We often hear people on both sides of the political aisle complaining about the expansion of federal power. And yet, federal power constantly expands.
If everybody is worried about federal encroachment and overreach, why doesn’t anybody do anything to stop it? Why don’t more people insist on strict adherence to constitutional limits on federal authority?
French philosopher and political economist Bertrand de Jouvenel offers some insight into the reason governmental power generally tends to expand in a democratic political system that helps explain the constant growth of federal authority in the United States.
As de Jouvenel explains, power in modern political systems wraps itself in a sort of smoke screen.
“Formerly it could be seen, manifest in the person of the king, who did not disclaim being the master he was, and in whom human passions were discernible. Now, masked in anonymity, it claims to have no existence of its own, and to be but the impersonal and passionless instrument of the general will.”
Of course, this is nonsense. Government still holds and wields all of the power and acts on the general population with virtual impunity. Politicians gain and hold power through a democratic process, and sell themselves as representatives of the people. But in fact, they often act against the people they supposedly represent. For example, the vast majority of Americans don’t want the government to spy on them. And yet, the feds operate spy programs they capture virtually all of their emails, phone calls and internet activity.
de Jouvenel observed that as always, power remains in the hands of a group of men who control the power house. It’s functionally no different than a monarchy – there are just more hands and a political system that makes the people feel they have some level of control. In truth, they wield very little actual control over the process.
“All that has changed is that it has now been made easy for the ruled to change the personnel of the leading wielders of Power.”
On the surface, this would seem to put some limits on how far governmental power can grow. But de Jouvenel argues this actually makes it easier for government power to expand.
“Viewed from one angle, this weakens Power, because the wills which control a society’s life can, at the society’s pleasure, be replaced by other wills, in which it feels more confidence.—But by opening the prospect of Power to all the ambitious talents, this arrangement makes the extension of Power much easier.”
How does democracy facilitate the extension of power?
It gives everybody the sense that they have some hand in exercising power. This creates a dilemma, as de Jouvenel explains.
“Under the ‘ancien regime,’ society’s moving spirits, who had, as they knew, no chance of a share in Power, were quick to denounce its smallest encroachment. Now, on the other hand, when everyone is potentially a minister, no one is concerned to cut down an office to which he aspires one day himself, or to put sand in a machine which he means to use himself when his turn comes. Hence, it is that there is in the political circles of a modern society a wide complicity in the extension of Power.”
A written constitution was meant to provide rules to check the tendency for government to grow. It outlines barriers that should not be crossed. As Thomas Jefferson put it, “in questions of power then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the constitution.”
But ultimately, people don’t want to bind down government when they have control of the levers of power. They want to implement their policies and expand their party’s political control. Instead of constitutional chains, we end up with a political dynamic where the “in” party drives the expansion of government forward while the “out” party complains