Politicians

The Retributionist Case for Limited Government

Power corrupts, regardless of party.

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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.

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  1. “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.”

    I doubt McAuliffe gives a shit whether his appointment gets confirmed or not. He already got the endorsement.

    This whole business of rewards and punishments for endorsements is completely out in the open and yet we tolerate it. The voting public is an idiot.

    1. “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals?” ? Agent K

  2. I have no opinion on what happened in VA, but I am going to say this:

    “It’s nice to know the exchange rate for 30 pieces of silver these days”

    was pretty clever. Although it will probably be lost on a lot of people.

    1. That’s some Jewish thing, right?

      1. It’s all fun and games until someone loses an ear.

        1. According to Luke, Jesus repaired the ear, so no harm, no foul.

        2. “Although it will probably be lost on a lot of people who are not Reason commentators.”

          FIFM

          1. What’s Judas’ 30 pieces of silver worth in 2014 dollars, anyway?

            1. About tree fiddy

              1. I think it’s substantially more than that. I need a professional currency opinion here.

                1. According to this, that’s about 15 troy ounces. Silver spot price today is currently 19.89 USD. So, in the strictly literal sense, $298.35, though as the first link points out, the actual comparative value is different, as 30 pieces of silver would have represented a half year’s wages at that time.

                  1. What was Judas before he became a follower of Jesus? A lawyer? Automotive mechanic? What?

                    1. Once he joined Jesus’ crew he looked after the books, so accountant maybe?

                    2. Bear in mind this was before SarbOx though…

  3. And the harm government agents can do is directly proportional to the scope of their power.

    That’s a feature, not a bug, for proglodytes.

  4. Power dispersal is just code for anarchy!!!

    /progderp

  5. “just as many conservatives have feared what Obama will do with his.”

    In Obama’s case it’s not really a fear of what Obama might do, so much as dread of what he’s doing. I was against Bush’s use of Executive Orders, but in retrospect they were trivial. Obama has pushed it well beyond the bounds of any President’s actions since the days of FDR.

    And while it’s quite possible that there wasn’t direct communication between high levels of the administration and the IRS, it’s clear from the lack of punishment that the White House is effectively condoning the lower level actions. When you don’t punish the people committing the actions, you are sending a signal.

  6. Redistributionist Case for Limited Government?

    is that an oxymoron? I mean nobody parts with assets for redistribution voluntarily. So there is a need for forceful coercive government to make it happen.

    Or problem we accept intrusive government in areas were it need not be. Like marriage, lets face it if there was not a tax reason then marriage (gay or otherwise) would be like choosing to get a tattoo or not.

    But the government likes to keep these wedge issues (Marriage “equality”, income equality, etc) to play the pools of easily manipulated voter pools off of one another — instead of focusing on the real issue of individual freedom vs the power of government.

    1. I agree that if the feds had not established a marriage preference then it would have remained a state issue.

      Whenever someone mentions equality I always remember the line:
      Free men are not equal, equal men are not free.

    2. Yeah, I misread the title at first too.

      And afterward I thought, shouldn’t it be anti-retributionist?

  7. “Redistributionist Case for Limited Government?”

    This really is a poorly titled article. I expected to see and argument for the Liberal version of the Nightwatchman state. Where the state is kept small (primarily through the elimination of the military) and the funds are all transferred to the poor (or education, etc).

    IE “It will be a great day when our schools have all the money they need, and our air force has to have a bake-sale to buy a bomber. – Robert Fulghum”

    1. Money for schools is not the issue once you remove all of the restrictions on how they use what they have.

  8. 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.

    I had to read it again;

    There are rationales for big government that can override this consideration

    I must be having some ‘cognitive dissonance’ on this point with the author. I hope it’s a benign statement of ‘hypothetical fact’ rather than assertion that there are situations that justify the use of fear-mongering and mass starvation in a systemic and organized fashion.

    1. I think the second part is fairly separate from the first: there are reasons for why someone would want a centralized goverment that would override concern that it would potentially be abused in the manner before, just like there is plenty of arguments why the risk is not worth it. A lot of it works arround how benifitial centralized power is, and what the probability of terrible things happening as a result is.

      Naturally, progressives see the probable benifits as large and the probable harm as small, so think centralization is a good thing, while we generally think the probable benifits will be small while the probable harm large, and thus rather disagree with them on such issues.

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