A stroll down the annals of history certainly bears Acton out. We find the corrupting influence of power working even in those we tend to hold up as principled leaders. James Madison was against a National Bank before he was for it. Thomas Jefferson set constitutional scruples aside long enough to make the Louisiana Purchase.
True greatness lies in the ability to resist the temptation of power. King George III asked his American painter, Benjamin West, about George Washington’s plans after winning the Revolution.
“They say he will return to his farm.”
“If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world,” George incredulously replied.
One of the most powerful men of that time simply could not conceive a man willingly relinquishing such authority.
Washington did ultimately walk away, not once, but twice – first from command of the army and later from the presidency. He probably could have ruled America as king, had he so desired. But for whatever reason, the tentacles of power never seemed to completely wrap around the mind of the “Father of our Country.” Washington stands as one of the few figures in history who took up a position so powerful with such reluctance, and then willingly stepped away. Washington’s true greatness comes not from what he did, but from what he didn’t do. Can you imagine Barack Obama or George W. Bush willingly walking away from an opportunity to exercise supreme power for life?
I can’t either.
It makes me wonder about Acton’s claim. Does power truly corrupt, or does it simply attract the already corrupt to it, like a porch light attracts a moth?
We’ve all met these kinds of people. We call them busybodies. They meander along intent on telling other people how to live their lives. They don’t seem happy unless butting into the affairs of family members or neighbors. You know, annoying Aunt Molly, or the crazy man down the street who keeps calling the police because he doesn’t like the playhouse you built for your kid in your own back yard. For the most part, these people don’t rise above the level of annoying, but give them a little platform of power – then you’ve got real problems.
Residents living in Florida condominium communities know this first hand. They call them Condo Commandos. Think annoying Aunty Molly with a badge. She sits on the condo board, and along with her position comes the power to enforce the rules. Maybe even levy fines. Take a late evening swim five minutes after the hour the pool closes and you’ll get a phone call. Hang a towel over your balcony to dry. She’ll fine you. Park your car in her parking space? You might just get evicted. She takes great pride in her position, and she never misses an opportunity to remind you of the power she wields and how she makes life “better” for everybody.
Most people in these condo communities just want to enjoy life on the beach – live and let live. But inevitably, the busybodies end up on the condo boards and ruin things for everybody else. Those poor folks who just want to be left alone don’t bother with such things. The power has no appeal.
Now imagine Aunt Molly in the Senate. Or as the president.
Positions of power attract these personality types; people convinced that their ways represent the best way, or the only way. People bound and determined to make sure everybody else falls in line. They may honestly believe that they exercise their power serving the “best interests” of their communities. But do their good intentions diminish the tyranny?
In fact, C.S. Lewis argued that a hunger for power coupled with good intentions creates the worst form of tyranny.
Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
So perhaps power doesn’t necessarily corrupt. Perhaps it just attracts the busybodies, the personalities who already harbor a desire to rule over others.
But when you get right down to it, does it really matter? Whether power corrupts, attracts the corrupt or a little of both, we all recognize that as people gain it and exercise it, power becomes as intoxicating as a narcotic.
And we recognize the danger posed by an addict.
How do we treat an addict?
We take away the drug.
How do we solve the problem of power hungry people in our political system?
Remove the levers of power.
Taking away Aunt Molly’s position on the condo board won’t make her any less obnoxious, but it removes her ability to inflict her obnoxiousness on the rest of us in any meaningful way.
Americans spend far too much time trying to find the “right guy” to run the country. Guess what? There is no “right guy!”
The real problem isn’t this president or that congressman. The problem is a federal government expanded far beyond its intended purpose, exercising power it does not rightly possess. We’ve given these people too many levers to manipulate.
The problem in a nutshell – too much power.
The Constitution delegates the federal government only specific, limited powers. The ratifiers understood the danger of concentrating too much power in one place. They understood that allowing a few people to control too much would pose a threat to their freedoms and liberties. So they insisted most power would remain with the states and the people.
That the Powers of Government may be reassumed by the People, whensoever it shall become necessary to their Happiness; that every Power, Jurisdiction and right, which is not by the said Constitution clearly delegated to the Congress of the United States, or the departments of the Government thereof, remains to the People of the several States, or to their respective State Governments to whom they may have granted the same; And that those Clauses in the said Constitution, which declare, that Congress shall not have or exercise certain Powers, do not imply that Congress is entitled to any Powers not given by the said Constitution; but such Clauses are to be construed either as exceptions to certain specified Powers, or as inserted merely for greater Caution. – New York ratifying instrument.
The people wanted to ensure the greatest authority remained close to home, where they could oversee and control the system. They did not want to invest broad sweeping power in a far-flung body over which they would exercise little control.
How do we minimize the corrupting influence of power, and its magnetic allure to those already corrupted? Make less power available.
That sums up the mission of the Tenth Amendment Center. We seek to return to the balance of power intended by the Constitution, leaving most authority at the state and local level, closer to the people.
“Governments with a lot of power attract people who want to manipulate it – like flies to honey. I’m saying strike-the-root. As long as there’s loads of power handy, people are going to try to manipulate it. Politicians, banksters, whatever. It’s the nature of things,” TAC executive director Michael Boldin said. “If there wasn’t so much power, it wouldn’t matter who did the ‘controlling.’ It wouldn’t have as much effect.”
Latest posts by Mike Maharrey (see all)
- Another History Professor Good at Politics, Bad at History - February 8, 2015
- Anti-Commandeering: The Legal Basis for Refusing to Participate - February 3, 2015
- Nullification Season: 200 State Bills and Counting - February 1, 2015