This professor did not fully answer the question, yet he, and we in the audience, were aware that Communist Russia, Red China, North Korea, Eastern Europe, Pol Pot’s Cambodia and Fidel’s Cuba had all fallen into this trap. Each proclaimed its noble aspirations, then proceeded to snuff out any vestiges of democracy.
Was there something about a collectivist ideology that produced this result? While we at the meeting did not come to a final conclusion, there was a rough consensus that concentrating too much power in the hands of a few leaders probably had something to do with the usual outcome.
Marxism, communism, socialism and even to some degree social democracy all advocate that the state must protect people from social unfairness. The government is supposed to see to it that no one gets a better break than anyone else. Under Marxism there is to be a “dictatorship of the proletariat,” whereas under socialism the state is to own the means of production. Social democracy does not go this far. It merely demands that the government regulate virtually all economic transactions, as well as protect individuals from their own foolish choices.
Barack Obama is a social democrat. Not quite a socialist, he wants the government to oversee and regulate virtually all medical interventions, all financial transactions and every potential environmental incursion. He also wants to increase transfer payments from the rich to the poor, usually by raising taxes and increasing welfare benefits.
These activities are undertaken in the name of the people. The “best and the brightest,” which is to say the liberals, are to implement the equivalent of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s General Will. They are to provide what the people really want — even if the people themselves do not know it.
The trouble is that all such programs must be put into practice by actual human beings and that we humans are corruptible. As Lord Acton warned, power tends to go to the heads of people who attain too much of it. Liberals understand that this is true for business tycoons; they fail to recognize that it is also true for politicians and bureaucrats.
The Obamacare debacle is a prime example. Politicians infatuated with their compassionate instincts bit off more than they could chew. Utterly incompetent when it came to organizing so immense an enterprise, they jumped into it feet first anyway.
So far the Internet run-out has proved a complete fiasco. Much too expensive, crony-ridden, ill-conceived and subject to the usual cover-ups, it forecasts what is likely to be the equally inept execution of the program itself.
Mark my words. Obamacare is sure to be rife with favoritism, multiple hands in the cookie jar, fraud, dishonest evaluations of performance, broken promises and budget over-runs that would make a convict blush.
While I am sure some of those in this mess really have good intentions, imbuing them with so much power is an invitation to arrogance. People who imagine themselves to be gods on Earth somehow find a way to rationalize their mistakes and to overreach their abilities.
Power is a potent narcotic. It distorts the way people under its influence perceive reality and seduces them into over-estimating their capacities. From their perspective they are merely doing good when they send counter-revolutionaries to the Gulag or impose the medical insurance policies citizens must buy.
James Madison understood the temptations inherent in power. He realized we humans are not angels and must be restrained from going overboard. That is why he gave us a constitution in which powers are balanced by competing powers. We would do well to remember why he did.
Melvyn L. Fein, Ph.D., is professor of sociology at Kennesaw State University.