There’s a stereotype that libertarians think politicians and other government agents are selfish sociopaths, out for themselves.
Libertarians oppose romantic ideas about government. People are people. Handing someone a gun, calling him boss, and charging him with a noble goal will not transform him into a saint. Libertarians are skeptical that those in power will want to use their power to do good[...] Libertarians do not assume that soldiers or police officers are more saintly than the rest of us. In fact, libertarians tend to stress that political power attracts people who want to exploit that power for their own private ends.
As Lord Acton says, power tends to corrupt. Not only that, but power tends to attract those who are already corrupted. When competing for power, the corrupt have an advantage.
The power to do good through government is the same as the power to do evil. When we create a CIA or SEC, we have noble goals. However, the people who seek the power we create will not always have noble intentions. The power we create to save our children will often be used against them instead.
When good people and bad people compete for power, the bad have an advantage. The good people, being good, will observe moral constraints. The bad will do whatever it takes to win.
Even when politicians mean well, they might have to subvert the rule of law to get their way. Democracies lead to disagreement, not consensus. Politicians might want to do good, but they cannot count on getting a coalition behind them. To be effective, they must often break the rules.
I go on to recount some of Glenn Greenwald’s complaints about Obama. From a civil liberties standpoint, Obama is as bad or perhaps worse than George W Bush.
That said, libertarians do not literally think all politicians are selfish and evil. Many of them mean well.
Libertarians agree that many politicians mean well. Libertarians say the problem is that many well-meaning, public-spirited people have false beliefs about how to make the world better.
[...]Politicians overspend, but this need not reflect malice or self-interest. Congress may simply have a culture of spending. Most people who lobby Congress ask for more spending rather then less spending. This is not surprising. The benefits of spending are concentrated among the few, but the costs are diffused among the many. If your corporation can get millions in subsidies, your corporation will spend time and money to get that subsidy. The cost of the subsidy is spread among all taxpayers. It costs the typical taxpayer only a few dollars on average. Taxpayers thus have no incentive to fight the subsidy or even to know about. Lobbying for spending pays for itself; lobbying against spending costs more than it save.
In light of all this, imagine you are a congressperson. You hear many cries for help. These cries for help only come in the form of spending requests. No one ever opposes any particular spending bill. It is easy to believe you hurt no one by spending. The victims of overspending are unseen.
Same with voters. They mean well, but don’t know what they’re doing.
Voters are like quack doctors who want to cure pneumonia using leeches instead of penicillin.
Power corrupts not only leaders, but followers.
Libertarians believe power tends to corrupt—it corrupts both the people who hold it and the people subject to it. We are biased to view political power as majestic. We tie esteem to political power. We thus allow kings, emperors, presidents, senators, district attorneys, police officers, and even voters to commit injustice.
For example, many Americans would rate Abraham Lincoln as the greatest president. Yet Lincoln fought the civil war not to free slaves, but to force the South to remain part of the United States. In the course of war, Lincoln suppressed habeas corpus, created the first national draft, suppressed free speech, censored and punished newspapers who criticized his war efforts, and was at least complicit in waging total war against Southern civilians. By normal moral standards, this makes him a monster. (If I did these things, you would regard me as a vile and despicable person.) However, we rarely judge political leaders by normal moral standards—we hold them to much lower standards than normal.
The book has lengthy sections on different forms and instances of government failure. I’ll blog about that later.
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