The Retributionist Case for Limited Government

Power corrupts, regardless of party.


Last week Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe appointed Boyd Marcus to the board of the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. Regarding that appointment, Pat Mullins, chairman of the Virginia Republican Party, was blunt. "It's nice to know the exchange rate for 30 pieces of silver these days," he said.

Marcus is — was — a longtime GOP political operative who surprised a lot of people when he endorsed McAuliffe, a Democrat, over his Republican rival Ken Cuccinelli. Apparently feelings are still tender.

Marcus' appointment to the plum position — it pays quite nicely — requires confirmation. House Speaker Bill Howell, a Republican, says Marcus will get "additional scrutiny." Deputy House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert was even less circumspect: "I don't know who told the governor (appointing Marcus) was a safe bet, but the governor's office may have wanted to think that over a little more thoroughly … his confirmation is anything but sure."

GOP to Marcus: Paybacks are hell.

A little further up the East Coast, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has been squirming under the scrutiny of paybacks his own underlings have meted out. After the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee declined to endorse Christie's re-election, Christie appointees engineered a four-day traffic jam by shutting down lanes to the George Washington bridge.

But that's not all. Democratic mayors who endorsed the Republican Christie received hundreds of millions of dollars for transit and other projects. When the Democratic mayor of Jersey City balked at endorsing the governor, says The New York Times, "all meetings with Christie administration officials were canceled and requests for help with Hurricane Sandy recovery went unanswered."

Both parties play the sordid game, and — at least recently — in roughly equal measure.

When the PAC for the Northern Virginia Technology Council, a business group, endorsed Cuccinelli, Democratic big shots erupted in fury: "The ramifications of his being endorsed will be huge within the Senate Democratic caucus," Fairfax state Sen. Janet Howell emailed the group. "The response will be frigid and doors will be closed. Achieving the goals of NVTC will be difficult to impossible."

In 2012 businessman Frank van der Sloot publicly backed Mitt Romney. President Barack Obama's campaign gave him a rhetorical roughing-up. Then the IRS audited him — twice. Then he got audited again, by the Labor Department. The IRS' abuse of tea party groups for blatantly political reasons has been well-covered. Less well-covered: a recent congressional report concluding that the Obama administration tried to make sequestration "as visible and painful as possible" by stripping federal funds from certain rural school districts — retroactively.

Campaign finance laws are making retribution easier. Witness Edmund Corsi, an Ohio blogger who needled Ed Ryder, a local Republican member of the Board of Elections. The Election Commission went after Corsi, seeking to impose fines and other penalties because he has spent perhaps a few dozen dollars expressing his political views on his website and in pamphlets without incorporating and registering as a political action committee.

Meanwhile in Wisconsin, conservative groups that supported Republican Gov. Scott Walker's bid to beat back a recall effort have been hit with subpoenas — some recently thrown out — from a special prosecutor over allegations that the groups "coordinated" for the purpose of "express advocacy" on behalf of a public official. (The horror.)

Revenge plots such as these are many things: Small-minded. Mean-spirited. Unprincipled.

They also are evidence in support of Acton's axiom that power corrupts. And the corollary that such corruption knows no partisan boundaries.

Intrigues such as these are one more thing, too: an argument on behalf of limited government. A vindictive public official can inflict considerable harm, as the residents of Fort Lee will unhappily attest. And the harm government agents can do is directly proportional to the scope of their power.

In a state where authority is centralized and power absolute — Russia under Stalin or China under Mao, for instance — the Maximum Leader can have a critic executed at whim, or consign millions to death by starvation. Under conditions of dispersed authority and weak power, most people will lie beyond any one official's reach. And even those within it will have much less to fear.

There are rationales for big government that can override this consideration — just as there are rebuttals to the rationales and retorts to the rebuttals. This doesn't settle the debate, it merely adds a point.

Still, it's worth remembering how many progressives feared what the Bush administration might do with the powers it was amassing — just as many conservatives have feared what Obama will do with his. They were both right.

This column originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.