In a scene from an episode of The West Wing, President Jed Bartlet’s Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (played by the late John Spencer) recalls his time working in private business – on Wall St., if I remember correctly. His recollection isn’t fond. Private business executives and investors are oh so greedy, laments the sympathetically portrayed McGarry. “More, more, more! They’re never satisfied,” bemoans McGarry about the business people he knew. “They can never get enough.”
This sentiment, although here mouthed by a fictional character, is often expressed in reality. ‘Why must businesses keep growing? Why can’t they be satisfied with their current levels of profits?’ Such expressions – offered usually by heads shaking somberly – elicit nodding agreement from the hearers. All agree that destructive and unseemly “greed” is rampant in private business, and especially in finance.
My goal in this post is not to review the problems caused by the common confusion of self-interest with greed. (I believe that the two sentiments differ from each other, and that the latter is indeed anti-social and destructive.) Nor is my goal to explain that vigorous pursuit of profit or other material gain is not necessarily evidence of greed. And I will not here outline the many reasons why the social benefits of the pursuit of profits in private-property markets are, contrary to Leo McGarry’s belief, greater the more intrepid and successful are those pursuits.
Instead, I wish simply to express my wonder at the difference in treatment of the pursuit of profits and the pursuit of power. It is more than a bit rich that the the writers of The West Wing had the Chief of Staff of the President of the United States deplore the aggressive pursuit by business people of profit given that this Chief of Staff works for someone who aggressively and successfully pursued massive power. In fact, it is the McGarry character who actively persuaded Jed Bartlet to run for the U.S. presidency.
Why do we almost never hear (outside of dinner parties for libertarians or on segments of Stossel) people asking about politicians pursuing ever-more power “When is enough enough?” Why in the pages of the New York Times or in the pixels of the Huffington Post does no one worry that greed for state power might be excessive? Why do “Progressives,” who especially fear and loathe the intrepid pursuit of profit in the private sector, not see that the intrepid pursuit of power in the public sector is itself a manifestation of greed – and an especially dangerous one at that? Why do the likes of Sandersnistas, Clintonians, Trumpkins, Warranties, Cuomovians, and Governormoonbeamers (to pick only on American statists) never tire in wanting more, more, more power for themselves and for the state?
When it comes to power, statists can never have enough. They’re never satisfied.
* I’m here going from memory, which prevents me from getting the quotation precisely correct. While the words that I attribute to the Leo McGarry character are almost surely not verbatim, they do precisely capture the meaning that the McGarry character meant to convey in that scene. (I do not recall the name of the episode or even the season in which it’s from.)