When Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox Court House on the morning of April 9, 1865, Grant declared that the Union had been preserved. An ocean away, a notable Catholic John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron of Acton lamented, “I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo.” His abiding sympathy for the cause of decentralized government – a cause he saw embodied in the campaigns of Lee as battles for “liberty, progress and civilization” – was but a fraction of his broader liberalist perspective.
Many of us almost know of the maxim attributed to Lord Acton:
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Few of us are aware of the corollary that was part of the same thought:
“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. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”
Few of us understand the emanating impulse for his misquoted adage. Far fewer contemplate the profound insight he maintained during the latter half of the 19th century – insight that has been lost to the dust of time for the most part.
Lord Acton’s quote came from a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton written on April 5, 1887 in which he was vigorously arguing against the canon of Papal Infallibility. But in this same letter, he addressed the association between the power usurped by Kings and Popes and the rest of the prevailing systems associated with the promulgation of power – including economics (you knew I was going to get there somehow). Conspicuously missing from our recollection of Lord Acton’s philosophical musings are his equally poignant but less anarchist observations like:
“If we may debase the currency for the sake of genius, or success, or rank, or reputation, we may debase it for the sake of a man’s influence, of his religion, of his party, of the good cause which prospers by his credit and suffers by his disgrace. Then History ceases to be a science, an arbiter of controversy, a guide of the Wanderer, the upholder of that moral standard which the powers of earth and religion itself tend constantly to depress.”
Now, for the sake of common usage, let’s remind ourselves that the definition of power is:
Power = Work / Time and Average Power = DWork / DTime.
This formula, in isolation can neither corrupt nor be corrupted. When applied and misapplied to human contrivances, Lord Acton’s caution is prudent. Why? Because when human systems are aligned for the purpose of commandeering “work” and when capricious delimitations of temporal realities are imposed, the purveyor of “authority” (the definition of “work” and “time”) is the agency through which the debasing of the system is effectuated.
Consider the following. Conventional economists since the middle of the 18th century live in a Rent Labor paradigm. Economies are said to be functioning when employment is maintained and when wages are sufficient to support a mercantile industrialist paradigm. They are said to be in dysfunction when employment is insufficient to fuel consumption. But does ‘employment’ equate to ‘work’? Absolutely not. The fact that we don’t observe this linguistic compromise does not make it unimportant. Long before Lord Acton, social systems – notably religion and government (in his observations indistinguishable since the time of Constantine) – dissociated the “work” in the power formula from productivity. It’s not an accident that countless heretics went variously to the pyre and their watery drownings for questioning whether “faith” or “works” were central to Christian dogma. In a world defined by illiterate labor and conniving, self-enriching literate elite, the more people focus on the occupation of time as opposed to the substance of productive work, the more the illusion of power can be maintained. In fact, modern government and religion would collapse entirely if we actually realized that modern power relies not on physics but on belief where:
Illusory Power = DTime Spent Thinking You’re Doing Something / DTime.
Before we carelessly react with a call for anarchy, neither Lord Acton nor I find that to be the logical conclusion of a system clearly hijacked for the benefit of the few at the collective cost of the many. Such a response is ill-considered. Lord Acton’s observation that most great men were bad men must be examined more closely. In his litany of bad actors is great wisdom. The “great men” to which his observations were made were entirely from the Christian Occident. The “general wickedness” of “men in authority” was correct but failed to consider the fact that these corrupt characters in their full bloom came from a fertile field of surrogated masses – masses who saw the Church and State as their benefactors. It turns out that if predators see prey turning their necks towards the fang, they tend to bite. If, however, we interrupt this impulse to look to authority for succor but rather collaborate with authority to support general accountability, we may actually rebalance the power equation to its incorruptible state.
But what does this mean? Well, practically it means that we have to bear responsibility for things that we have pawned off on others. It means that we need to care for those who need support; we need to rally to productive pursuits; we need to set aside our predilection to philosophize and instead engage in real work towards real future benefit. In so doing, we address the integrity of the numerator and reduce the capriciousness of the denominator. This means that we’ll work for the love of its results – not for the rents we collect – and in so doing, become Great Men and Women Incorruptible.