The recent revelation that the IRS targeted conservative political groups is now moving into the second stage of a DC scandal: the first is finding out what happened; the second is finding out how high up it goes. Although it is important to find out many, if any, high-level officials are culpable, high-level participation is not necessary for libertarians to have a small “I told you so” moment.
But we should not try to oversell it. Some libertarians have an odd tendency to believe that government is more effective at doing bad things than at doing good things. At the extremes, this manifests as the “libertarian conspiracy theorist”—someone who oddly believes that, while government can’t effectively run health care, schools, or welfare programs, it can successfully orchestrate and cover-up massive conspiracies. But we don’t need high-level conspiracies to point out that abuses of power, even by low-level officials, can be expected. Moreover, as government grows larger it becomes both less accountable and more important to our lives, thus giving government officials both more leverage and more freedom to misbehave.
In his novel Child 44, a fascinating detective story that takes place in Stalin’s Russia, Tom Rob Smith tells of an encounter between a party-member doctor and the novel’s protagonist, a Muscovite police officer who was once a loyal party member but is slowly losing his faith. The officer is out sick and the doctor visits to see if he is really sick or just trying to avoid work. Shirking work is a grave offense, and the doctor’s judgment could destroy the officer and his wife. A bad report and they will go to the Gulag. A good report and they get to stay in their relatively comfortable apartment in Moscow. Knowing his power, the doctor makes unwanted advances towards the officer’s beautiful wife, telling her that “Ten minutes is hardly a high price to pay for the life of your husband.”
It is a chilling episode, and while I am certainly not comparing the U.S. government to Soviet Russia, there are some lessons to be learned. As much as we might like a sensational story implicating top-level officials, the most common form of government misconduct does not usually involve devious scheming by politicians. Instead, it is often both less insidious and more invidious—the cumulative effects of misconduct by less-accountable, low-level officials who enjoy immense power over small areas of our lives.
My father, an attorney, once told me he first started having vaguely libertarian thoughts after he began dealing with banking regulators. The regulators were relatively low on the chain of command, yet they held an incredible amount of power over their areas of concern, more than enough to make my father’s job very difficult. And they did. Similar stories happen all over the country, and sometimes they make it to the Supreme Court.
But most don’t usually make it to any court, much less the Supremes. The United States government is the most powerful organization the world has ever seen, and lower-level officials wield a small fraction of that power, which is still more than enough to make most people sit down and shut up.
I’m not saying that all government officials illegitimately use their power. I believe that the vast majority of government officials do not. I am saying, however, that many abuses occur and more can be expected if the government continues to grow larger and more powerful. It is simply too large an organization for anyone to control.
Trevor Burrus is a research fellow at the Cato Institute’s Center for Constitutional Studies. He holds a BA in Philosophy from the University of Colorado at Boulder and a JD from the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. This post originally appeared at Cato @ Liberty.