Power for what purpose?

William Murchison's picture

I haven’t yet inquired of the most intelligent person I know, but I think she’d endorse a critical element in Alan Greenspan’s critique of the Republican party, as conveyed in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.

Said Greenspan: “The Republican Party, which [after 2000] ruled the House, the Senate, and the presidency, I no longer recognize. It’s fundamentally been focusing on how to maintain political power, and my question is, for what purpose?”

Oh, what a question — “for what purpose?” Early in matrimony, Nancy Taylor Murchison drew my attention to a consideration afflicting organizations of one kind or another — namely, neglect of the question, what the blue blazes are we trying to do here? What’s the endgame?

These are questions, as my wife noted, drawing on her experience in the volunteer world, that many organizations never get around to asking, generally to their considerable cost. If you don’t know what you’re trying to do, you’re — shall we say — not likely to succeed in doing it.

What’s the broad purpose of controlling the House, the Senate and the presidency? I don’t mean the discrete purposes related to the performance of particular missions, such as reforming Social Security, because why reform in the first place? To extend freedom — wouldn’t that be a vital purpose? Or, looked at in another way, to undergird “security.”

Nothing wrong with either purpose, so long as you keep that purpose, or both of them, in mind as you propose and formulate.

By contrast, if the main thing you do is calculate what helps you keep the power the voters just bestowed on you, your eyes are likely to wander from the central element. The Big Idea shrinks and shrivels. How can we sell this thing? When that question becomes the glue holding the debate together, you’re in big trouble.

Politics being politics — a game of infinite slipperiness — we expect of politicians a fair showing of craft, calculation and stage-management. We know, too, the seductions of power and its tendency to corrupt.

We don’t quite know, but kind of suspect, that if the seraphim came to control the levers of national power, it wouldn’t be long before one was whispering, angelically, to another, “Say, is the Chamber of Commerce OK with the capital gains tax plan?” and the second was whispering back, “Yeah, yeah, but look, on import quotas…”

“For what purpose?” Thus, Greenspan. The Republicanism of Barry Goldwater, he told the Journal, was centered on fiscal restraint, deregulation, open markets and trade. Well, that Republicanism got crushed by the Great Society-ism of Lyndon Johnson (who at least was driven by purpose, however unsound its application proved), but it rose again under patronage of Ronald Reagan and performed great wonders, not least the conquest of communism.

We need not argue here, I think, one particular political purpose as opposed to another one. There are bigger fish to fry, starting with the problems power ever entails.

Power as an end in itself — power because it’s neat and makes people want to be around you and give you money and beg favors of you — is the great temptation, the overpowering seducer of good men and good women.

No power, no society — true. All this means, though, is that those who do gain governmental power should use it for the advancement of an ideal — even one as screwy as Hillary Clinton’s notion that the government can or should oversee all health needs.

Politicians have to fight. It’s the nature of the pursuit. But to fight for “earmarks,” for giveaways of taxpayer money to buy votes (if indirectly) in order to retain the power to offer more earmarks and buy more votes — here is debasement of national purpose, not to mention cynicism of a kind voters usually end up punishing.

We don’t have to agree with every accusation Mr. Greenspan hurls at post-Goldwater Republicanism to see his point that the lack of consistent, coherent purpose may be what ails and undermines Republicans even more, if possible, than Iraq.


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