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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.

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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.

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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 with 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 reelected 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 in Midland, Mich. This article first appeared in The Freeman, the journal of the Foundation for Economic Education.