(Note: The following essay appeared as Mr. Reed’s regular "Ideas and Consequences" column in the May 2007 issue of The Freeman, the journal of the Foundation for Economic Education.)
"We look forward to the time when the power of love will replace the love of power. Then will our world know the blessings of peace."
So declared British Prime Minister William Ewert Gladstone more than a century ago. His audience surely responded then the same way audiences would today — with universal, nodding approval. But the world, perhaps more so now than when Gladstone spoke, seethes with hypocrisy. Though we say we prefer love over power, the way we behave in the political corner of our lives testifies all too often to the contrary.
Gladstone was eminently qualified to say what he did, and he sincerely meant it. He was a devout man of faith and character, lauded widely for impeccable integrity in his more than six decades of public life. Four times prime minister, he still ranks as one of the few politicians who really did "grow" in office. He came to Parliament in the early 1830s as an ardent protectionist, opponent of reform and defender of the statist status quo. As he watched government operate from its highest levels, he evolved into a passionate defender of liberty. When he died in 1898, his admirers were proud of a Britain strengthened by his legacy of cutting taxes, bureaucracy and intrusive regulation. The Irish loved him because he fought hard to lighten London’s heavy hand over Irish life. Biographer Philip Magnus believed that he "achieved unparalleled success in his policy of setting the individual free from a multitude of obsolete restrictions."
Gladstone knew that love and power are two very different things, often at odds with each other. Love is about affection and respect, power is about control. Someone who pursues power over others for his own personal advancement is rightly deserving of opprobrium. Gladstone’s friend Lord Acton warned about how absolutely corrupting this can be. If love is a factor in such instances, it’s more likely love of one’s self than love of others.
When real love is the motivator, people deal with each other peacefully. We use force only in self-defense. We respect each other’s rights and differences. Tolerance and cooperation govern our interactions.
Suppose we want to influence or change the behavior of another adult, or want to give him something we think he should have. This person has done us no harm and is in full command of his faculties. Love requires that we reason with him, entice him with an attractive offer, or otherwise engage him on a totally voluntary basis. He is free to accept or reject our overtures. If we don’t get our way, we don’t hire somebody to use force against him. "Live and let live," as Americans used to say with more frequency than they do today.
When we initiate force (that is to say, when self-defense is not an issue), it’s usually because we want something without having to ask the owner’s permission for it. The 19th century American social commentator William Graham Sumner lamented the prevalence of the less noble motivators when he wrote, "All history is only one long story to this effect: Men have struggled for power over their fellow men in order that they might win the joys of earth at the expense of others, and might shift the burdens of life from their own shoulders upon those of others."
Adults necessarily exert great power over infants, whose very existence requires nearly constant attention, tempered by a strong and instinctive affection. By adolescence, the adult role is reduced to general supervision as the child makes more of his own choices and decisions. The child eventually becomes an adult empowered to live his life as he chooses and bear all the attendant risks and responsibilities.
In normal, healthy families during this nearly 20-year maturing process, a parent’s power over a child recedes but his love only grows. Indeed, most people understand that the more you love a child, the more you will desire him to be independent, self-reliant and in charge of himself. It’s not a sign of love to treat another adult as if he were still an infant under your control.
A mature, responsible adult neither seeks undue power over other adults nor wishes to see others subjected to anyone’s controlling schemes and fantasies: This is the traditional meaning of liberty. It’s the rationale for limiting the force of government in our lives. In a free society, the power of love governs our behavior instead of the love of power.
Consider what we do in the political corner of our lives these days and an unfortunate erosion of freedom becomes painfully evident. It’s a commentary on the ascendancy of the love of power over the power of love. We have granted command of over 40 percent of our incomes to federal, state and local governments, compared to 6 or 7 percent a century ago. And more than a few Americans seem to think that 40 percent still isn’t enough.
We don’t trust the choices parents might make in a free educational marketplace, so we force those who prefer private options to pay twice — once in tuition for the alternatives they choose, and then again in taxes for a system they seek to escape.
Millions of Americans think government should impose an endless array of programs and expenses on their fellow citizens, from nationalized health insurance to child day care to subsidized art and recreation. We’ve already burdened our children and grandchildren, whom we claim to love, with trillions in national debt — all so that the leaders we elected and re-elected could spend more than we were willing to pay for.
We claim to love our fellow citizens while we hand government ever more power over their lives, hopes and pocketbooks. We’ve erected what Margaret Thatcher derisively termed the "nanny state" in which we as adults are pushed around, dictated to, hemmed in and smothered with good intentions as if we’re still children.
If you think these trends can go on indefinitely, or if you think power is the answer to our problems, or if you think loving others means diminishing their liberties, you’re part of the problem. If you want to be part of the solution, then consider adopting the following resolutions for this year and beyond:
I resolve to keep my hands in my own pockets, to leave others alone unless they threaten me harm, to take responsibility for my own actions and decisions, and to impose no burdens on others that stem from my own poor judgments.
I resolve to strengthen my own character so I can be the model of integrity that friends, family and acquaintances will want to respect and emulate.
If I have a "good idea," I resolve to elicit support for it through peaceful persuasion, not force. I will not ask politicians to foist it on others just because I might think it’s good for them. I will work to free my fellow citizens by trusting them with more control over their own lives.
I resolve to offer help to others who genuinely need it by involving myself directly or by supporting those who are providing assistance through charitable institutions. I will not complain about a problem and then insist that government fix it at twice the cost and at half the effectiveness.
I resolve to learn more about the principles of love and liberty so that I can convincingly defend them against the encroachments of power. I resolve to make certain that how I behave and how I vote will be consistent with what I say. And I resolve to do whatever I can to replace the love of power with the power of love.
A tall order, to be sure. Let’s get started.
Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mi. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.