Posts tagged with: lord acton

Blog author: jballor
Monday, February 15, 2010
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NJ Governor Chris Christie: “Today, we come to terms with the fact that we cannot spend money on everything we want.”

Lord Acton: “There are many things the government can’t do – many good purposes it must renounce. It must leave them to the enterprise of others. It cannot feed the people. It cannot enrich the people. It cannot teach the people. It cannot convert the people.”

Politics, Liberty, Beer

Politics, Liberty, Beer

Those of you within striking distance of West Michigan won’t want to miss the inaugural Acton on Tap, a casual and fun night out on Feb. 25 to discuss important and timely ideas with friends. And then there’s the beer!

The topic for the evening will be “The End of Liberty” and will draw on Lord Acton’s claims about the relationship between politics and liberty. Discussion leader Jordan Ballor, associate editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality, will start it off by briefly discussing how politics and liberty relate to human beings’ greatest ends.

Here’s some Food for Thought from Lord Acton: Liberty and good government do not exclude each other, and there are excellent reasons why they should go together. Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end.

Where: Derby Station (formerly Graydon’s Crossing). 2237 Wealthy St. SE, East Grand Rapids 49506. (Thursday special: $2.50 pints). No admission fee or registration required.

When: Thursday, Feb. 25, at 6:00 p.m. (casual start). 6:30 p.m.: Jordan speaks!

About Jordan Ballor:

Jordan J. Ballor is a Ph.D. candidate in historical theology at Calvin Theological Seminary and a Doktorand in Reformation history at the University of Zurich.

He graduated in 2004 with a Master of Theology (Th.M.) in systematic theology from Calvin, with a thesis entitled, “Barth, Brunner, and Natural Theology in Bonhoeffer’s Middle Period (1931-1939).” His previous degrees include a Master of Theological Studies (2004-Calvin Theological Seminary) and a Bachelor of Arts in English (2000-Michigan State University/Honors College).

Jordan serves as associate editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He has authored articles in academic publications such as The Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, and Journal of Scholarly Publishing, and has written popular pieces for newspapers including the Detroit News, Orange County Register, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

In 2006, Jordan was profiled in the book, The Relevant Nation: 50 Activists, Artists And Innovators Who Are Changing The World Through Faith. His scholarly interests include Reformation studies, church-state relations, theological anthropology, social ethics, theology and economics, and research methodology. Jordan is a member of the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRC).

The Economist reports on a new study by psychologists that looks into the problem of abuse of power. The researchers attempt to “answer the question of whether power tends to corrupt, as Lord Acton’s dictum has it, or whether it merely attracts the corruptible.”

These results, then, suggest that the powerful do indeed behave hypocritically, condemning the transgressions of others more than they condemn their own. Which comes as no great surprise, although it is always nice to have everyday observation confirmed by systematic analysis. But another everyday observation is that powerful people who have been caught out often show little sign of contrition. It is not just that they abuse the system; they also seem to feel entitled to abuse it.

HT: Marginal Revolution

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, December 29, 2009
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William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898)

William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898)

The Mackinac Center notes that today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of British parliamentarian and statesman William Gladstone, and links to a 2003 article from the center’s president, Lawrence W. Reed. Reed points to Gladstone’s long and distinguished political career, which included multiple tenures as prime minister.

What made this son of Scottish parents both great and memorable, however, was not simply a long career in government. Indeed, as a devoutly religious man he always put service to God ahead of service to country and felt that what he did as a politician should be unequivocally faithful to both. What made Gladstone great and memorable was what he actually accomplished while he served in government. Biographer Magnus says Gladstone “achieved unparalleled success in his policy of setting the individual free from a multitude of obsolete restrictions.”

Today, when a citizen is elected with a mandate to cut the government down to size, but ends up moderating his positions while in power, conventional wisdom credits him with having “grown in office.” Gladstone “grew” but in precisely the opposite direction. When he entered Parliament at age 22 in 1832, Gladstone was a protectionist on trade, a defender of the state-subsidized Church of England, an opponent of reform and a protector of the status quo. By 1850, he had become an ardent advocate of free trade and by 1890 had reduced Britain’s tariffs from 1,200 to just 12.

Gladstone slashed government spending, taxes, and regulations. He ended state subsidies for the Church of England in Ireland. He pushed through reforms that allowed Jews and Catholics to serve in Parliament and that extended the vote to millions of taxpaying workers who had previously been denied the franchise. He extolled the virtues of self-help and private charity. And he lived what he preached. Even as prime minister, Gladstone was so moved by the degraded plight of London prostitutes that he would search the streets of London to talk them out of their destructive occupation.

This photo is of Acton spending time with the Gladstone family at Tegernsee in 1879. Tegernsee was a spa town in the Bavarian Alps. Acton died there in 1902. In the photo Acton is seated at the right with his hat in hand, William Gladstone is seated on the bench at the left. Mary Gladstone is standing just behind her father.

This photo is of Acton spending time with the Gladstone family at Tegernsee in 1879. Tegernsee was a spa town in the Bavarian Alps. Acton died there in 1902. In the photo Acton is seated at the right with his hat in hand, William Gladstone is seated on the bench at the left. Mary Gladstone is standing just behind her father.

A good deal of Lord Acton’s correspondence with Gladstone, which extended over a period of thirty years, is available via Google Books, as is Acton’s correspondence with Gladstone’s daughter Mary.

Update: More on Gladstone at Scriptorium Daily, “Gladstone: The Impregnable Rock of Holy Scripture.”

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
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A great deal has been made in recent weeks about Ronald Reagan‘s critique of nationalized or socialized health care from 1961:


We can go back a bit further, though, and take a look at an intriguing piece from 1848, a dialogue on socialism and the French Revolution and the relationship of socialism to democracy, which includes Alexis de Tocqueville‘s critique of socialism in general.

One interesting note is that Tocqueville identifies one of the traits common to all forms of socialism as “an incessant, vigorous and extreme appeal to the material passions of man,” including the exhortation, “Let us rehabilitate the body.” Reagan’s point of departure in his broadcast is the observation that “one of the traditional methods of imposing statism or socialism on a people has been by way of medicine. It’s very easy to disguise a medical program as a humanitarian project.”

And here’s Tocqueville on socialism in America:

America today is the one country in the world where democracy is totally sovereign. It is, besides, a country where socialist ideas, which you presume to be in accord with democracy, have held least sway, the country where those who support the socialist cause are certainly in the worst position to advance them[.] I personally would not find it inconvenient if they were to go there and propagate their philosophy, but in their own interests, I would advise them not to.

It may well be that ideologically democracy (as Tocqueville conceived it) and socialism are opposed, as Tocqueville claims. But historically they may well be linked. Lord Acton connected “absolute democracy” (something like majoritarian rule) to socialism: “Liberty has not only enemies which it conquers, but perfidious friends, who rob the fruits of its victories: Absolute democracy, socialism.” And once the majority discovers that it can use the power of the State to plunder the wealth of a minority, the road is well-paved toward socialism.

“Power permits people to do enormous good,” Lord Acton once said, “and absolute power enables them to do even more.”

This wisdom from the nineteenth-century’s champion of state prerogative applies as well today. Politicians are crippled by the lack of the one thing they need to yank our hobbled economy out of the mire of recession: adequate power. It is our duty to grant it to them.

Yes, from time to time this commentary space has been critical of government meddling in economic affairs, surmising, for example, that trying to cure poverty by funneling more money through Washington would do less to assist the poor than to pad the salaries of middle-class bureaucrats. We have emphasized the effectiveness of private and faith-based charity, of its capacity at once to use resources efficiently and to respect the individual’s dignity. We have argued that persons, morally formed, acting freely, and operating within the context of a rule of law, will generate a bountiful and equitable economic environment without counterproductive interference by the state. We have posited that our current difficulties derive from a combination of moral turpitude and government bumbling.

We were mistaken. (more…)

Posted at the Center for a Just Society (notice courtesy the National Humanities Institute), Dr. Mark T. Mitchell asks a series of questions focused on the intersection between morality and economics in light of the recent financial crisis. In “Ten Questions and a Modest Proposal,” Dr. Mitchell invokes the institute’s namesake and this blog’s tagline.

In question number 9, Dr. Mitchell says,

Lord Acton’s hoary saying is pertinent: “power tends to corrupt.” If so, then we should make efforts to decentralize power. Such a sensibility is behind the separation of powers written into the fabric of the U.S. Constitution. We should be concerned, then, when big corporations get into bed with big government. The off-spring will be ugly and, we can rest assured, it will be big. This bailout represents a stunning consolidation of corporate and government power. Of course, we are promised that the government will regulate the corporations, but the conflict of interest is glaring. Could it be that the problem is not de-regulation but regulations that favor big corporations over small businesses?

Recent reports have placed the economic impact of a shutdown of one of the Big 3 automakers could cost 3 million jobs and $60 billion in 2009. Now Detroit automakers are apparently “too big to fail.” (Update: Ford has announced significant 3Q losses this year, and plans to cut 10% of its salaried workforce in North America.)

The other questions are prescient, as well, and Dr. Mitchell’s “modest” proposal is well worth considering: “The American way of life is sustainable only if we acknowledge that publicly and privately we are called to lives of responsibility. Hubris is only countered when we recognize limits.”

I’ve noted this quote on the blog before, but Ray’s post on professionalism sparked recall of another kind of professional, the professional bureaucratic manager:

Government insists more and more that its civil servants themselves have the kind of education that will qualify them as experts. It more and more recruits those who claim to be experts into its civil service. And it characteristically recruits too the heirs of the nineteenth-century reformers. Government itself becomes a hierarchy of bureaucratic managers, and the major justification advanced for the intervention of government in society is the contention that government has resources of competence which most citizens do not possess. –Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2d ed. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003), 85.

Call them what you will; planners, bureaucratic managers, government professionals, it all amounts to the same thing in the end, I think. And Lord Acton’s observation about bureaucracy is relevant here as well: “Bureaucracy is undoubtedly the weapon and sign of a despotic government, inasmuch as it gives whatever government it serves, despotic power.”

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
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Success unsettles the principles even of the wise, and scarcely would those of debauched habits use victory with moderation.
— Sallust

Last Saturday Dr. Ben Carson, Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital, received the Ford’s Theatre Lincoln Medal. In his speech marking the occasion, President Bush said that Carson has “a tireless commitment to helping young people find direction and motivation in life. He reminds them that all of us have gifts by the grace of the almighty God. He tells them to think big, to study hard, and to put character first” (emphasis added).

One of Carson’s themes in his speeches and writings is the comparison of America to Rome, in that the latter foundered when its basic morals were corrupted. America, says Carson, is at a crisis point similar to Rome in the centuries before its decline (for a study of the move from “virtue” to “values” and beyond in the modern West, see Gertrude Himmelfarb’s The De-moralization Of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values).

The Roman historian and politician Sallust wrote of the situation in the first century BC in his first published work, The Conspiracy of Catiline,

When wealth was once considered an honor, and glory, authority, and power attended on it, virtue lost her influence, poverty was thought a disgrace, and a life of innocence was regarded as a life of ill-nature. From the influence of riches, accordingly, luxury, avarice, and pride prevailed among the youth; they grew at once rapacious and prodigal; they undervalued what was their own, and coveted what was another’s; they set at naught modesty and continence; they lost all distinction between sacred and profane, and threw off all consideration and self-restraint.

It furnishes much matter for reflection, after viewing our modern mansions and villas extended to the size of cities, to contemplate the temples which our ancestors, a most devout race of men, erected to the Gods. But our forefathers adorned the fanes of the deities with devotion, and their homes with their own glory, and took nothing from those whom they conquered but the power of doing harm; their descendants, on the contrary, the basest of mankind have even wrested from their allies, with the most flagrant injustice, whatever their brave and victorious ancestors had left to their vanquished enemies; as if the only use of power were to inflict injury.

Lord Acton was another historian who felt that part of the discipline’s interpretive craft was to render moral judgments about events in human history.

Following his appointment as Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, in a lecture on the study of history in 1895, Lord Acton urged his audience “never to debase the moral currency or to lower the standard of rectitude, but to try others by the final maxim that governs your own lives, and to suffer no man and no cause to escape the undying penalty which history has the power to inflict on wrong.”

Commentator Perez Zagorin judges that Acton’s “claim that moral judgment on past crimes and misdeeds is one of the supreme duties of the historian was at odds with the entire trend of historiography in his time and set him apart by its rigor from all the noted historians and thinkers about history of his own generation and thereafter.”

But how, after all, can we learn not to repeat the mistakes of the past if we are unwilling or unable to make moral judgments?

Picking up on the themes of the importance of narrative from recent weeks, I pass along this worthy saying of Lord Acton:

“Government rules the present. Literature rules the future.”