You’re likely familiar with Lord Acton’s famous statement, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” Lord Acton was an English historian, and he wrote this provocative statement in a letter to a Catholic bishop in 1887. This letter was written in the context of Pope Pius IX’s doctrine of ‘papal infallibility’ which asserted that the Pope’s words, actions and decisions were essentially to be believed and obeyed as if from God’s own mouth. We all know how that turned out. This doctrine, which epitomizes the idea of absolute power, has since been rescinded in Catholic doctrine. However, since 1887 – and before – we’ve seen the results of people, churches and state leaders who have used this approach to rule. Hitler, Stalin and Saddam Hussein are examples that come right to mind. Let’s take a closer look at this concept of absolute power, first in the context of everyday situations we see in our own lives, and then, in political moves among the powerful that we read about or watch in the news.
We hear about ‘dysfunctional’ families, in which the family members do not interact in a way that promotes a happy family environment. A case in point would be when one parent decides that he or she is the absolute ruler, with no room for discussion or compromise. In case you’re wondering, it’s not always the man – sometimes it’s the woman – who exercises that absolute power. This person typically tends to be insecure, with a desire to dominate and thus prove their power and ability to exercise control. Does this demonstration of absolute power work? Not at the end of the day. Children certainly do not thrive in such an environment. Instead of learning genuine respect, they learn to fear, resent and dislike such a parent.
How about the school yard bully? These kids are usually insecure, and compensate by trying to push all the other kids around. It’s the same in the workplace. If you’ve ever had a boss who cannot be questioned, but simply obeyed, you probably didn’t stick with the job for long.
They’re the sort of people who need to continually add to their egos like pumping up a car tyre.
The point is, tyranny doesn’t work. In certain situations, given a hierarchical power structure and a population willing to put up with the absolute power-grabber personalities, it works – for a while. The trouble is that when the people have finally had enough, they will revolt. This is true within families, institutions and governments. Much like the car tyre analogy, you can only keep pumping things up for so long. Sooner or later the compressor becomes useless – namely when the puncture becomes too severe.
It’s interesting to note that persons who are desirous of ultimate power usually play it out incrementally. The husband or wife of this type will work up their agenda in a gradual way, making the noose tighter and tighter as time goes on. Soon they begin to think they are worthy of this absolute power over other individuals, shedding any ethical misgivings they might have had along the way. They begin to believe that they are, indeed, infallible. Again, referring to the tyre, suddenly the vehicle goes from being useful to useless – that is until the tyre is replaced and can be inflated once more.
On the political scene, let’s look at one outstanding example, voiced by President George W. Bush. On a few occasions, he was heard saying that if he were dictator, it would make his job a whole lot easier. Well, what about the Patriot Act, which has gutted many of our Constitutional rights? Warrantless spying on Americans? Proposals to cut Social Security and even Veteran’s disability benefits? People can now be tried and convicted in absentia, or confined indefinitely with no charges brought against them, nor access to legal help.
It’s unfortunate that the rights we enjoyed in times past are slowly being eroded, to the point where even America is going in the direction of absolute power over its citizens.
More than 100 years before Lord Acton’s famous letter to the bishop, William Pitt, in a speech in the House of Lords, in 1770, said: “Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it; and this I know, my lords, that where laws end, tyranny begins.”
Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Think about it.