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Centralized Power is Always a Danger

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Lord Acton is probably best known for his comment, in an 1887 letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton, that Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. In our own day, David Brin took exception to Lord Acton in noting that:

I t is said that power corrupts, but actually it's more true that power attracts the corruptible. The sane are usually attracted by other things than power.

No matter which interpretation is accepted, it seems clear that both of these men were worried by power and its potential for abuse. The potential and even the likelihood for the abuse of great power was not original ideas for either man but come to us from ancient times. It certainly was a concern to the founders of this country and no doubt was a central concern in their drafting of our Constitution. In an 1813 letter to John Melish, Thomas Jefferson observed that an honest man can feel no pleasure in the exercise of power over his fellow citizens. Nonetheless, Jefferson must have had concern for dishonest men since he played a key role in authoring our system of checks and balances for the very purpose of restricting the power of any single person in government.

More recent presidents have also expressed concern about the potential for abuse of power by individuals in government; Robert Kennedy observed that the problem of power is how to achieve its responsible use rather than its irresponsible and indulgent use - of how to get men of power to live for the public rather than off the public.

So the unrelenting focus of conservative orthodoxy in containing the power of government stems from an honorable place in history; it is just unfortunate that they are not cognizant of the full scope and seriousness of this concern for concentrated power. The founders were quite aware of the potential for harm from any excessive concentration of power, and there is good reason to think they also were as concerned with concentrations of economic power as they were of concentrated political power. It is likely that some were actual participants in the Boston Tea Party and that was a protest against the monopoly power being created for the East India Company.

Just as concentration of power in government should be contained by a considered system of checks and balances, power in the economic sphere should be contained. Unfortunately, the founders left it to future legislators to establish mechanisms for this important task and it is the failure to properly contain the growth of economic power that has now led us to this brink of failure both in the economic and political sphere. Early legislatures did exercise serious restraint on the growth of concentrated economic power, but as time went on they appear to have forgotten or at least neglected their responsibilities in this important area.

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The genius of our system of government is its distribution of power to the three separate branches. At its root, Capitalism has a similar genius in distributing power, half to the great mass of consumers and half to the smaller but still great mass of suppliers. In a free market there are no barriers to entry and anyone can start up a new business to compete on an equal footing with established businesses. Both in our democracy an in our capitalist economic system there is this genius of carefully distributing power so as to avoid power centers as much as possible. Together, the political system and the economic system should balance each-other as antagonists, further diffusing power.

At least superficially, our political system still retains its system of checks and balances, but the legislative branch seems to have relinquished much of its potential power to the executive and judicial branches. More significantly, as economic powerhouses have grown to dominate our economy they have also gained excessive influence over all three branches of our government. Our current economic system bears pitifully little resemblance to the economic theory of a free market economy. Rather, with its widespread system of interlocking boards of directors there seems a worrying resemblance to the Soviet system of a managed economy; it is just that the government is out of the loop and it is corporate bureaucrats that are in charge of the planning. But never mind, these same corporate bureaucrats also supervise (AKA lobby) our government officials.

As late as the 1950's, this country did have a business climate that was a reasonable approximation to a free market capitalist system, but in the second half of the 20th century there was a noticeable growth of large national corporations taking over sectors of business that had been locally owned. Even earlier there had been large corporations, primarily in the manufacturing and transportation sectors, but restaurants, pharmacies and the many other retail establishments were usually locally owned and operated. It was not a true free market, but at least a reasonably healthy mixed economy, partially free-market and partially oligopoly or monopoly. And there was also a third economic sector that should not be forgotten, the public sector; businesses that were considered important for the society and its general welfare (such as utilities and hospitals) were often owned by the government or were at least strictly regulated.

As more and more sectors of the economy were taken over by large national corporations, small locally owned businesses could not compete and were driven out of business. Success after success by these over-sized corporations led to irrational exuberance and further expansion of the corporate model until today there is little room for the small entrepreneur. To the extent that new businesses are formed, it is often with the hope of being taken over by some large corporation, sometimes U.S. based but it matters little. The big corporations are now international, not national. If we are headed toward a world government it is probably through the takeover of all of the world's government by these international corporations.

Whether or not this will actually happen is anyone's guess, but the trend seems to be toward ever bigger and more powerful corporations and ever more subservient governments. Latin America seems to be the promising exception of governments standing up to corporate power, so developments there deserve more attention that they seem to receive. Another alternative is an economic collapse of the world economy; governments might be empowered to come in and save us all as the corporate powers collapse.

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We live in interesting times.

 

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A concerned citizen and former mathematician/engineer now retired and living in rural Maine.

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