What Is Power For?
Greg Weiner accurately notes, in “Infinite Ideology” (October 14), that progressivism has no limiting principle: If a $15 minimum wage today is good, then why not $16 tomorrow? Weiner also correctly observes that conservatism is a belief in a government that is limited to some degree or other, and hence is quite different from the open-endedness seemingly favored by progressives.
All that is well worth noting; but Weiner might also have noted that progressivism and conservatism are ideologies: They do a poor job of predicting how politicians actually act. It’s nice if Mafia dons are Catholics who occasionally voice respect for the clergy, but don’t we want to know what they do, not just what beliefs they espouse? It’s the same with politicians.
Limits on what the government can do — nominally the goal of most conservatives — would mean limits on the power that politicians can exercise, even conservative politicians. But that’s just the problem: Why would politicians of any stripe limit their own exercise of power if the principal reason they went into politics was to exercise power?
In short, politicians, even those who profess to want a limited government, cannot be expected actually to limit the government, because in doing so they would limit themselves and their exercise of power. Nobody runs for Congress thinking that his job is to spend the next two or six years doing absolutely nothing. Because limits on government imply just that — that we already have enough laws, so legislators should simply sit on their hands — such limits will never arise from within the legislature itself, regardless of ideology.
Greg Weiner responds: It is ostensibly true that politicians want power, although the behavior of members of Congress in recent decades gives pause in that regard. That said, it decidedly does not follow that the ambition for power by definition fuels the growth of government.
Federalist No. 51’s claim that “ambition must be made to counteract ambition” pertains to one branch of government’s incentive to curb, not expand, the power of another. Progressives and conservatives alike have certainly been known to be situational constitutionalists. But progressivism requires the everlasting growth of government while conservatism is at least nominally committed to an ethic of limitation.
The question cannot be simply how politicians are empirically likely to act. Presumably they want power for a reason. A conservative ethic of limited government is hardly rooted in the idea that, at any moment in time, we have enough laws and should stop. Sometimes power is helpful in repealing expansions of government. At other times, power is useful in blocking those expansions. Only progressivism is necessarily committed to using power to do more.
The job of a legislator is not, in the eternal lament of the hand-wringing classes, to “get things done.” Madison said it was to “refine and enlarge” public opinion. Filtered public opinion may call for doing something. It may at other times prefer to stand still. Indeed, the result of counteracting ambitions is supposed to be stasis unless circumstances require action. The belief that power is useful only for expanding government may rightly be labeled Wilsonian, but it is not entitled to call itself conservative.
The Week (October 28) asserted that Michael Uhlmann passed away at the age of 89. In fact, he was 79.