Lord Acton’s Maxim and America

Most folks have heard of Lord Acton’s maxim. “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The common interpretation of this maxim is that when a person is given power, he begins the become corrupted; and when given great power, he becomes completely corrupted. There is truth in this interpretation, but there is truth in a larger interpretation: that the power that is unaccountable, unchecked, and unlimited corrupts initially everyone in proximity to the wielder of that power, and then by all who are subject to that power.

John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton was an historian and publisher during the Victorian era England. His study of British history lead him to examine how rulers gain, consolidate and then hold onto power. Think of the Lannisters of the “Game of Thrones.” They were modeled after the Tudors and for good reason.

Henry VIII started the Church of England in order to secure a son. After the Pope back, Henry declared an open season on all Catholics throughout the realm. His daughter Mary returned the favor, hunting Anglicans to the point she earned the sobriquet “Bloody Mary.” Her sister Elizabeth struck back, making Catholics extinct in the United Kingdom for several generations. 300 years later the hate remained. Lord Acton, as a Catholic, would know this history very well. He was denied his choice of college because of his choice of church.

As an historical aside, our American Founding Fathers were also intimately knowledgeable of the sanguinary habits of kings. Many of the Founding Fathers were descendants of religious refugees from the United Kingdom. Every generation of Americans adds anti-tyrants to the rolls.

The context of Lord Acton’s maxim is a discussion concerning the then-new doctrine of Papal Infallibility. Lord Acton opposed this doctrine, but not to the point of schism. The maxim has been emphasized in the following passage.

“…I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. That is the point at which the negation of Catholicism and the negation of Liberalism meet and keep high festival, and the end learns to justify the means. You would hang a man of no position like Ravaillac; but if what one hears is true, then Elizabeth asked the gaoler to murder Mary, and William III of England ordered his Scots minister to extirpate a clan. Here are the greatest names coupled with the greatest crimes; you would spare those criminals, for some mysterious reason. I would hang them higher than Haman, for reasons of quite obvious justice, still more, still higher for the sake of historical science.”

Every ruler has a coterie of people who will carry out the ruler’s orders. As power corrupts, those orders become wishes, or in Henry II’s case concerning Thomas Becket, just talking to the air – a desire for an outcome that can not be gained legally. How this happens is not a Craigslist audition for villains. The first step is a matter of charisma – attracting followers. The second step is to gain the authority of law. The third step is to divide. The fourth step is to remove opposition, and the final step is exercise absolute power ruthlessly.

Max Weber was a German philosopher noted for his study of the qualities of Protestantism as the vehicle of America’s success in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Weber developed two models concerning authority and the mechanism for exercising power. The first is the Tripartite classification of authority :

  1. charismatic authority
  1. traditional authority
  1. legal authority

The engine for exercising absolute power is bureaucracy. In Weber’s Legal-Rational Model, he proposes three defining attributes:

  1. A rigid division of labor is established which clearly identifies the regular tasks and duties of the particular bureaucratic system.
  1. There are firmly established chains of command, and the duties and capacity to coerce others to comply is described by regulation.
  1. Regular and continuous execution of the assigned duties is undertaken by hiring people with particular qualifications which are certified.

Corrupt rulers may or may not come from traditional avenues, but they do gain power that is perceived by the people as legal. They may already have an official cult of personality based the ruler’s charisma. The inner coterie are not cultists. Their eyes are wide open, and their motives are honest: they want the perks that come with the proximity to power: some power for themselves, money, pleasure, and satisfaction in doing what they do. The inner circle doesn’t lie to themselves, which makes them ice cold killers and manipulators of ruler and ruled alike.

The cult of personality is more dangerous because they disregard traditional and legal sources of power. These are the folks who are untouchable by reason, facts, or any objective truth. They go into the bureaucracy of government or the ruler’s power-base in order to better serve. Not all bureaucrats are cult fanatics, but many are and they can be career civil servants or political appointees or judges and justices or Congress critters.

In the Bible, there are two examples of these cults at their most deranged:  the mob outside Lot’s door, and the mob gathered to witness the trial, punishment and execution of Jesus Christ. For our readers who are not Christian, I will sum up in this way:

Lot received three angels as guests. The mob attempted to storm the house in order to rape the angels. That is akin to an ant attempting to copulate with a thundercloud. For the Christ example, the mob contained eye-witnesses to miracles,  but murdering Christ was more important politically than anything else. People inside of such cults toss their morals in the fire along with books that may accuse them.

The cult of personality believes their ruler is divine. The ruler becomes their god, and doing what he wants – or what they believe he wants – is the purest expression of their love and belief in him. Henry II spoke to the air about his frustration with Thomas Becket. Result: Becket kicked the bucket by an overdose of iron. Vlad Tepes’s soldiers impaled thousands of innocent people in order for Dracula to successfully get inside his enemy’s head. A certain very senior leader in the IRS used her organization to attack TEA Party groups nation-wide with the intent to destroy them. News reporters throw in officially approved propaganda in the middle of every news report. Online there are trolls and in the streets party operatives direct mentally ill and destitute members of society to attack members of the Other Party.

Those knights were expendable as cultists. Dracula’s army got hammered into the dirt. The IRS, the Department of Justice, elements of the FBI and DoD and many other elements of our Federal government and the news media sacrificed not only personal reputation but also the integrity of their institutions for at least a generation to come. But don’t feel bad for them: those sacrifices were their Eucharistic Adoration.

First the ruler is corrupted. Then his inner circle, his lieutenants. Then those who place their hope and dreams in the ruler. Lastly are those people who accept all of this either passively or by simply ignoring it. They rationalize their acceptance through agreement with the ruler on at least one policy. This could be monetary policy or sterilization of the mentally deficient – it only takes one policy. As for the rest of the people?

They are the Enemy. As Saul Alinsky preached, The People (whomever they are) must have an Enemy. This could be the French for the English and Germans. This could be The Other Party. Historically, the Jews have served as internal, othered Enemies of the state, but today the Others are Christians. These Others are identified by the ruler, and enmity against them is wholeheartedly embraced by the cultists.

Whomever becomes Pope, President, King or Prime Minister, they will be given power. In the American experience, the Constitution actively undermines the accretion of power by the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary. This tension of Executive Responsibility versus Constitutional constraints in Checks & Balances is the purest expression of the first clause of Lord Acton’s maxim. Since Jefferson’s swearing in, each President has engaged in combat against our Constitution. They are ably assisted by their lieutenants and their personal cult of personality: in the bureaucracy, online and in the streets. And this Is the purest expression of the second clause of Lord Acton’s maxim: absolute power corrupts absolutely – not the already empowered and corrupt ruler, but everyone loyal to him.

About DaveO

Retired soldier, micro-farmer, raconteur and pet owner from the great state of Oklahoma. Wandered in as a frequent commenter and have been enjoying blogging ever since.
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