Power Corrupts and Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely

 

“Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” These are the words of Lord John Dalberg-Acton, an English historian of the 19th century and namesake of the Acton Institute.

Co-founded by Rev. Robert A. Sirico and Kris A. Mauren in 1990 in Grand Rapids, MI, the Acton Institute has a unique mission among free-market think tanks. An ecumenical organization, Acton is dedicated to promoting a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles.

Defending freedom starts with understanding the dignity of individuals, made in the image of God and each given tremendous capacity to lend creativity to the market and add value to all institutions in civil society. As Lord Acton said (and Pope John Paul II later echoed), “Liberty is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.” Liberty flourishes in a society supported by a moral culture that embraces the truth about the transcendent origin of the human person.

Acton Institute aims to communicate these ideas to religious leaders, students, and entrepreneurs through online media, articles, books, and conferences. Acton Line, Acton’s weekly podcast, does so with especial timeliness.

Bringing together economists, religious leaders, authors and more, Acton Line bridges the gap between good intentions and sound economics. Each week, we combine timeless ideas with current issues, helping people better understand and defend the value of liberty in all spheres of life.

Our first episode of Acton Line to be available on the Ricochet Audio Network is F.A. Hayek’s Road to Serfdom & The Media vs. ‘Unplanned.’

Visit Acton.org/line to view all episodes of Acton Line and subscribe. You can also subscribe in iTunes or Google Play, or your podcast app of choice. Acton Line is now available in the Ricochet Audio Network Superfeed (iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, or RSS).

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There are 8 comments.

  1. James Gawron Thatcher

    Acton Institute: “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” These are the words of Lord John Dalberg-Acton, an English historian of the 19th century and namesake of the Acton Institute.

    ActIns,

    It is the understanding of the human condition so basic as Lord Acton’s maxim that we must get back to. Why democracy, some ask. I think it is basically a people’s veto, a check & balance to absolute power. The history of this last century gives us all the test cases we should need. The imprimatur of science and social justice were not enough. Absolute power corrupted absolutely just as Lord Acton warned. Without some check on the absolute power granted the world fell into chaos & madness.

    Once again those who imagine they have the justification to allow absolute power to some have raised their foolish voices. We must thwart these wanton fools before they drag us all under again.

    Regards,

    Jim

     

    • #1
    • April 11, 2019, at 7:49 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  2. Caryn Member

    Not to niggle, but I had understood the quote to be “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The internet seems to agree, but you are the Acton Institute, so please correct me if I’m wrong.

    The rest, I agree entirely. The lack of moral instruction–going back decades–and the redefining of liberty as libertinism, not to mention the entitlement mentality, have me worried for the future of this endeavor America.

    • #2
    • April 11, 2019, at 8:34 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  3. John Peabody Member

    In high school, my friends and I joked: “Power corrupts. And absolute power…is pretty cool, actually.”

    • #3
    • April 12, 2019, at 4:21 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  4. Seawriter Member

    I am going to quibble about one thing. It is not power that really corrupts. It is immunity to the consequences of one’s actions. Power often grants immunity, which is why the powerful so often succumb to corruption.

    However, it is possible to have immunity without power. A good illustration of that is the lawlessness seen in certain Chicago neighborhoods, where it is literally possible to shoot someone in the presence of witnesses and not fear arrest, much less conviction and punishment. Yet those shooters have relatively little power. (The power to sit atop a garbage heap rather than at the bottom is really very little power.) Yet such societies, despite a lack of power are cesspools of corruption.

    Similarly, if laws are generally ignored, despite the lack of power of those violating the laws, a society becomes corrupt. Enforcement becomes arbitrary, and even the relatively powerless can purchase immunity at an affordable price, or simply decide the low chance of getting caught makes corruption worth participating in.

    It is more accurate to say immunity corrupts and absolute immunity corrupts absolutely.

    • #4
    • April 12, 2019, at 6:25 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  5. The Reticulator Member

    Seawriter (View Comment):
    I am going to quibble about one thing. It is not power that really corrupts. It is immunity to the consequences of one’s actions. Power often grants immunity, which is why the powerful so often succumb to corruption.

    I’ve been trying to think of an example where power does not mean immunity, and haven’t yet been able to come up with one. 

    • #5
    • April 13, 2019, at 8:14 PM PDT
    • Like
  6. Seawriter Member

    The Reticulator (View Comment):
    I’ve been trying to think of an example where power does not mean immunity, and haven’t yet been able to come up with one. 

    The officers running a Minuteman site. If they decide to they can launch their missiles, and no one can stop them. They have the power to destroy over a dozen cities, yet if they act on that power they will face serious consequences. Power without immunity from their actions.

    SAC was one of the most powerful yet least corrupt organizations in human history during the 1950s and 1960s due to LeMay’s policy of strict accountability. 

    • #6
    • April 14, 2019, at 6:10 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  7. The Reticulator Member

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment):
    I’ve been trying to think of an example where power does not mean immunity, and haven’t yet been able to come up with one.

    The officers running a Minuteman site. If they decide to they can launch their missiles, and no one can stop them. They have the power to destroy over a dozen cities, yet if they act on that power they will face serious consequences. Power without immunity from their actions.

    SAC was one of the most powerful yet least corrupt organizations in human history during the 1950s and 1960s due to LeMay’s policy of strict accountability.

    I would say that the reason they were uncorrupt is because of the limitations on their power. In other words, just because they can do a lot of violence and destruction doesn’t mean they have a lot of power.

    The scullery servant in the king’s castle, or his valet, may have the power to wreck empires, using your definition of power, but I don’t think that’s a very useful definition of power when we’re making decisions on how to order our political systems.

    • #7
    • April 14, 2019, at 7:01 AM PDT
    • Like
  8. Seawriter Member

    The Reticulator (View Comment):
    I would say that the reason they were uncorrupt is because of the limitations on their power. In other words, just because they can do a lot of violence and destruction doesn’t mean they have a lot of power.

    Given the limitations you place on defining the ability to create destruction on the scale of a Ghengis Khan or a Hitler as not being “powerful” then I have to concede within that limited view power means immunity. It seems a tautological conclusion which reinforces my contention. If you cannot be powerful without being immune from the consequences of exercising that power, then it is, indeed, immunity that corrupts not power.

    The Reticulator (View Comment):
    The scullery servant in the king’s castle, or his valet, may have the power to wreck empires, using your definition of power, but I don’t think that’s a very useful definition of power when we’re making decisions on how to order our political systems.

    I think you overestimate the power inherent in a bad meal.

    • #8
    • April 14, 2019, at 7:11 AM PDT
    • 1 like