Posts tagged with: power

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.”

In the wake of the global financial crisis, stories from the pundit class and blogosphere abound proclaiming the imminent death of the conservative movement. This is part of a longer and broader discussion with roots in the post-Reagan era of American politics. (As you’ll see in my comments below, I’m not so inclined to think that a move toward particular kinds of populism is necessarily a move away from conservatism.)

Writing in the American Conservative earlier this month, Claes G. Ryn argues that our recognition of the corrupting nature of power shouldn’t make us abdicate all forms of government and authority:

Without some people governing others, basic social order could not exist, to say nothing of effecting desirable change. The prejudice against power-seeking has left politics too much to people with the wrong kind of ambition, most of whom desire power as an end in itself. Yet wanting power need not be immoral. Pursuing it can be a means to good.

Ryn is professor of politics at the Catholic University of America and chairman of the National Humanities Institute. He notes, in agreement with the older liberal tradition, that,

the old American constitutionalism is inseparable from the moral-spiritual culture that gave it birth. Limited government and liberty were made possible by people who, because of who they were, put checks on their appetites, ran their own lives and communities, and generally behaved in ways conducive to freedom under law. Restoring American constitutionalism would presuppose some kind of resurgence of that old culture. Americans would have to rearrange their priorities and start acting differently, placing more emphasis on family, private groups, and local communities. They would have to want to take back much of the power ceded to politicians far away. Is that likely to happen? If not, the Constitution may not be salvageable.

Ryn discusses what he calls the “coup from within,” where under the guise of conservatism, “People of great ambition who want to exercise the power being abdicated by Americans are trying to make us accept and even welcome the final disappearance of constitutionalism and its culture of modesty and self-restraint.”

I’m not as pessimistic as Ryn about the seemingly inevitable outcome of the crisis and the government interventions and consolidations of power, at least in the economic sphere. He says of those perpetrating the coup, “Their response to the crisis, which they have aggravated, will hasten the crumbling of the American constitutional order. Their prescriptions contain the outlines of tyranny.” He may well be right about that, and Ryn’s concerns shouldn’t be limited to the American scene but apply to the international scene as well. As John Witherspoon said, “A good form of government may hold the rotten materials together for some time, but beyond a certain pitch, even the best constitution will be ineffectual, and slavery must ensue.”

But despite all this, common sense folk are realizing again that virtues like frugality, thrift, and self-discipline are necessary parts of a broader view of stewardship. This is in part why the bailout has had difficulty finding any serious measure of popular support…it is a plan that is counter-intuitive on so many levels, and despite the media’s best efforts to sell the bi-partisan scheme, the American citizen isn’t convinced. In fact, the concept of stewardship is a pretty good model for Ryn’s view of the appropriate pursuit of power.

It is certainly an uphill battle to practice traditional virtues against a government and a culture that tells us to spend all we can on credit. We have just about maxed out the credit borrowed from the moral and cultural capital of previous generations. In response to those pushing the expansion of federal and executive power, it’s time to, as Ryn says, “expose their false solutions to what are real problems and to explore by what measures the best of our civilization might, despite daunting odds, be given a new lease on life.”

The impending death of conservatism might just be the kind of big-government conservatism that is virtually indistinguishable from big-government liberalism on the scope and size of the government. If that’s the case, then let us celebrate: “Conservatism is dead. Long live conservatism.”

Pope Benedict’s visit to secular France and its reformist President Sarkozy has proved to be successful above all expectations, as reported by Vatican newspaper L’Osseservatore Romano. During his Paris homily, at the Esplanade des Invalides, the Holy Father encouraged the 250,000 faithful in attendance to turn to God and to reject false idols, such as money, thirst for material possessions and power.

In his homily the Pope referred to the teachings of Saint Paul to the early Christian communities in which the Apostle warned the ancients of idolatry and greed. The Pope explained how modern society has created its own idols just as the pagans had done in antiquity.

The Pope emphasized that these idols represent a “delusion” that distracts man from reality, that is, from his “true destiny” and “places him in a kingdom of mere appearances” as quoted in Zenit’s article. Benedict underlined that the Church’s condemnation of such idolatry is not, however, a condemnation of the individuals per se, but more so of the evil temptations themselves.

“In our judgments, we must never confuse the sin, which is unacceptable, with the sinner, the state of whose conscience we cannot judge and who, in any case, is always capable of conversion and forgiveness,” he said.

The Pope recognized that the path to God is not always easy, but through the Eucharist, he said, man understands that God “teaches us to shun idols, the illusions of our minds” and that “Christ is the sole and the true Saviour, the only one who points out to man the path to God.”

This does not mean that the Benedict condemns business, trade, all the positive economic phenomenon that allow for wealth and prosperity. But concerned for France’s extreme tendencies toward materialistic relativism, the Pope rightly pointed out how France cannot marginalize itself from religion.

Benedict’s sermon strongly underlined how every believer in the light of God should pursue his own vocation, which may include business or particular talent God has instilled in him.

Had it not been so, I doubt that secular and business orientated President Sarkozy would have ignored State protocol and met the religious leader on his arrival at the airport. The French President was eager to promote “a new dialogue” with the Church and to talk about the need of a “positive laicity” in Europe and its expanding economic unity.

There’s a good read from a state politician familiar with Kwame Kilpatrick, the former Detroit mayor accused of all manner of illicit activity, in the Sep. 12 newsletter (PDF) from Michigan state senator Mickey Switalski (D-Roseville). Switalski’s newsletter is one of the best and is atypical among state politicians, because he writes the content himself.

Before his current run as a state senator, Switalski was a state representative during Kilpatrick’s tenure as Democratic Floor Leader, the #2 position in the Democratic caucus. In his piece on Kilpatrick, Switalski offers what you might expect to be a sympathetic perspective, given their time spent as colleagues and their shared party affiliation (I spent a semester as a legislative intern for then-Representative Switalski in the spring of 2000). Yet Switalski offers what I think is a fair and balanced assessment, based on his judgment that Kilpatrick “is a complex person with many strengths and some tragic weaknesses.”

“The Rise and Fall of Kwame Kilpatrick” is a narrative embodying the wisdom of Lord Acton’s dictum that “power tends to corrupt.” Switalski gives us an inside look at state politics, describing the legislature as “an insane asylum,” given the turbulent dynamics at the time. But Kilpatrick was a voice of reason and stability during the ravages of partisan bickering.

Ultimately Switalski judges that Kilpatrick “had too much power too early. He indulged his prodigious appetites and lacked the maturity and judgment to control his desires and became corrupt.”

Switalski wonders, “Were these faults always there?”

“I suppose they were,” he answers.

But how could a man who saw public service with such clarity in 2000 become so blind and ethically lost just a few years later? It is a sad tale, both for him and for the City. Unlike many people I know, who seemed to relish in his failure, I took no joy in watching him self-destruct. It was an awful waste of talent and opportunity. It was a tragedy for the City and the Region.

I pray his successors will not let power lead them into temptation, and so avoid a similar fate.

Switalski is correct to point to the tragedy of the demise of Kwame Kilpatrick, and that we should always realize the danger that power presents and the responsibility that it entails.

Even those who recognize, as Kwame did, that politicians have a duty to their constituents and “doing good policy for the people we serve” can be corrupted by the illusions of power and the delusions of privilege.

It took awhile, but after its release in 2005, the latest installment of the popular computer game Civilization IV was received warmly by many cultural commentators. Civilization IV, or CivIV for short, was hailed alternatively as “a video game for the ages,” and “a kind of social-sciences chessboard that blends history and logic into a game that demands a long, long attention span.” The basis for much of this regard among even conservatives as “crunchy” as Rod Dreher was a piece in the Weekly Standard, highlighting the background of the game’s founder, Sid Meier.

For the first time, religion plays an important part in the strategic gameplay. Victorino Matus sums it up this way,

Religion plays a major role in Civilization and can be more vital to victory than military prowess. Competing civilizations can send out missionaries, found a religion, create temples, cathedrals, and even launch crusades. Meier is quick to point out, however, that the role of religion is just another dimension to gameplay.

Indeed, while CivIV deserves praise for integrating non-material elements like religion and culture into the gameplay, in the end these pieces suffer the same fate as the rest of the game’s components. CivIV, ultimately, is less about the development of civilization than it is about the expansion of imperial tyranny.

“Genghis Khan, your people have vested absolute power in you…”


The game begins by the player being vested with “absolute power” over all aspects of the lives of the citizenry. Religion quickly becomes a means of social control. When your civilization founds a religion, you are able to build structures that have other important benefits attached to them. You can spread your religion to neighboring civilizations, expanding your influence. But it doesn’t matter which religion you prefer, as long as it keeps your people happy.

And happiness, by the way, is something that can be bought in this game. If your citizenry is a little restless, simply up the percentage of money spent each turn on “culture,” and watch the happy faces multiply. That’s the CivIV equivalent of Caesar holding gladiatorial games at the Colosseum to appease the populace.

There are consequences to which sort of economy, government, technology, and religion you choose. But in the end all these choices are yours, and you are free to use whichever combination you find to be most expedient. The variety of game-ending scenarios, including world domination, UN diplomacy, and space-race technology races (which may indeed teach us something we need to know), mean that you don’t have to simply hack and slash your way to victory. But make no mistake about it, you are out to conquer your opponents, by any means necessary.

You can choose to embrace different branches of technological innovation, including the compelling “Animal Husbandry.”


The popularity of the game, which has won numerous awards and spawned successful expansions, is well-deserved. It taps in to a fundamental human drive for dominance in a way that promotes critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity.

The revisionist history that is possible to reenact with the game is one of its greatest attractions. While it may cause some cognitive dissonance to see Mohandas Ghandi order an nuclear ICBM attack on an opponent’s city, it is also reassuring to know that Genghis Khan can expand his empire by means of free trade and cultural suasion rather than force of arms (although in some cases “revisionist” history ends up corresponding better to reality than accepted theories).

“Soon my numberless minions shall destroy you all!”


The game’s interface is straightforward and intuitive. One drawback of the game’s emphasis on strategy over action is that the conflict sequences are repetitive and buggy. The graphics when units are in battle leave much to be desired.

These tactical criticisms aside, however, CivIV is a superb game. But the adeptness with which it meets the deepest human desires for power and control teaches us as much about ourselves as it does about the progressive unfolding of history.

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

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, June 26, 2008
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Awhile back I passed along some insight into J. K. Rowling’s view of tyranny, as expressed in the words of Albus Dumbledore. Here’s another bit from Rowling’s wizard on the related topic of power:

I had proven, as a very young man, that power was my weakness and my temptation. It is a curious thing, Harry, but perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it. Those who, like you, have leadership thrust upon them, and take up the mantle because they must, and find to their own surprise that they wear it well (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, p. 718).

That section recalls for me Lord Acton’s famous words, which adorn this blog’s masthead. Here’s that quote, within the context of its surrounding sentences, “Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.”

Something to keep in mind this election season, I think.

Blog author: jballor
Monday, August 13, 2007
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As one might infer from Lord Acton’s maxim, the question has been raised: Did proximity to political power corrupt Billy Graham’s chaplaincy to the presidency?

GetReligion’s Douglas LeBlanc surveys the recent attention paid by the mainstream media to this part of Graham’s pastoral mission, and concludes in concord with Randall Balmer, “The gospel is better served when religious leaders keep a healthy distance from political power. The challenge for future presidents will be to find spiritual guidance and solace from someone else — preferably from ministers who have no national profile, and do not seek one.”

It should be noted, however, that Graham’s service to various presidents is only a portion of his work, and one which is no doubt given disproportional public attention because of the sensitivity of the relationship between Christianity and politics in contemporary America.

Blog author: jballor
Friday, February 23, 2007
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Anthony Esolen, from the March issue of Touchstone:

The most bountiful alms that the rich can give the poor, apart from the personal donation of their time and means, are lives of virtue to emulate. It is their duty. But when they use their means to buy off the effects of vice, or, worse, to celebrate it, that is an offense against those whom Jesus called ‘little ones,’ and no amount of almsgiving can lighten the millstone.

Read the whole thing (HT: the evangelical outpost).

ON SECOND THOUGHT, the reality of the situation is probably a bit more complex than the editorial above indicates. That is, there is a cyclical and reciprocal dynamic in the popularization of any trend, as it moves from sub-culture to the mainstream. Very often the rich are dependent on the poor for determining what is “cool”. The rich and famous are typically derivative and dependent in this sense. Just as often the newest trend is wearing a trucker hat or grunge as it is Dolce & Gabbana.

Take the case of rap music. An underground, urban, and grassroots phenomenon has become mainstream. And in any such transition, there are disputes as to who is loyal to the movement itself and who has simply latched on to cash in on the mainstream popularity. Thus, for instance, the dispute between Eazy-E and Dr. Dre in the mid-90’s about who is a real “G.”

This dynamic does underscore the truth of Esolen’s observation about the “disconcerting sameness” between rich and poor. Wealth and power certainly do not by themselves confer any special moral standing or integrity, and as our namesake quote from Lord Acton indicates, they can often be the occasion for greater and more comprehensive corruption.

Can you find the tension in the lead sentence from this WSJ story on the annual Communist Party meeting in China? Here it is:

“China’s ruling communist elite opened an annual meeting that will focus on policies for spreading the nation’s newfound prosperity more evenly and on President Hu Jintao’s attempts to further consolidate his power.”

It still amazes me that so many people still think that centralizing political power is both an effective way to spread out wealth and one that is therefore socially desirable. The first assumes that wealth is a zero-sum game and the second assumes that the negative consequences and corruptions of concentrated political power are less harmful than economic gaps.

But as even Ron Sider has come to realize, the focus should be on how the poorest of the poor are doing, not on how big of a gap there is between rich and poor.

Matt Gritter, a first-year M.A. student at Calvin Theological Seminary reacted this way when he heard Sider say this in last week’s debate with Rev. Sirico: “I know that Sider has been arguing for a decrease in this gap, but to hear him say that he would not mind the gap increasing if it meant that the poorest of the society would be better off was a bit of a shock to me.”

Reading through the narrative of king Saul in 1 Samuel, it occurs to me that it is in part an object lesson of Lord Acton’s dictum about the corrupting influence of power, in this case political. The story begins in 1 Samuel 8, when Israel asks for a king.

When Samuel was old and had passed on his rulership of Israel to his sons, who did “not walk” in Samuel’s faithful ways, the people of Israel clamor for a king. They say to Samuel, “You are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.” Samuel is taken aback. He sees the request as an indictment of his ability to lead.

When he takes the request before the Lord, however, Samuel is set straight: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will do.”

God then proceeds to enumerate some of the differences in authority and the exercise of power that will distinguish the period of the judges from that of a monarchy. “This is what the king who will reign over you will do,” says Samuel:

  • He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots.

  • He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.
  • He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants.
  • He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants.
  • Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use.
  • He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves.

That doesn’t sound very good, does it? Samuel warns that all these things will happen, and “when that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the LORD will not answer you in that day.”

Why do the people still insist on having a king? Do they not believe Samuel? Or do they simply not care? “But the people refused to listen to Samuel. ‘No!’ they said. ‘We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.'” Here we get to the crux of the issue. The people were willing to sacrifice many of their freedoms and rights in order to feel secure.

Isn’t this a perennial tension? In 1755, Benjamin Franklin noted, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

Duly warned, the people get what they want. God gives them Saul as their first king. And the safety they receive, especially from tyrannical rule, is certainly short-lived (and deservedly so, at least according to Franklin). At first, Saul is a good king, and successfully leads the people against their enemies, the Philistines.

As Saul takes up his kingship, there are a number of references to the divine blessing on him. For instance, in chapter 10, the text says that “God changed Saul’s heart,” and later on, before battle, “the Spirit of God came upon him in power.”

In time, however, Saul began to fulfill some of the prophecies that Samuel had predicted: “All the days of Saul there was bitter war with the Philistines, and whenever Saul saw a mighty or brave man, he took him into his service.”

When fighting the Amalekites, Saul does not listen to God’s command to destroy all the spoils of war. Instead, “Saul and the army spared Agag and the best of the sheep and cattle, the fat calves and lambs—everything that was good. These they were unwilling to destroy completely, but everything that was despised and weak they totally destroyed.”

Because Saul sins he is rejected as king. He admits and repents his sin, blaming his own weakness and fear of the people (only after claiming that he was disobedient out of piety). God indicts Saul’s motives, however, noting that following the battle he had “set up a monument in his own honor.”

After Saul’s disobedience, the tyranny degenerates and he becomes more and more corrupt: “The Spirit of the LORD had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD tormented him.”

Even under the previous system of rulership, by means of judges, evil and corruption was possible. Despite a rule of fairness and justice under his own administration, Samuel’s own two sons were wicked and corrupt. But the extent of their authority was limited when compared to that of Saul. And not even Israel’s true king David was immune to corruption, as his covetousness of Bathsheba and murder of Uriah illustrate.