When Lord Acton wrote that power tends to corrupt, he wasn't addressing easy cases of the sort on which popular culture fastens today — e.g., European dictators given to knee-high riding boots and mountain-top hideaways in the Bavarian Alps.
Instead, the eminent historian was highlighting a grim and thoroughly challenging fact about human psychology: that something insidious nearly always emerges when some individuals attain power over others — and especially when they attain the power over your life or death that, legally, is at the heart of government.
As the great 19th Century liberal wrote to Mary Gladstone in 1881, "The danger is not that a particular class is unfit to govern. Every class is unfit to govern." (Emphasis added.)
Interestingly, recent psychological research has confirmed Acton's view, illuminating some of the dynamics through which power corrupts the human conscience. Late last year a Columbia University research study showed that while most individuals "become stressed when lying … people with power feel just fine when lying — and are better at getting away with it."
Summed up Professor Dana R. Carney: "Having power essentially buffered the powerful liars from feeling the bad effects of lying [or] from responding in any negative way or giving nonverbal cues that low-power liars tended to reveal."
Acton's most famous quotation, of course, included the observation that "absolute power corrupts absolutely." Dr. Carney and her colleagues thankfully have not had the opportunity to test that later proposition, not being in a position to bestow absolute power upon anyone. Yet other well-known psychological experiments — such as the famous 1971 guard-inmate simulations of Stanford University's Psychology of Imprisonment study — provide strong evidence for its truth. Indeed, it appears that the greater the power over others that individuals are given, the greater the moral corruption likely to ensue.
For 20th Century "progressives," of course, this conclusion is anathema, given that their entire project is to grasp such complete governmental power as to allow them to reshape society and thus the individuals within it.
The darkness within this ambition — which the horrors of the 20th Century would reveal for all to see — was something Acton, in his day, saw clearly. He thus also recognized its corollary: the strong tropism within human governments toward unlimited power. He knew that this drive — because it is instinctive, reflexive and eternal — demands, in turn, eternal vigilance from the friends of human liberty.
Yet, as the 19th Century wore on, Acton and his compatriots in the cause of liberty found the statist tide rising about their ankles. In England, even Acton's close friend, Prime Minister William Gladstone, leader of the Liberal Party itself, toyed increasingly with state-socialist political nostrums. Gladstone's temptation, wrote The New York Times in 1894, "increases as the needy class comes nearer to holding the balance of power between the two great parties [i.e., Tory and Liberal] as they have existed and developed for the last two centuries…"
In America, too, the ideas of Prussian state socialism increasingly gained ground against those of the American founding and the Declaration of Independence. In Germany, the government- and university-paid professoriate had boasted of being the "intellectual bodyguard of the House of Hohenzollern," i.e., the Prussian imperial family. Enviously, many U.S. academics fancied themselves for some comparable role. They found themselves titillated by the conceits of statism — now touted as "Progressivism" — and the prospect of official anointment as designers of a New World utopia. Especially enticing were the financial and status rewards that the German Herr Doktor Professors received. Crafting abstruse justifications for placing statist saddles on commoners' backs appeared to pay — in financial and social terms — quite well.
These developments in the planet's two most freedom-friendly societies revealed a foundational weakness in the 19th Century liberal project — a significant degree of naïveté, perhaps, in its faith in reason and human progress. The partisans of liberty did not appreciate how potent can be the combination, once joined, of human cupidity and man's capacity to rationalize. Thus they could muster no humanly adequate counter-move, and the 20th Century unfolded as we know, in statism, genocide and tyranny.
Will the 21st Century continue unfolding the same way?
The rise of the Internet offers a potentially important counterweight to the instinctive drive of those in government to amass ever greater personal power and wealth — if the Web can remain free of governmental control.
Under such circumstances, citizen-enforced transparency may be able to check the most sociopathic displays of human cupidity that fuel so much governmental growth. Similarly, specious rationalizations for governmental growth may become more vulnerable on the Net, under keen citizen oversight.
In these last days before the 2010 elections, something clearly is stirring in America. Made possible by the Internet, it may be even more significant than currently thought.
Steven Miller is vice president for policy at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more visit http://npri.org/.