The Perils of Political Power

The abuse of political power is a perennial concern:

Here is something we all must learn if we want to make any kind of sense of the world that we live in: Most folks love power. Most folks love to control things and to control others. Politics is about power. While some may enter into politics for the best of motives, many are attracted to it out of the lust for power.

The more political power one has, the more dangerous one can become. Thus the English Catholic writer, politician, and historian Lord Acton (1834-1902), was absolutely right to state in an 1887 letter to an Anglican Bishop: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

The temptation to abuse politics and to abuse the use of power is always with us. And anything that tends to concentrate power in the hands of a few is always something to be greatly concerned about. We all must ensure that as much as possible, political power is widely diffused, and all politicians and rulers are kept on short leashes.

Of course political power, if used wisely and justly, can be a real blessing. I just this morning read about Solomon and his greatness. As we find in 2 Chronicles 1:1: “Solomon the son of David established himself in his kingdom, and the Lord his God was with him and made him exceedingly great.” Of course later on things turned sour for Solomon. I will look further at the Christian view on these matters in a moment.

But let me speak more to power in general, and the times that we live in. On my morning walk just now, in which I reflect and pray about all sorts of things, I was giving thanks for being able to go wherever I wanted – in this case, to be able to walk about in the cool crisp air, with mostly blue skies, sunshine, and all the green stuff growing here and there. All very pleasant indeed.

But it instantly struck me that all this could once again be taken away from me in a moment. With power-drunk premiers who are always ready to engage in reckless lockdowns and border closures at the drop of a hat, this particular bit of pleasant freedom – and others like it – could once again be snatched away from me at any time.

That has been perhaps the most important – and depressing – lesson for me to thus far come out of the covid crisis: The ability of most governments and politicians to milk a crisis for all its worth, and to happily take upon themselves all sorts of power and control, while stripping away basic rights and freedoms from the masses.

My very first article on the Rona appeared on February 2 of 2020. When my third piece on this appeared on March 12, it was all about power grabs and the many very real threats to liberty. As I said then:

In times of crisis, the power of the state can expand rapidly while the freedoms of the individual can shrink dramatically. Of course in times of genuine crisis and emergency there is a place for the state to step in and act in a responsible and appropriate manner….

 

The state is ever willing to seize control of things, but is very loathe to give up control. Thus a public health crisis is just the sort of thing that power-hungry politicians will latch onto in order to grab more control and power. And that means much less liberty and freedom for ordinary citizens.

 

If politicians only had the best interests of its citizenry at heart we could all relax. But they seldom do. Any excuse will do to take more power while leaving individuals less free. That is certainly one of the clear lessons of history. billmuehlenberg.com/2020/03/12/crises-liberty-and-the-state/

While the hundred-plus articles written since then on the virus have covered all aspects – medical, scientific, social, economic, biblical and theological – a major theme that I always ran with was this matter of Big Brother Statism and the sheer ease at which governments can exploit a crisis to further gain power.

I was not alone in such concerns. Perth law professor Augusto Zimmermann even edited an entire book on this very matter called Fundamental Rights in the Age of COVID-19 (Connor Court, 2020). I speak to that volume in more detail in this article: billmuehlenberg.com/2021/02/01/the-three-easy-steps-to-dictatorship/

Image of Fundamental Rights in the Age of COVID-19
Fundamental Rights in the Age of COVID-19 by Zimmermann, Augusto (Editor), Forrester, Joshua (Editor) Amazon logo

Dr Zimmermann had kindly asked me to contribute a chapter to this very important book. In my contribution I expanded upon this theme at length. I also featured some key quotes, such as the following:

“Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.” -George Washington

“The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.” -Thomas Jefferson

‘‘’Emergencies’ have always been the pretext on which the safeguards of individual liberty have been eroded – and once they are suspended it is not difficult for anyone who has assumed such emergency powers to see to it that the emergency will persist.” -F. A. Hayek

“The urge to save humanity is almost always a false-face for the urge to rule it.” -H. L. Mencken

“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.” -C. S. Lewis

“Concentrated power is not rendered harmless by the good intentions of those who create it.” -Milton Friedman

“Concentrated power has always been the enemy of liberty.” -Ronald Reagan

Christians and political power

Of all people, the Christian should be aware of the dangers that I am speaking about here. There is always a power struggle going on, first and foremost between the one true God and his created beings. Of course it is not an evenly balanced struggle.

But God allows us to go our own way and do our thing, and unless we bend the knee to his lordship, we are fiercely hanging on to our own lordship. We either make him the lord and boss of our life, or we keep making ourselves lord and boss. There can be no middle ground here.

So we either have the rightful, powerful Lord of the universe, the one true God, who has every right to rule – and who always rules justly – or we have his creatures seeking to be lord. Everyone wants to be a god in their own right. This has been going on ever since the Fall, and it impacts not just individuals but nations as well. As we read in Psalm 2:1-4:

Why do the nations rage
    and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
    and the rulers take counsel together,
    against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds apart
    and cast away their cords from us.”
He who sits in the heavens laughs;
    the Lord holds them in derision.

Societies and cultures – as well as individuals – are all at bottom religious. Once Douglas Wilson was responding to another believer who said “I sure don’t want to live in a theocracy.” Wilson replied:

But if we are talking about lifestyle, and if lifestyle refers to something more than a personal consumption item, at some point we are going to have to enact laws. Culture is impossible without them. But cultures differ because they serve different gods, and different gods require different things. This means the laws are different. Every society is a theocracy. The only question is, “Who’s Theo?” dougwils.com/books-and-culture/s7-engaging-the-culture/whos-theo.html

So power struggles will always take place as long as there are struggles over who is God – over who is Lord. Individuals and states can shake their fists at God and pretend that they, and not he, are the real sovereigns. But they are only fooling themselves. And we all suffer in such grabs for power.

Of course the Christian is not an anarchist. God created civil government for a fallen world. It is needed to help maintain order and keep evil in check. But the biblical and historical records make it quite clear that far too often political power is so very easily corrupted.

One simply needs to look at last century for some of the most odious examples of the abuse of political power, especially at the hands of godless communist and socialist tyrants. We all should have learned the lessons of history long ago. But sadly most folks seem to be utterly clueless about history, and are thus always ready to surrender their freedoms for some supposed safety.

That never ends well. As Benjamin Franklin rightly put it: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

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6 Replies to “The Perils of Political Power”

  1. Love the information you come up with Suzanna, I will be using this over in Australia.

    Cheers Ingrid

  2. A great article Bill, full of poignancy and truth. I loved the bit about “which” Theo we serve. So true! Thanks!

  3. It often seems power is only properly welded by those who DON’T seek it. George Washington was considered a great president and he was only president reluctantly. Even George VI was not raised to be king be was thrust into the position. People seem to be more careful with power they haven’t asked for than with power they desire.

    Even then corruption still can happen you see this most when someone goes to Washington DC, or whatever national or state capital you have, to shake things up and bring power back to the people but 40 years later are still there and just like the people they said they were against. They start strong but the power of the “dark side” attracts them and they become as corrupt as any other. It was a bit better in the founding fathers days as you served a bit the went home mainly because you had a farm to run. Nowadays you have professional politicians who spend their whole live in politics.

    I think there are those who instead of being lord or being lorded over they want a partnership with God so everything is done in cooperation. They want to be God’s equal working hand in hand to make things right. Also reminds me of a quote “many people wish to serve God but only in an advisory capacity”.

    Sometimes the quiet shy ones who don’t look for attention are the best suited to rule not the loud outgoing types always making sure you know they are there. Which reminds me of a Babylon5 quote: “she’s quite we think there’s something wrong with her.

    Or something very right. The quite ones change the world the loud ones only take the credit”

    When looking at who is qualified to be king God’s list is much different than ours. We need only look at David!

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