Economic theories of politics sound warnings against oppression and tyranny. The prospect may seem abstract and theoretical, but history provides many examples of idealized political leaders who turned out to be self-interested tyrants and betrayed the power that naive citizens had granted them. Here is a telling one.

At the end of the 19th century, many considered Germany to be the most advanced country in the world. It was at the first ranks of public health and the welfare state. Frederic C. Howe, an Ohio politician later associated with the FDR administration, “portrayed Germany as the world’s most advanced scientific state.” Many young economists who founded the American Economic Association in 1885 had studied there. (See Thomas C. Leonard, Illiberal Reformers, Princeton University Press, 2016.) It was still a sophisticated country as the Nazis were reaching for power. They were not ignorant barbarians.

In August 1934, Rudolf Hess of the Nazi Party gave a speech asking Germans voters to approve a referendum proposal about making Adolf Hitler both Führer and Chancellor. (The featured image of this post shows a cigarette card of the Nazi era.) One instructive excerpt from Hess’s speech:

Someone may say that it is not good to put all power in one hand, since Adolf Hitler might use his authority arbitrarily and thoughtlessly!

To that I can only say: The conscience of a moral personality is a far greater protection against the misuse of an office than is the supervision of parliament or the separation of powers. I know no one who has a stronger conscience, or is more true to his people, than Adolf Hitler.

In the referendum that followed a few days later, some 90% voted yes for Hitler. The future was to confirm that general human flourishing is served not by the power and “conscience of a moral personality” but, on the contrary, by strictly limited government and the coexistence of many centers of power in both government and society.