Unlimited Power and Absolute Corruption

Power is a familiar topic with conservative writers and thinkers. In 1944, Ludwig von Mises published his book, Bureaucracy, which may very well be considered the authoritative work on the (in)effectiveness of centralized power. Mises wrote:

The bureaucrat is not free to aim at improvement. He is bound to obey rules and regulations established by a superior body. He has no right to embark upon innovations if his superiors do not approve of them. His duty and his virtue is to be obedient.

Mises here echoes a similar sentiment expressed by G.K. Chesterton, written nearly half a century earlier: “I’ve searched all the parks in all the cities and found no statues of committees.” Russian author Leo Tolstoy would agree:

From the day when the first members of councils placed exterior authority higher than interior, that is to say, recognized the decisions of men united in councils as more important and more sacred than reason and conscience: on that day began lies that caused the loss of millions of human beings and which continue their unhappy work to the present day.

One of the grand designs of the United States Constitution was its insistence on decentralized power. Rather than allowing the feudal mindset to inform their political thinking, America’s founders chose a republican approach, meaning government by representation, with law being the great equalizer (see Exodus 18). They well understood that unlimited power has corrupting effects on both the righteous and the wicked. Edmund Opitz observed: “No one can read our Constitution without concluding that the people who wrote it wanted their government severely limited; the words ‘no’ and ‘not’ employed in restraint of governmental power occur 24 times in the first seven articles of the Constitution and 22 more times in the Bill of Rights.” 19th century writer Caleb C. Colton summarized it well: “Power will intoxicate the best hearts, as wines the strongest heads. No man is wise enough, nor good enough, to be trusted with unlimited power.” Colton was merely affirming what the American people had already ratified.

What modern conservatives often miss though, is that this mistrust of power was in general, and not only in the hands of those who are ideologically opposed to us. Lord Acton is famous for his quotation, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” but it should be pointed out that Acton wasn’t only aiming his words at his enemies. What we would vehemently deny to liberals, we are often more than willing to give to those who espouse some variation of conservatism. Edmund Opitz is clear in his warning: “Never advocate any more power for your best friends, than you would willingly see wielded by your worst enemies.” If absolute power corrupts, then we should be diligent to not allow it to be possessed by anyone, whether ally or opponent.