It’s not an iron law that power corrupts. But it’s often a good way to bet.
The interesting question is: Why does power corrupt so many people? The way I see it, power — money, fame, celebrity, authority or some mix of them all — lowers the cost of indulging human nature.
This is one of the central reasons elites wreak such havoc by preaching “If it feels good, do it” libertinism. Rich people can afford their vices and indulgences in ways poor people cannot. An out-of-wedlock baby is just another cost center for a libidinous billionaire. Recreational drug use can certainly lead to ruinous addiction for a movie star, but the path to ruin for a supermarket cashier is much shorter.
But human nature is about more than carnal desires and other personal indulgences. Humans also desire status. And the more status some people have, the more status they crave, along with the trappings that go with it.
The televangelist Jesse Duplantis recently asked his congregation to donate some $54 million so he could get a Dassault Falcon 7X private jet. The three private jets currently owned by his ministry don’t have the range he desires.
Status isn’t just about luxurious toys. It’s also about the sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle art of bending people to your will and making them acknowledge your authority. That’s why some celebrities order the staff not to look them in the eye. It’s why Sean Penn thought nothing of making an assistant swim through the filthy and dangerous chop of the East River to fetch him a cigarette.
A friend of mine worked for a famous TV personality years ago. Let’s call him JM. This personality liked to bark demands for hot chocolate into the office intercom (“JM need cocoa!”), but he deliberately refused to name the person he wanted to bring it to him because he enjoyed how his employees panicked about who would be the first to volunteer to fulfill the menial task. Just because he could.
This sort of thing is grotesque and unseemly in all walks of life, but it is particularly egregious from government officials. A rich person in the private sector can be an officious, overbearing ass and all he or she risks is his or her own money and own reputation. But a government official who abuses his or her authority in order to indulge his or her vanity and desire for status is a very different thing.
The Trump White House has a lot of very rich people in it. For instance, Betsy DeVos, the secretary of education, flies on her own private jet — and that’s fine. She’s actually saving taxpayers money. Moreover, DeVos is secure in her status and doesn’t need a government job to bolster it.
But DeVos and other wealthy members of the administration seem to be arousing envy in their colleagues, most infamously Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt has done some good work on reducing regulations and fulfilling other conservative goals. He’s also taken credit for some good work done by others and for work that hasn’t been done at all, as Matt Lewis of the Daily Beast has noted.
But Pruitt has also behaved like a jackass, abusing his authority in petty and silly ways, as if to prove that he’s a really big deal. He’s sent his grandiosely praetorian security detail to fetch him some special hand lotion and allegedly used his aides to get him a discount on a used (!) mattress. He tried to finagle a job or two for his wife. And that’s just the news of the last couple of weeks.
Like Pruitt, Ben Carson, the Housing and Urban Development secretary, has long talked a great game about the perils of big government, but that hasn’t stopped him from treating his Cabinet appointment as a kind of ducal fiefdom, rewarding his family with business opportunities but also blaming his wife when he got caught exceeding the budget for interior decorating.
There are perks to working in government. But, as with the pardon power, those perks are inherent to the job, not to the person holding it. Under President Obama, it was a staple of conservative rhetoric to note that America isn’t a monarchy. They still say it, they just don’t act like it.
Jonah Goldberg is an editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him in care of this newspaper or by email at JonahsColumn@aol.com.