“The abuse of authority always leads to corruption, and total control is far worse. Generally speaking, the best men are the worst people.” This was said by Lord Acton.
We all want to believe that we are decent people who really care about others. There is no doubt in our minds that we will remain honest and ethical, incorruptible until the end if we ever achieve personal power, whether it by starting our own firm, climbing the corporate ladder, being enormously important in our field of expertise, or being elected to public office.
What it means to “wield power” varies tremendously depending on who is doing it and how much authority they have at their disposal. We have all worked for or with the petty dictator who runs their little business empire with avarice and egotism, bullying their subordinates with no regard for justice or kindness. Scientists who have spent their careers building a name for themselves have been brought down when they were found to have falsified data in order to back up their hypotheses and paymasters.
As power grows, we see the kind of drama seen at Enron and Lincoln Savings. The same greed and self-indulgence reign supreme, while a sense of being above the law emerges and responsibility and trust are thrown out the window. As the elite’s way of life grows more obscure, the gap between them and the rest of society widens. This is a fair dessert for the powerless for their inability to get to the top, as they will be tricked, manipulated, and stripped of their assets.
Whether it be a military-backed dictator or those who have been elected to office so many times that they no longer see themselves as public representatives but as entitled oligarchs of a system they control, politics is where the most absolute power is exercised in a world where hereditary monarchies are an anachronism.
Julius Caesar’s hubris and ambition brought down the Roman republic, which had advanced the city to the pinnacle of civilization. In the unchecked autocracies of a series of less-than-illustrious monarchs who wielded total authority with caprice and personal whim, the empire he founded contained the seeds of its own demise.
The Constitution’s designers envisioned a structure of government in which such unchecked authority could never exist due to the many layers of checks and balances built into the framework. Due to the supremacy of the rule of law, no one could act with impunity. With the necessary advice and approval from various government agencies, a wide range of perspectives and values might be considered in making policy.
The people, however, were the giants among men who propelled the formation of our fundamental legislation. Washington’s rejection of the title of king, which had been supported by numerous of his followers, was a hint that he was opposed to having too much authority in the hands of one person. Similar approaches were used by his contemporaries, including Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Madison, and many more. This was done to assure that the demands of the people would be fulfilled by a variety of representative voices.
Through the years, the system of checks and balances they established has ensured the safety of the nation. Despite occasional veering to port or starboard, the political process has consistently been righted by the sheer number of people involved. Of course, there have been plenty of bleak eras marked by corruption and ineptitude. Too many politicians have forgotten that they are public servants, gaining a sense of entitlement and the idea that they, above all others, know what is right for the people who elected them. This is the darkness we confront today.
All that stands between them and complete anarchy is the rule of law, which took over two centuries to meticulously create. Restoring order in a world plagued by corruption, greed, and inflated pride, the legal prosecution of a congressman who accepted millions of dollars in bribes, a congressional leader who used election money as he saw fit rather than as the law required, and administration officials who destroyed a woman’s career and put the lives of covert operatives around the world in danger, has brought justice to the world.
An encouraging sign that corruption will be reduced and the arrogance of our leaders will be exposed can be found in the ongoing investigations into the leaders’ honesty in invoking the need for military intervention and the growing voice of dissent against financial favors for the rich and powerful at the cost of cutting services to the powerless poor.
The accused parties raise objections, saying their opponents’ desire for political power is the real crime here. Far removed from the norms of society, they now see their own acts of corruption and wrongdoing to be perfectly normal and even commendable.
Fortunately, unlike the spineless rubber stamp Roman senators, we have the most formidable weapon ever conceived, the voting box, at our disposal to oust these would-be Caesars from their comfortable nest.