One of the most charming and honest descriptions of politics ever penned came from a letter written by Lord Bolingbroke, an English Tory leader in the 18th century. "I am afraid," he wrote to a friend, "that we came to Court in the same dispositions as all parties have done; that the principal spring of our actions was to have the government of the state in our hands; that our principal views were the conservation of this power, great employments to ourselves, and great opportunities of rewarding those who had helped to raise us and of hurting those who stood in opposition to us."
Libertarians recognize that power tends to corrupt its holders. How many politicians, no matter how well intentioned, can avoid abusing the considerable power of today's expansive governments? Look at Sen. Robert Byrd's constant exertions to move the entire federal payroll to West Virginia, or Sen. Bob Dole's long record of generous contributions from the Archer-Daniels-Midland Corporation and his championing of huge federal subsidies for ADM. Or note the clear echo of Bolingbroke's letter in a White House aide's notes about Hillary Clinton's instructions to fire the career civil servants at the White House Travel Office: "We need those people out--We need our people in--We need the slots."
A particularly striking illustration of what we might call Bolingbroke's Law is the record of Maryland governor Parris Glendening. Elected in 1994, Glendening seemed a clean, honest, moderate, technocratic former professor. He might give Maryland big government, but at least it would be clean government. So what did he do when he took office? Well, here's how the Washington Post described his first budget:
In his first major act as Maryland governor, Parris N. Glendening unveiled a no-new-taxes budget that unabashedly steers the biggest share of spending to the three areas that voted most strongly for him: Montgomery and Prince George's counties and Baltimore.
Lord Bolingbroke, call your office. A few days later it turned out that Glendening and his top aide were collecting tens of thousands of dollars in early pension payments from Prince George's County, where Glendening served as County Executive until his election as governor, thanks to Glendening's creative interpretations of rules that gave early pension benefits to government employees who suffered "involuntary separation" from their jobs. Glendening decided that officials not allowed to seek reelection because of term limits, such as the two-term limit on the County Executive, had been "involuntarily separated" from their jobs. And he "demanded" the resignations of his top aides a month before he left his county job--making them also victims of "involuntary separation"--whereupon he hired them as his top aides in the governor's mansion.
Like the Energizer bunny, the Glendening money train just kept on going. In May the governor asked the legislature to spend $1.5 million in taxpayer funds to rescue a struggling high-tech firm in Prince George's County headed by one of his political supporters. Then in August, Frank W. Stegman, the state secretary of labor, licensing, and regulation, hired the wife of Theodore J. Knapp, the state personnel secretary and a colleague of Stegman's from the Prince George's government, for a job in his agency. No ingrate, personnel secretary Knapp then returned the favor by recommending a $10,000 raise in Stegman's meager $100,542 salary.
If this is what the apparently honest politicians do, just imagine what the others are up to.
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