Power Corrupts

At one time, President Obama noted similarities between his presidency and Ronald Reagan’s, but these days it seems his administration is more often compared with Nixon’s.  The Benghazi coverup, followed by the IRS scandal that targeted right wing groups, followed by the revelation that the Department of Justice seized the telephone records of Associated Press reporters without any notification, is reminiscent of the Nixon White House and the Watergate scandal that eventually ended the Nixon presidency.

Bloggers here at The Beacon are normally not reticent about criticizing government, so it is interesting that until this post, nobody here has said anything about these events that have so dominated the news recently.  Two possible explanations are that, first, they have received so much news coverage that, well, what more can you say?  And second, many of the bloggers here look at these events and say, “What’s surprising?  That’s the way government normally operates.”  I will include myself in that group.

Give some people power over others and they will use that power to further their agenda, and to protect themselves from attack, without regard to the consequences of those others.  Maybe I’m being even a bit too generous here.  The president has often referred to those who hold opinions different from his as his opponents, so more than just not having any regard for consequences to others, there is the suggestion that it would not be bad if those opponents suffered some in the process.

Now, another apparent abuse of power has come to light.  Federal prosecutors are investigating James Rosen, a reporter for Fox News, who reported on North Korean missile launch plans that may have been classified information.  The New York Times, not often thought of as a right-wing newspaper, has been critical of the administration’s possibly unconstitutional attack on the press in this case.

Cases like this (and the seizing of the AP phone records) seem bad for the administration, because they are aimed at a group — the press — that has a substantial ability to strike back, reach a wide audience, and do so in a way that does not appear partisan.

Going after right-wing groups?  Sure, those extremists deserve it!  Going after the press?  Not only does the press appear non-partisan, the administration counts on their support to generate popular support for the president’s agenda.  Why antagonize the people you are counting on for support?  This seems like bad strategy.

If it is bad strategy, why does the administration pursue it?  Partly, it is the tone the president sets at the top.  He’s not working with Congress, he’s battling his opponents.  If it is us against them, you do what you can to bring “them” down.  Combine that with the fact that those in government can use their power toward that end, and it is not surprising that they use it.  Power corrupts.

Randall G. Holcombe is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University. His Independent books include Housing America: Building Out of a Crisis (edited with Benjamin Powell); and Writing Off Ideas: Taxation, Foundations, and Philanthropy in America .
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