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Lawrence Reed Columnist

Published Thursday, October 18, 2012

Big government can't possibly be good government

It’s a good bet that no matter where you are on the political spectrum — liberal, conservative, libertarian or something else — you want men and women in government to be honest, humble, fair, wise, independent, responsible, incorruptible, mindful of the future and respectful of others.

But you may be holding profoundly contradictory views without realizing it. This is the bottom line: The bigger government gets, the less likely it will attract men and women who possess those traits we all say we want.

Have you noticed how mean and nasty campaigns for high office have become? Lies and distortions are common political fare these days. Why would a genuinely good person subject himself to the ugliness of it all? Increasingly, genuinely good people don’t bother, so we are left all too often with dirtbags and demagogues in government. Unless you enjoy rolling in the mud with the hogs, you stay on the other side of the fence.

There are reasons for this disturbing situation, and they have to do with the nature of power. Lord Acton famously stated more than a century ago that “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” He nailed it, though I would add a corollary of my own: “Power attracts the corrupt.”

If you’ve supported the monstrous expansion of the federal government in recent decades, or if you’ve got a laundry list of things you want it to do because you think it’s not yet big enough, then don’t blow smoke about clean and honest politics. You’re part of the problem. Big government, by its very nature, is dirty and dishonest. That’s the kind of people it attracts and that’s what concentrated power is always about.

America’s Founders had lots of reasons for wanting to keep government small, reasons the government schools rarely teach these days. One of those reasons was that they knew the wisdom of Lord Acton’s warning a century before he wrote it. It would be inconceivable to our Founders that good and honest people could ever stay good and honest if they’re swiping and redistributing $4 trillion every year and regulating almost every corner of life. That kind of power can make a sinner from a saint in no time.

Think ahead to what all this means in the future if the federal government continues to grow unchecked. Some day when it controls 50 or 60 or 70 percent of national income, it’ll be stuffed full of arrogant, manipulative, slick-talking but low-character types. They will not be people who are wise enough to realize that they’re not smart enough to run everybody else’s life. Then when we realize we’ve put some of the worst among us in charge of a gargantuan machine, it’ll be too late. Power attracts bad people, and bad people don’t go away quietly.

Big government equals bad government. Don’t fool yourself into thinking otherwise.

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(Lawrence W. Reed, a resident of Newnan, is president of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, N.Y., and Atlanta.)

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