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By Robert A. Vella

Have you heard memes like these before?

“Throw the bums out of Congress!”

“Term limits are the only way to get good people back into politics.”

“The President is evil, and he should be impeached.”

“If I was King, things would be different.”

I’m sure you have.  Such memes are very common especially in this day and age when people all over the world are increasingly frustrated with business-as-usual politics.  But, do you see what they share in common?

You might, or you might not.  We humans have an innate tendency to perceive all manifestations of power as a moral contrast between good and bad, or virtuousness versus evil.  This nature of ours deludes us into thinking that the world would be a far better place to live if only we could get the right people to lead us.  From a psychological viewpoint, it is essentially a form of hero worship.  The ancient Greeks described it as apotheosis.  Among animals, a non-abstract application of this same basic impulse allows species to establish hierarchical relationships between dominant and subordinate individuals.  In fact, prominent cultural institutions in modern societies (e.g. religion and sports) could not exist without the primal desire to serve under strong leadership.

And, it is precisely this primal instinct of ours that creates the political corruption which we all despise.  As Lord Acton so astutely observed:

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

We can extrapolate this line of reasoning into the following axiom:

“Altruism is inversely proportional to the concentration of power.”

You might be thinking right now that we humans are in serious trouble.  If we cannot place our faith and trust in a powerful leader to make the world right, then what else can we do?  Do we get rid of all governmental authority?  No, that would only generate societal anarchy and create power vacuums exploitable by non-governmental authorities and interests.  Okay, so what can we do?

Well, it might surprise you to learn that we’ve already gone through this philosophical exercise multiple times before.  The ancient Greeks conceptualized the practice of distributed power (i.e. democracy), and pre-imperial Rome did the same for the rule of law (i.e. republicanism).  During the 18th century Age of Enlightenment, these two concepts were brought together under one system.  It wasn’t a perfect solution by any means, but it did at least constrain the excesses of concentrated power and rule by arbitrary decree.  Today, however, we have forgotten those historical lessons and have devolved back to our primitive past.  Now, as then, we will discover there’s no messiah on the horizon to save us from ourselves.

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5 thoughts on “Can Concentrated Power be Altruistic?

  1. Excellent post Bob.
    I have been having dreams of what I would do if I were president. Now you have killed all those hopes and called my ideas primitive. *wails*

    • I’m sorry, Noel. Nothing personal was intended. I was just trying to contrast the social expectations of power versus its real human limitations. What motivated me was seeing my fellow Americans fall into the “hero worship” trap yet again in the run-up to a very important general election this November. I fear voters will make another poor and consequential political choice.

      Keep your dreams alive. 🙂

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