Posts tagged with: power

Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

There remains an experience of incomparable value. We have for once learnt to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled – in short, from the perspective of those who suffer. The important thing is neither that bitterness nor envy should have gnawed at the heart during this time, that we should have come to look with new eyes at matters great and small, sorrow and joy, strength and weakness, that our perception of generosity, humanity, justice and mercy should have become clearer, freer, less corruptible. We have to learn that personal suffering is a more effective key, a more rewarding principle for exploring the world in thought and action than personal good fortune. This perspective from below must not become the partisan possession of those who are eternally dissatisfied; rather, we must do justice to life in all its dimensions from a higher satisfaction, whose foundation is beyond any talk of ‘from below’ or ‘from above’. This is the way in which we may affirm it.

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-R0211-316, Dietrich Bonhoeffer mit Schülern

David Lohmeyer has done it again. Following this gem from the original series, David has turned up a clip from Star Trek: The Next Generation in which Captain Picard quotes Lord Acton:

David’s continuing mission? To find such quotes from the rest of the Star Trek series, including Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise (we’ll give him a pass on the cartoon series).

As a follow-up note to my previous post, “Wealth and Fidelity, Golf and Marriage,” it’s worth exploring in some more detail the multi-billion dollar phenomenon that has been called “Tiger, Inc.” and the relationship between power in sports, wealth, and politics.

Lord Acton’s dictum, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” has found relevance in a number of contexts beyond those of its initial utterance. It is most frequently used nowadays to refer to the kind of fullness of power enjoyed by politicians, celebrities, and pop royalty, those who are or consider themselves above the law, morally and sometimes legally.



In its January 2010 issue, which went to print before Tiger Woods’ alleged affairs became public, Golf Digest featured a section on what Tiger Woods could teach Barack Obama (and vice versa). It makes for some painful, awkward reading at times in light of what’s happened since.

For instance, author Joe Queenan says that “Tiger never does anything that would make him look ridiculous.” Jackie Burke Jr., who shares Tiger’s permanent locker at Augusta National, similarly notes that “Tiger never answers questions recklessly, and he often pauses to consider his answers before he speaks.” Sometimes those pauses can stretch into days and weeks, apparently.

The critiques of Tiger and what he might learn from Obama sometimes read prophetically. Veteran player and commentator Judy Rankin notes that Tiger “has the ability to be even more memorable than he already is, simply by giving people the occasional personal moment.” Author Bruce McCall says Tiger needs “to be more than grudgingly civil to the vast human throngs awed to be in your presents. That adoration is what supports your empire and unimaginable wealth, so give something back.”

Religion & LibertyThe Acton Institute knows a thing or two about poor fortune in the timing of a publication. An issue of our own Religion & Liberty went to press featuring a cover interview with South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford right before his international affair became the stuff of tabloids and gossip pages. This interview was in fact the last one in which he gave an in-depth look at his view of faith and public life before his adultery became public, and so even as painful as it might be to have this kind of thing happen as a publisher, it often does in fact serve some journalistic purpose, as a baseline for critique if nothing else.

In the case of the Tiger Woods feature in Golf Digest, it gives us a permanent snapshot of how Tiger Woods was viewed right before all of this came out, such that the nominal leader of the free world was considered in need of learning a thing (or ten) from him.

One of the comments on the previous post noted a connection between infidelity in so-called personal life and public life, citing Bill Clinton in particular. A recent SNL sketch makes this kind of connection even more apparent:

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Amity Shlaes, a senior fellow in economic history at the Council on Foreign Relations, has an excellent primer on public choice in the August 3 edition of Forbes, “The New PC.” Shlaes is also the author of the 2007 book, The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression.

Shlaes, who will be featured in the upcoming issue of Religion & Liberty, writes, “Government reformers view themselves as morally superior, but that is an illusion. They are just like private-sector operators, who do things that are in their own interest, not society’s. Those things include taking advantage of an economic crisis to aggregate power for themselves and their offices.” She goes on to point out five specific instances of recent government action that fits the public choice paradigm.

I have no doubt that many enter politics with good intentions. Some even follow through on those intentions and work for their constituencies. But a precious few remain uncontaminated and uncorrupted by the temptations that political power offers.

This reality is a strong argument in favor of term limits. Even though the individual constiuencies might lose out by replacing older, more senior representatives, who have garnered the most powerful appointments and consolidated the most influence, it has the happy consequence of putting caps on political clout. Every so often the slate is rubbed clean and alliances, power partnerships, and appointments need to be rebuilt.

Anything that puts an absolute ceiling on an individual politician’s power seems like a step in the right direction. Of course, an unintended consequence is that with the sundown of their political career always in view, an individual politician will be just that much more focused on greasing the skids to a comfy private sector job after the term limits come into effect.

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, March 10, 2009

No, not that Friedman. In a wide-ranging lecture for the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Policy earlier this year, George Friedman touched on American policy with regard to trade. He says of the United States,

it has the potential to reshape patterns of international trade if it chooses. The United States throughout the 20th century, the second half in particular, has operated under the principle of a free-trade regime in which its Navy was primarily used to facilitate international trade. It did not seek to develop any special advantage from that, save those sanctions and blockades that we occasionally imposed for immediate political purpose.

He concludes, however, “there is no reason to believe, with that enormous power, in the 21st century that the United States won’t choose to reshape international trade if it finds itself under extreme economic or political pressure.”

In pointing out the possibility for the United States to pursue trade policy that is at odds with “the principle of a free-trade regime,” Friedman also notes the definition of so-called “soft” power: “Power that isn’t exercised.”

As a side note, one way of construing this definition of soft power correlates quite nicely with the reception of the traditional scholastic distinction between absolute and ordained power, potentia absoluta et ordinata. With regard to God’s power, the older, traditional view of the distinction held that the absolute power of God referred to the contingency of the created order, insofar as God could have created, willed, and concurred in things differently (i.e. a different world order). Things could have been different based on a different divine ordering or decree.

This older view did not hold that the absolute power of God was an active reality in this created order but rather a hypothetical possibility standing behind the creation of this world. But in the high to late middle ages another version of the distinction arose, which argued that the absolute power of God exists as an active possibility residing in and with the current created order. This “operationalized” view of the absolute power of God held that God not only could have made things differently, but also that he has an active power that can overrule or act outside of what he has ordained. (We should note that this “absolute power,” when applied to magistrates, is that to which Lord Acton refers in his famous quote appearing as the subhead of this blog.)

A brief illustration might serve to communicate the difference in these two views of absolute power. Under the former conception, the “absolute power” of the United States government would refer to those powers that could have been granted by the Constitution but for whatever reason were not. Bracketing the possibility of changing the Constitution, these powers are no longer real possibilities. Under the revisionist and operationalized conception, the Constitution would describe the way things normally or ordinarily work, but the President or Congress could act “absolutely” without regard to the constraints of the Constitutional order.

We might also note that this definition of soft power is one that defines “power” essentially as coercion, with the “softness” of the power being the implied threat rather than the “hardness” of actual use. Friedman’s kind of soft power is that which gives nuclear deterrence its only viability. As American ethicist Paul Ramsey has written,

The actuality of deterrence depends upon a credible belief, mutually shared, that one might use a nuclear weapon. If the government of one of the great powers were persuaded by the churches never to be willing to use any nuclear weapon under any circumstances, and this were known, there would be instantly no deterrence and therefore no practical problem of finding a way out. Likewise, the morality of deterrence depends upon it not being wholly immoral for a government ever to use an atomic weapon under any circumstances.

(Towards the end of the video a questioner rightly challenges Friedman’s definition of soft power, noting in its original context it didn’t necessarily depend on the implied threat of coercive force.)

Friedman notes that soft power, “what you could do that you don’t do,” doesn’t corrupt, but instead “gives you the opportunity to be gracious, friendly, and pleasant.” For Friedman, America’s gracious continuation of free-trade policy represents a clear case of soft power.

There’s a real sense in which he’s right, but only to the extent that America would suffer relatively less economically than other nations through the pursuit of isolationist policies. As Spengler notes in the context of the current global crisis, “Although Russia has taken on water in the crisis, its position relative to its former satellites has actually strengthened.” Friedman’s assumptions about the trump card that America holds in the possibility of reversing free-trade policies assumes that the economic power of the United States would in a similar way be relatively strengthened, and that the economic consequences will disproportionately affect America’s trading partners. But has America’s relative economic strength actually improved already in the midst of the global economic crisis?

In a recent STRATFOR report Lauren Goodrich and Peter Zeihan concludes that

while Russia’s financial sector may be getting torn apart, the state does not really count on that sector for domestic cohesion or stability, or for projecting power abroad. Russia knows it lacks a good track record financially, so it depends on — and has shored up where it can — six other pillars to maintain its (self-proclaimed) place as a major international player. The current financial crisis would crush the last five pillars for any other state, but in Russia, it has only served to strengthen these bases. Over the past few years, there was a certain window of opportunity for Russia to resurge while Washington was preoccupied with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This window has been kept open longer by the West’s lack of worry over the Russian resurgence given the financial crisis. But others closer to the Russian border understand that Moscow has many tools more potent than finance with which to continue reasserting itself.

Besides the US, Friedman opines that Japan, Turkey, and Poland (because it “faces Russia”) will be the major players in the 21st century. But with regard to the fallout of the economic crisis, Spengler summarizes convincingly, “There are no winners, but losing the least is the next best thing to winning. If America turns inward, even an economically damaged Russia will loom larger in the world.”

Appearing in the next issue of Religion & Liberty will be my review of Philip F. Lawler’s The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston’s Catholic Culture (Encounter Books, 2008). There is no point in dwelling on how well-written and insightful the book is, as it has already won plaudits from other, more significant reviewers, but I can give my own “Acton spin” to Lawler’s exceptional work. Here is the piece in full, an exclusive preview for PowerBlog readers:

Lord Acton’s quotation concerning the corrupting effect of power is widely known. Less so is the fact that the target of his criticism on that particular occasion was the power possessed not by government but by church officials. Acton’s understanding of ecclesiastical authority (as distinct from power) is debatable, but his insight into human nature is not. A case study—not that we need another to file away in the vast archives of the history of human frailty—is the collapse of the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston.

Philip Lawler documents the details in this skillfully written account of the triumphs and travails of Boston’s Catholics. The history is episodic rather than thorough, but Lawler chooses his episodes well. The bulk of his attention goes to the last forty years, and much of that is focused on the sexual abuse scandals of the last ten. For anyone who has followed these developments closely, there will be little in the way of new revelations. Yet Lawler’s style, at once sympathetic and bluntly critical, is engrossing. The devout Catholic reader who was dismayed by the character and scale of the abuse scandal will be drawn back to those unpleasant times when it seemed that each new day brought fresh reasons to be ashamed of one’s faith.


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.”