Experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny. – Thomas Jefferson
As the IRS scandal continues to develop and the outrageous abuses become manifest in the public conscience, the calls for firings, prosecutions, and “house cleaning” will grow as well. Yet missing from this debate, as is the case every time one of these abuse of power scandals breaks out, is a serious discussion about the power itself.
Even if the president and Congress agreed today that the rot within the IRS culture was so deep and pervasive that every last IRS employee had to be fired and replaced, the abuses would continue and expand. And this is before the new powers granted to the IRS under Obamacare are even brought to bear.
Why? Because the abuse doesn’t follow from “a few bad apples,” it flows from the system itself, which incentivises those acting within it to use the power they have. This was the greatest fear of the Founding Fathers. It is why we learned about checks and balances in high school civics (the federal education system still teaches civics, right? No? Well, if you’re old enough to have learned basic facts about the US government, you’ll remember that.)
As the Jefferson quote above illustrates, they understood that no man aught to have power over another so that he might pursue his own interest at the expense of his fellow. They believed in the system of negative rights, the rights of free people are the rights to be free from tyranny; the only legitimate functions of government are the defense of the life, liberty and property of its citizens.
They disseminated power between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, but gave very little power to the federal government at all. The Constitution contains only 17 specific and unique powers to which the federal government is responsible. All other power is dispersed across a vast network of state and local governments and, as the Tenth Amendment so powerfully affirms, “To the People.”
American Constitutional Republicanism has lasted as long as it has because of a system of divested power that prevents any one agency or person from wielding enough of it to undermine the ultimate autonomy of individual citizens en masse.
But over time, power, like waves beating on even the hardest rocks, has eroded those barriers and flowed away from the people, the localities, the states and even the federal judicial and Congress to become centralized in an executive branch that would rightly horrify Thomas Jefferson; as it should horrify all of us.
Jefferson also wrote, “In questions of power, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.”
Jefferson had a unique insight on human psychology. He understood that every man seeks to improve himself from moment to moment, to have more tomorrow than he has today. He understood that no system could change human nature and the effect of this rational interest seeking, aggregated over time, was to weaken those chains and lead some men to abuse others for his own ends. He understood that government was the mechanism and expression of the abuse that logically and inevitably follows from man’s avarice.
Almost every one of us will find some part of the federal beast that we will defend. For the right, it is often the standing military with its wealth and freedom destroying adventurism; or fascist corporatism, to the left it is social welfare with its wealth and freedom destroying paternalism; or religious-like devotion to the goodness of the State and its figurehead, but we need to understand that whether it is the IRS, the Marines, or Medicare, we are all trading in our liberty for shackles by consent.
So when the heads of a few bureaucrats are offered up in mock sacrifice to an outraged public, let us all bear in mind that it is just a show, bread and circus, to distract from the growing threat of tyranny that will not pause in contemplation of its own inevitability.