutions that I cannot walk away from willy nilly.
Don’t believe me? Ask Milton Friedman.