Posts tagged with: lord acton

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
posted by on Tuesday, December 29, 2009

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
posted by on Tuesday, August 18, 2009

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
posted by on Wednesday, February 13, 2008

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?

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, August 6, 2007

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.”

In his review of Sanford Levinson’s Our Undemocratic Constitution: Where the Constitution Goes Wrong (And How We the People Can Correct It) in the Claremont Review of Books, Randy Barnett highlights some of the same features of the US political structure as particularly unique that Lord Acton emphasized. In conclusion Barnett writes of our Constitution:

It is counter-majoritarian by design. Precisely because the founders feared majoritarian fecklessness and abuse, they inserted the veto points to which Levinson objects. Most people today—whether left, right, or libertarian—still fear majoritarian rule. They believe they have more to fear from their political opponents gaining power than they have to gain from putting their friends in office. Indeed, many Americans revere the Constitution precisely because of its counter-majoritarianism—the checks and balances adopted by the founders.

Or in the words of Lord Acton, “Americans dreaded democracy and contrived their constitution against it.”

Here are some other relevant observations from Lord Acton on democracy, federalism, and the Constitution:

For it is a most striking thing that the views of pure democracy…were almost entirely unrepresented in [the American] convention.

Democracy generally monopolizes and concentrates power.

Federalism is the best curb on democracy. [It] assigns limited powers to the central government. Thereby all power is limited. It excludes absolute power of the majority.

Federalism: The only barrier to Democracy.

Federalism: It is coordination instead of subordination; association instead of hierarchical order; independent forces curbing each other; balance, therefore, liberty.

The great novelty of the American Constitution was that it imposed checks on the representatives of the people.

The true natural check on absolute democracy is the federal system, which limits the central government by the powers reserved, and the state governments by the powers they have ceded.

Barnett notes too the resistance to advocating the American form of federalist democracy for other nations.

“While most Americans prefer the safety of our counter-majoritarian Constitution, our constitutional ‘experts’ are happy to urge others to live the truly majoritarian ideal. Now Sandy Levinson is urging Americans as well to adopt a more majoritarian constitution. But maybe the time has come instead to let the rest of the world in on our little secret,” he writes.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, March 12, 2007

As promised I saw ’300′ on Saturday night. The IMAX was sold out, so I saw it in “digital cinema presentation,” which was of noticeably higher quality than a regular showing.

I really liked the film (Anthony Bradley gives it a ‘B’). The visuals are quite striking and impressive. The action sequences alone are well worth the price of admission. Gerard Butler gives a powerful performance as King Leonidas, and his wife, Queen Gorgo (played by Lena Headey), does more than hold her own. When an emissary from Xerxes arrives in Sparta, he is taken aback that a woman dare speak in the counsel of men. Gorgo responds that only Spartan women are capable of birthing “proper men.”

In the strength of her performance, however, Headey stands above the rest of the cast, which are constantly in danger of being overwhelmed by the sheer forcefulness of Butler’s portrayal. In particular the portrayal of Delios, the narrator and witness to the events of ’300′, by David Wenham (who also played Faramir in the Lord of the Rings trilogy) suffers notably in comparison to Butler’s Leonidas.

There is a fair bit of titillation, from the sensuality of an “drunk adolescent” oracle to the lurid temptations faced by the Ephialtes, and once the violence starts it is quite graphic. This film certainly won’t get the Dove Foundation’s approval.

The grim gallows humor of the dialogue lends itself to numerous memorable one-liners, mostly from the mouth of Leonidas. He tells the self-proclaimed god-man Xerxes, for instance, that he cannot kneel in submission because his legs are cramped from killing Persians all day. At other times the dialogue seems a bit uneven, perhaps because of the notable difference in verbal requirements between a graphic novel and a screenplay.

The film has received mixed reviews, in large part due to the facile comparisons that could be made between Leonidas and George W. Bush. A leitmotif of the film is the battle between the free citizen warriors of Sparta and the slaves under the tyrannical domination of Xerxes. Thus, says Leonidas, “A new age has come, an age of freedom. And all will know that 300 Spartans gave their last breath to defend it.”

Particularly suited to contemporary comparison is the scene in which the other Greeks abandon Leonidas and his Spartans to their death at the hands of Xerxes’ forces. It is almost impossible at that point not to think of the splintering of the coalition forces in Iraq. Of course there are many reasons that the movie shouldn’t be taken as an allegory for the modern situation, but the ease with which parts of the film can be interpreted in this way no doubt explains much of the media’s ambivalence toward the film.

It’s worth noting what Lord Acton observed about the character of freedom and democracy in particular after the united Greeks were victorious in the Persian wars. This ushered in a period where Athens dominated the confederation of city-states, and whose abuse of power (from the perspective of the Spartans) led to the Peloponnesian War.

Acton writes of Athens and their democracy, “But the lesson of their experience endures for all times, for it teaches that government by the whole people, being the government of the most numerous and most powerful class, is an evil of the same nature as unmixed monarchy, and requires, for nearly the same reasons, institutions that shall protect it against itself, and shall uphold the permanent reign of law against arbitrary revolutions of opinion.”

We can see this danger in the film itself, as the commitment of the warrior-state of Sparta to the purity and strength of bloodline leads to the practice of eugenics and infanticide. This practice comes home to roost in an ironic fashion indeed, playing a direct role in the demise of Leonidas himself. And so perhaps there are some contemporary lessons to be learned from ’300′ after all beyond the obvious ones about the value of bravery, fortitude, and commitment.


This review has been cross-posted to Blogcritics.org.