by Jon Sanders
Director of the Center for Food, Power, and Life, Research Editor, John Locke Foundation
On June 16, 2023, readers of The News & Observer encountered something highly unusual in its editorial pages: a reference to Lord Acton’s famous warning. A piece by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill law professor Gene Nichol, of all people, surprisingly opened with it: “Lord John Acton wrote ‘power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’” The N&O was so happy with the column, in fact, that they posted it again on social media on June 20.
The occasion for the quotation is Republicans in the General Assembly recently seeking to reduce the (Democratic) governor’s appointment powers to university boards and commissions, increase theirs, and make other, similar changes. The last straw (“bigger fish to fry”) appears to be the proposal for legislative leaders of each party to appoint fully bipartisan county election boards.
In Nichol’s way of putting it, they would have “legislative leaders control the appointment of a potent array of state and local officials, including the spoils and loyalties which flow from such arrangements.”
Advocates of limited government likely noticed a bit of a problem in the argument just now. Nichol’s warning about power and corruption takes for granted that “spoils and loyalties flow” from government appointments and finds issue only over to whom they flow. Perhaps it is to be expected when one is trying on Acton’s insight like one of Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters.
After all, the N&O’s editorial board showed no noticeable concern whatsoever about the most infamous assertion of absolute power in North Carolina in memory: Gov. Roy Cooper’s abuse of — and illegal, unilateral assertion of — emergency powers during Covid. In contrast, when I wrote on the one-year anniversary of Cooper’s tyranny, I concluded by citing Acton after warning that “Cooper’s seizing power in this fashion … will be an open invitation to future governors, regardless of party” (emphasis in original).
The editors, meanwhile, were agreeing with Cooper’s lockdown, urging Cooper to crack down harder on people, and even telling people when Cooper lifted some of his executive orders that he was graciously “giv[ing] North Carolina its economic freedom.”
Just three years ago they were angrily lecturing people “Just wear the stupid mask” and saying that submission to masks was “not caving to tyranny,” blatant nonsense they then immediately falsified:
Don’t channel your inner Patrick Henry when your state or local government tells you masks are necessary at a beach or other public spaces. Guess what? Government forces you to do a lot of things.
They also advocated for severe repercussions against the Ace Speedway for conducting their business as usual, “drawing a crowd of more than 2,500 spectators in violation of [Cooper’s] order limiting outdoor gatherings to no more than 25 people.” The editors, these supposed new Actonites, counseled the governor that “[t]aking no action in response is not an option.” They wanted to smash any resistance to the governor’s autocratic orders, including urging him to bring whatever enforcement actions he could “against the county attorney who approved the event and the sheriff who refused to enforce the prohibition.”
(Incidentally, in 2022 a unanimous Appeals Court ruled that the Cooper administration had, in fact, “singled its racetrack out for enforcement in bad faith for the invidious purpose of silencing its lawful expression of discontent with the Governor’s actions.”)
The editors even blamed the Speedway and Alamance officials’ defiance on their having become “emboldened by Judge James C. Dever III’s temporary ruling that suspended the governor’s order barring indoor church services.” Not only were they unimpressed by the significant First Amendment issues at stake, they were in complete agreement that the governor had the power to close churches.
That’s why the N&O’s sudden affectation for Acton is surprising. Their own axiom might as well have been Cooper’s power saves, and his absolute power saves absolutely.
But an optimistic case could be made that they learned their lesson. One can hope that this discovery of Acton’s warning isn’t as it would seem, a political dalliance with a temporarily convenient idea suitable for the moment but soon to be dropped the instant the next Current Thing requires advocating for more state power. No, maybe they’ve finally realized that the more authority government usurps from people, the worse for society things always become. Perhaps they’ve looked ahead and realized that letting political office become too powerful will inevitably attract more grotesque authoritarians.
One can hope.
Acton’s insight is an indelible truth that underpins the importance of limiting government and upholding property rights (the very first being the right to one’s own life) and free markets. It is animated by a right understanding of the fallen nature of man — sometimes referred to as the tragic vision of man’s nature.
Here is the logical extent of this insight as it applies to governmental power, which at its core is the legal authority to take, imprison, even kill: If each one of us is afflicted with a corruptible nature, then no one can be trusted to wield authority. If no one can be trusted to wield authority, then authority is itself suspicious.
Note: I refer to the legal authority, not the moral authority. More on that distinction presently.
The Founders shared this suspicion of the inner evil potential in every good person, including themselves. They therefore were suspicious of the authority that would be handed to individuals in their system of government. For that reason the Founders fragmented power in the government they set up, subdividing government into three branches (legislative, executive, and judicial), each with the ability to check the others — and to be checked by voters.
Acton’s aphorism wasn’t a standalone proverb, however, and its context is instructive. It came in an April 5, 1887, letter to Archbishop Mandell Creighton of the Church of England, and Acton, a Roman Catholic, strongly objected to Creighton’s tendency to be uncritical of previous popes, even to the extent of glossing over the terrors of the Inquisition.
The famous phrase occurs in the lengthy seventh paragraph. That paragraph speaks forthrightly against a perverse willingness to excuse bad actions in great men on account of their being invested in power. Let us examine the first half of the paragraph here:
I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way against holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. —
That last sentence means that the judgment of history must hold leaders accountable for their immoral, evil acts that had been excused legally by dint of their authority. Holding authority means they are to be considered more inclined to wrongdoing, not less.
— Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. 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. —
What that last sentence means is that there is nothing worse than a belief that “Might makes right,” thinking that the standard for what is moral and legal does not exist above the person in power but rather is set by that person. It is the subjective rule of men, not the objective rule of law. It is what the N&O cheered in Cooper during Covid. His orders were arbitrary and capricious to the point of absurdity.
Not only does might (power) not make right (morally correct), but since power tends to corruption, might makes moral wrong more likely.
— That is the point at which the negation of Catholicism and the negation of Liberalism meet and keep high festival, and the end learns to justify the means.
This truth is so beautifully phrased. Here is what it means in its context: The belief that the papacy or the crown itself justifies any deed by the officeholder, no matter how vile, gleefully negates religion and freedom and teaches that the end justifies the means.
In other words, fetishizing government authority is a dangerous enemy to freedom. The end (a particularly pleasing political outcome) never justifies the means (worsening authority of government against people).
For those reasons I challenge the editorial board of The News & Observer to take Acton’s warning seriously and apply it to all their coverage of North Carolina government going forward. Don’t let it be a mere passing fancy useful for besmirching their political opponents only to be forgotten the next time a politician seeks to wield new power for an end they like. How much good they could do for North Carolinians if they permanently took up the mantle of the Fourth Estate against unlawful government means, regardless of the ends.
One can hope.