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FRONT PAGE CONTRIBUTOR

Adrift on the sea of power

Government power is exercised only in the absence of liberty.  If you are legally compelled to do something, you are not free to refuse.  The government does spend a good deal of time making “suggestions” and offering optional “benefits” these days, but all of this activity is funded by the compulsory seizure of wealth.

Power takes many forms.  Money is power.  Everything the government does requires funding.  The ability to take money unevenly from the populace, assigning different tax rates and exemptions to people, conveys tremendous power.  The tax code can be used to reward favored constituents, and punish behavior the government disapproves of.

Taxation is really a form of command, even under a relatively flat and simple system, because after all, time is money.  As the calculation of Tax Freedom Day each year demonstrates, when the government takes a percentage of your income, it is commanding a certain percentage of your labor; you work for the State until April or May each year to pay off your tax burden.  Paying taxes in currency is a much less painless way of surrendering time to the government than impressing people into servitude on some government project for a couple of days a week, or a few months each year.  Paying taxes through invisible paycheck deductions is even more painless.  But the essential nature of the transaction, as a form of command, remains the same.  That’s why it was grotesque to hear a top IRS official under Congressional interrogation in the recent scandal describe it as “poor customer service.”  We are not the government’s customers; there is nothing voluntary about the transaction.

Spending money without taxation – in other words, deficit spending – is also an expression of power.  It is the rejection of a limit upon the State, namely that it should spend only the money it has been given.  Rather than presenting the people with a set of proposals and asking if they are willing to cover the estimated costs, the government does what it pleases, and hands the invoices to a generation of children that never had a chance to say no.  In this way, authority is taken from people who cannot refuse, rather than being requested from respected citizens by their humble officials.

Information is also a form of power.  It can be very valuable, both in terms of how it is used, and the expense involved in accumulating it.  Bureaucracies are eager to gather all sorts of information about the people they regulate.  The people, in turn, believe they exercise power over government by demanding transparency.  What they learn about the conduct of government officials influences their votes.

When the flow of information becomes unequal, the party with more data assumes a position of power and dominance over the less well-informed.  If you spent a few hours locked in a room with someone who asked you a barrage of intrusive questions under penalty of perjury, while answering none about himself, you’d have no illusions about whether he was more powerful than you.

We find ourselves looking at a particularly painful imbalance of power between American citizens and their central government.  The Administration is not willing to disclose much about itself.  Its high officials are impervious to consequences for their action – they’re more likely to be promoted than punished after a scandal.  But they are gathering enormous amounts of information about us, and improperly disclosing it for their own benefit.

Even leaving scandals aside, we have before us a system of government that requires a very deep sea of power beneath it to stay afloat.  It cannot function without monitoring the public in countless ways, and exerting a high level of compulsive control.  It has to take a vast amount of money from the public, and it grows extremely upset at the suggestion that it should make do with any less.  It spends a fantastic amount of money it doesn’t actually have, periodically using its own insolvency as a weapon against the public, twisting concern about the national debt into an irresistible demand for higher taxes.  Growing amounts of behavior are forbidden, regulated, or even mandated.  More and more of what the government does is not even subject to the political process any more – for example, we are told we’ll never even have a chance to vote on reclaiming control of our health care.  Many decisions have been swept off the table… and there’s an awful lot going on underneath the table.

This means the old understanding of “privacy” has become obsolete.  You’re not allowed to conduct your life away from the unblinking gaze of the government any more.  Everything is taxed, monitored, and controlled.  All business is the government’s business.  They have to know what we’re up to, before they can tell us what to do.

As it grows, the government becomes less concerned with the strict performance of carefully outlined duties.  It has its own interests, and it looks out for them.  It treats its allies much differently than its perceived adversaries, as any conservative group seeking a tax exemption, or information from the Environmental Protection Agency, can testify.

This is the nature of government power.  Of course it seems arrogant, for its great works are justified as moral crusades.  How can a few selfish dissenters be allowed to stand in the way of almighty Progress?  Who are you, to doubt the judgment of top officials?  Social justice must be dispensed, wealth must be re-distributed to the deserving, discourse must be purified, and the Earth itself must be saved.  You little people aren’t really qualified to ask questions about it, much less refuse to participate.  And if you want a government that asks fewer questions of you, insist on making it smaller.  The big ones are always pushy.

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