Much public attention lately has been on the ‘double dippers’—those lawmakers who manipulated the system in order to get paid by both state and local governments at the same time.
Clark County employees and members of the Nevada Assembly Kathy McClain and Kelvin Atkinson are recent examples. While receiving state pay and per diem in Carson City for their lawmaker duties earlier this year, both were also simultaneously billing county taxpayers for bogus “sick days.” Assemblymen Wendell Williams and Morse Arberry—as employees of the City of Las Vegas—have admitted doing the same during the 2001 Legislature.
Individual scandals such as these easily catch the eye. But it’s important to keep in mind that they’re merely symptoms—consequences of a deeper corruption, one that has been energetically worming its way into Nevada’s political system for decades. It cries out to be understood.
The historian John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton—Lord Acton, to most of us—expressed the fundamental issue succinctly, and for the ages, when observing that, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
This is the reason that the English common law tradition over the last five centuries has always fought so hard to keep the powers of government from being concentrated in a few hands. Government, being the one institution in society legally entitled to use lethal force, is intrinsically dangerous. In the memorable words of George Washington, government is like fire: a dangerous servant and a fearful master.
Like fire, the power of government regularly gets out of control, and it always does so the same way: by drawing to itself those possessed by the hunger for power.
In Orwell’s 1984, one of the party leaders explains what the human appetite for power—underneath all the do-gooder rationalizations—is really about:
The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past in that we know what we are doing. All the others were cowards and hypocrites. They never had the courage to recognize their motives. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. How does one man assert his power over another? By making him suffer. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation.
It is the genius of the Western constitutional tradition to have centuries ago first understood—and confronted—the darkness inherent in the human appetite for power. And it is this darkness against which the common law’s separation-of-powers provisions have always historically stood.
While no man is fit to be the master of another, an unfortunate reality is that some people—look wherever they may—will always see saddles on men’s backs. Projecting their own meagerness onto others and driven by fantasies of dominance, these sorts will spend their lives, if they can, piling up the carrots and sticks and reins and whips of government power. Yet if human liberty is to prevail, power must remain dispersed and such fantasies frustrated.
The scandals of Nevada legislators out to collect local government checks, come what may, are predictable instances of the moral tackiness that always follows government officials who collect more power than appropriate. Yet there’s a third improper use of governmental power in Nevada’s current mix, and it may be the most critical factor of all.
The fact is, almost all of the public-employee-cum-legislators are virtually joined at the hip with Nevada’s public-employee-union political machines—which no doubt, in many cases, actually recruited them to run for office in the first place.
Remarkably, these unions—with the assent of the local-government officials they helped elect—have themselves already successfully taken governmental power away from the public and redistributed it to themselves.
The phrase we hear, of course, is “collective bargaining.” But the reality is that your government’s authority to make and administer law and budgets has been divided.
Further, much of that authority has become the property of these highly politicized unions—private entities neither elected by nor accountable to the public.
In short, behind the bid for inappropriate power by government-employee lawmakers is a long-term bid for ever-greater unaccountable power by Nevada’s government unions.
Steven Miller is policy director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute. Next Week: How Nevada’s New Class Pursues a New Socialism