Friday, March 02, 2007

Power Corrupts

Sayeth Lord Acton, "All power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

This aphorism is as true of nations as it is of individuals. Our present difficulties in Iraq, with our government, and with our elections--and even our electorate--are not exclusively the result of any moral flaws. All people, all classes, all societies, all cultures, and all nations have moral flaws, together and severally. This observation is not to excuse our flaws--although moral flaw is pervasive we still must correct it--but to simply mention a truth. If we depend exclusively on moral purity[1] for our prosperity, our liberty and our survival, we are well and truly screwed.

Power, the ability to coerce, always magnifies the moral flaws of the powerful. In the history of the world, there are few individuals and no nation that, upon obtaining substantial power relative to others, has not grievously misused its power by even the most obvious common moral standards.

The United States has almost absolute power to coerce the world to its will. That we have not yet done so absolutely is due only the vestiges of sentimentality and whatever moral good we might once have had. But those vestiges are quickly eroding. Unchecked, it is only a matter of time before the absolute power of the United States absolutely corrupts its government, its culture, and its people to the worst moral depravity of Nazism, Fascism, Soviet Communism, Maoism, Manifest Destiny and Medieval Christianity. Our power has already corrupted our ruling class, our political parties, and our commercial media, perhaps irretrievably.

Vote in every election. Blog daily in the service of good humanistic, libertarian morality. Write your representatives every day condemning the moral depravity of our actions. Take to the streets in the millions to protest this war or that loss of liberty. Take up arms in rebellion, even.[2] You will fail. You are guaranteed to fail. It is the power itself which is the problem, not its "proper" use. While we have flawed people, power will magnify those flaws. When we have perfect people, we will have no use or need of power.

Power cannot be simply left unused. Even for the best, the temptation of power to do "good" is irresistible. Power--more precisely substantial differences in power--must be eliminated: We must eliminate that power which allows us to coerce others while retaining that power which allows us to resist the coercion of others.

The kind of good we can do in the world, the kind of good we ought to do, does not depend in the least on our power to coerce. We can educate. We can share our technology and our science. We can invest. We can feed the hungry, treat the sick and comfort the dying. None of this good requires bullets or bombs.

There are many ways to eliminate the huge difference in power between the United States and the rest of the world.

China and India, by virtue of their large populations, or Europe by virtue of its economic power, could offset and oppose the power of the United States. I fear, however, that this possibility is both too far off, and would still leave too few actors to truly prevent all but the very worst corruption and depravity entailed by power.

We could defederalize. Strip the federal government of most of its power (perhaps starting most easily by repealing the federal income tax). The only real function most suited to the federal government is defense of our territorial sovereignty, but the threat of actual invasion and occupation is ridiculously minuscule. The threat of criminal terrorism is greater, but individual states are in a better position to address this threat by ordinary civilized and liberty-respecting police powers.

At the most extreme, we could actually break up the United States into separate nations.

There is, of course, a downside such action. There is much unquestionable good that has flowed from massive federal power. Abortion and reproductive rights, the rights of women, racial equality and the rights of sexual and cultural minorities would suffer in many benighted areas of the United States if federal power were eliminated. These are considerable objections, and these rights cannot simply be sacrificed; any plan or support for diminishing the power of the United States must also include moral, proportionate efforts to secure and maintain these rights everywhere (and not just in North America, but everywhere in the world). I can say in defense only that in the most populous areas of the United States these rights have strong local support; in the benighted regions, federal power to secure these rights is under vigorous attack and proving increasingly ineffective.

Moral arguments are neither superfluous nor unnecessary; they are important and can be effective. But for moral arguments to have any effect, they must be directed not to the "proper" use of our power (which is impossible), they must be directed not to abstaining from the use of our power (which is impossible), but rather they must be directed to the elimination of the United States' tremendous difference in power compared to the rest of the world.

We must find a way to morally, peacefully and democratically renounce the terrible temptation of absolute power. If we do not, our power will corrupt us and, in the end, cause our destruction as a people, a culture, a society, and even as a nation, as great power has eventually destroyed every nation that has possessed it.

Do I verge close to treason? I don't think so: I most emphatically do not advocate rebellion or violence of any kind. There are legal, moral, peaceful and democratic ways to implement any of these means, even to secession.

But if I am verging, I'll verge and be damned. What's at stake here is the survival of humanity itself, more important to me than my own imperial American privilege.

[1] It doesn't help that lacking objective moral standards, "moral purity" is, at heart, a metaphor at best vague and at worst vacuous.
[2] This is a metaphor not an exhortation. Read the next damn sentence.


  1. "At the most extreme, we could actually break up the United States into separate nations."

    Uh....."we" and what army?

  2. We are citizens of a democracy; our government derives its legitimacy from us. We have the power--in theory--to remove that legitimacy from the federal government and grant it to smaller nations.

  3. Hey ya bum...I enjoyed the read and find your intellectually courageous audacity to be precisely what I believe is required to move our society forward, and avoiding the precipice which is clearly marked 'Straight Ahead.'

    Thanks for your writing.

    -Husker Gary

    p.s. Here's a forum 'signature' I ran across today:

    "Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible." - Frank Zappa


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