The four levels of power

Consider these four levels of political power:

1. Power under the law.  This is the least satisfying level for the power- and money-hungry politician.  A Constitutional government exercises power under the law, enforcing codes that apply equally to everyone.  True equality under the law guarantees a light legal burden, because the whole body of the people will become very uncomfortable with a huge mass of restrictions and demands that apply to all of them equally.  This form of power also tends to be simple and easy to live with, because the special exemptions and carve-outs are what complicates a legal code.  At this level of power, government’s coercive force is primarily used to prevent citizens from violating each other’s inalienable rights, which all of them share in equal measure, by definition.

2. Power through the law.  Now things are getting more interesting for the statist!  At this level, the law becomes a tool for controlling society.  The government doesn’t just prevent the violation of inalienable rights.  It uses coercive force to act “for the good of society,” which means applying force against people who have committed no crime.  A great deal of money and liberty begin to flow from the people into their controlling State.  A ruling class takes shape, composed of people who love to describe themselves as “public servants,” but in fact see themselves as the masters of national destiny – wiser and more compassionate than any of the people they control.  The ruling class invests great effort in convincing the little people to see money as evil, and the pursuit of individual ambition as “greed.”  This is another way of saying that the vision of the State is more noble and pure than any individual’s dreams of success for himself and his family.

3. Power from exceptions to the law.  Once you’re past Stage 2, this level is not long in coming.  The State grows even larger by granting special exceptions to the law.  Waivers and dispensations are handed out to favored groups and business entities.  The tax system becomes “progressive,” which means a huge burden can be laid upon a dwindling minority, who are politically helpless against the far larger number of people who pay little or nothing to support the State.  A progressive tax system is another way of saying that property rights are no longer inalienable – they are parceled out at the whim of the State, which may decide one person must pay 50 percent, while another pays only 10, and another pays nothing.  Exceptions blossom throughout the tax code, swelling it to gigantic size.  Waivers from oppressive taxation and regulation become a valuable commodity – when the government grows large enough, such “products” become the most valuable commodity in the economy.  Nothing is more priceless than the political influence needed to secure gigantic subsidies, tax breaks, and regulatory exemptions.

4. Power beyond the law.  At the highest level, statists can exercise power beyond what they have actually legislated.  This usually involves threatening or bullying private citizens and companies, with anything from official harassment (say, tax audits) to unofficial pressure from political shock troops who are nominally outside government, but intensely loyal to the ruling class and individual leaders (for example, demonstrations by “community” groups, or warnings that the ruling class will unleash its media operatives against private companies, ruining their reputations.)  Citizens who scrupulously obey the law can still be savaged for acting in defiance of the will of the state – “You did what we legislated, but not what we really wanted!”  The lure of Treasury billions, and the priceless advantages of using State power to dominate their industries, entices private corporations into “partnerships” with government, only to find themselves taking the blame for everything that goes wrong.  

Immense costs are offloaded from the government onto private enterprises through unfunded mandates, which conceal the true cost of State power from taxpayers – instead of proposing some course of official action and telling the people how much it will cost them, the government orders the private sector to take certain actions, and quietly pass the costs along to their customers.  The government routinely spends huge sums of money that it doesn’t actually have – in other words, it exercises power far beyond the financing its citizens have agreed to provide it.  The ruling class elevates itself beyond the reach of law, recognizing no legal authority to constrain its power, and routinely ignoring laws that tightly bind lesser citizens.  The notion of holding anyone at the higher echelons of power “accountable” for anything they do becomes absurd.

Level Four is a death spiral.  The State must grow constantly to survive.  The private sector gets smaller and smaller.  The boundaries of liberty contract; it becomes impossible to do anything without the blessing of a government official.  This results in less wealth creation, which means the State must claim a larger share of a diminishing pie to sustain itself.  There comes a moment when the math no longer works, the books cannot be balanced, and the government must confiscate what it needs to survive… a desperation tactic that kills the capitalist geese who lay its golden eggs.  

And then… well, there are people who believe there is a fifth level of power.