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Power Causes Brain Damage: Help Us Cure DC's Hubris Syndrome

Lord Acton famously said, "power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

In Federalist No. 51, James Madison said:

But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

These intuitions underpin the design of our Constitution; its careful definition, division and separation of powers; its checks and balances between and among the branches; its inherent term limits (only the judiciary enjoys a life term); and federalism - the division of power, and resulting checks and balances, between nationally and locally governing political bodies.

The power of the states to initiate the proposal of constitutional amendments by convention under Article V is just one important application of these principles. It provides for outside political bodies to reform the structure of national power in ways that the national political class would refuse to initiate itself. The Balanced Budget Amendment advanced by the Compact for a Balanced Budget also applies these principles by ensuring that any increase in a constitutional federal debt limit would require the approval of a majority of state legislatures.

Fast forward 200 years, and now neuroscience is confirming the wisdom of these intuitions and constitutional design principles.

It turns out power corrupts, in part, because it alters the brain. Power creates "hubris syndrome."

is a disorder of the possession of power, particularly power which has been associated with overwhelming success, held for a period of years and with minimal constraint on the leader. Its 14 clinical features include: manifest contempt for others, loss of contact with reality, restless or reckless actions, and displays of incompetence.


Subjects under the influence of power . . . in studies spanning two decades, acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury—becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view.

This is huge new evidence confirming the wisdom of the Founders (and commonsense).

There is no doubt that Hubris Syndrome is infecting Washington, DC.

How else can you explain exponential spending and tax code giveaways without a thought to incurring tens of trillions of dollars of debt and hundreds of trillions of dollars of unfunded liabilities?

How else can you explain the total disregard for future generations from the resulting fiscal calamity we are delivering to them?

Fortunately, there is a cure. It involves recognizing that the source of DC's illusion of limitless power (and hubris) is its limitless capacity to borrow. Curing the Hubris Syndrome infecting DC requires dispelling that illusion by constitutionally limiting the federal government's borrowing capacity.

To achieve that, we must balance ambition against ambition. We must impose discipline on DC externally from the outside in partnership with those who remain immune to Hubris Syndrome locally (think of them as the antibodies we need for our cure to work).

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