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The love of power vs. the power of love

Using the force of government to sway behavior is inimical to a free society.

By Lawrence W. Reed / August 28, 2007



Midland, Mich.

"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."

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So declared British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone more than a century ago. His audience surely responded then the same way audiences would today – with universal 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 one another'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.