James Madison 1816 by Public Domain White house collection
By Richard Girard
"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."
Lord Acton, Letter, 3 April 1887, to Bishop Mandell Creighton (published in The Life and Letters of Mandell Creighton, 1904). William Pitt the Elder had previously said something to the same effect, in a speech to the House of Lords, 9 Jan. 1770: "Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it."
'But the relationship of morality and power is a very subtle one. Because ultimately power without morality is no longer power."
James Baldwin , A Dialogue (1973; with Nikki Giovanni), from a conversation in London, November 4, 1971.
Human beings as a group cannot by themselves be trusted with any type of power. Neither reputation, dignity, or standing is a guarantee against its abuse. Desire for political power (authority), economic power (wealth), or social power (fame), have the inherent potential to corrupt a saint, and to do far worse if the individual is a sociopath, as Martha Stout claims one out of twenty-five of us are in her book, The Sociopath Next Door (2005).
However, trying to prevent those who desire power in one form or another from acquiring it by creating a mini- archical system of government (to use Murray N. Rothbard's term for it) as many libertarians have suggested, including the Objectivists and the late Robert Nozick, is equally undesirable, as well as impracticable. Those who suffer from the disease of the desire for power will always try and find a means to satisfy their affliction. The best and most reasonable course of action--while maintaining any degree of human independence and freewill--is to follow the suggestion of James Madison in The Federalist Papers: establish a system of checks and balances within the socio-political economic system that is a government, in order to prevent such individuals from causing too much damage.
As I have written elsewhere, a society and its government are inextricably connected. They in fact reflect one another's strengths and weaknesses. The politics, economics, and social (this includes cultural) values of a society cannot in the long term be separated from one another. Any attempt to deal with the problems in one area at the expense of the other two will soon create a distortion that will disrupt the whole of society, like a weightlifter who concentrates solely on developing one set of muscles at the expense of all others.
We are left with the conundrum of our current era that a greater degree of size, and thusly power, is required by the government than in the past, simply to provide the minimal degree of safety and service which is necessary for a modern society. We can no longer depend on a 5,000-man Army, and a 30-ship Navy, to protect our shores as well as our legitimate interests around the World. Nor can multi-national corporations be forced to obey the laws concerning customs, tariffs , and illegal trading with ten employees at every port. And systems of nationwide transportation and communication require methods of oversight and policing to prevent fraud, abuse, and extortion. The list goes on.
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