Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Even Cliches Speak Truth: Power Corrupts

Nicotine, at least in its current incarnation blended and enhanced by tobacco companies, binds men and women. It calls them to their own destruction. Smokers, snuff-users, and tobacco chewers dismiss sores in the mouth, chronic coughs, persistent bronchitis, and the presence of skulls and crossbones on the packages they pick up many times every day. They die prematurely at the rate of nearly half a million each year because of nicotine’s addictive powers.

In the early decades of America, prior to Prohibition, public drunkenness was pervasive, so much so that proponents of a Constitutional amendment to prohibit the manufacture and distribution of alcohol used public drunkenness and domestic abuse as primary reasons to amend the Constitution. Yet alcohol’s seductive properties easily overrode the domestic agenda. “Prohibition turned law-abiding citizens into criminals, made a mockery of the justice system, caused illicit drinking to seem glamorous and fun, encouraged neighborhood gangs to become national crime syndicates, permitted government officials to bend and sometimes even break the law, and fostered cynicism and hypocrisy that corroded the social contract all across the country. With Prohibition in place, but ineffectively enforced, one observer noted, America had hardly freed itself from the scourge of alcohol abuse – instead, the ‘drys’ had their law, while the ‘wets’ had their liquor."

Power must be as addictive as nicotine and alcohol. We bear witness to its thrall in Congress daily. Men and women who surely entered the political arena to lead and serve the needs of the nation later vote against those needs in order to sink their teeth deeper into the marrow of power as if it were their life’s blood. These men and women merely follow upon thousands who have gone before them.

In 1770, William Pitt observed that "Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it."

And in 1848, Alphonse Marie Louis de Prat de Lamartine declared thatIt is not only the slave or serf who is ameliorated in becoming free... the master himself did not gain less in every point of view,... for absolute power corrupts the best natures.”

Finally, in 1887, Lord Acton said, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."

These men and many more observed that those who have great power tend to become corrupted by the power they wield. Certainly they had sufficient proof. History informed them about once noble Roman emperors, profligate kings who inspired an American revolution, an overly ambitious French military leader named Bonaparte, and brutal crime lords who oversaw unspeakable acts in the name of power.

We have used these historical figures as cautionary tales against hubris. We have reminded children that lacking a cardinal direction on one’s moral compass leads to ruin. Still men and women fail to pack a compass when venturing  forth.

Senators recently ignored public opinion about closing Guantanamo. They refuse to hear the arguments against austerity while clinging to a single flawed study by Harvard economists Reinhart and Rogoff. And most heart-breaking of all, in my opinion, is the Senate’s inability to find sixty of their members to support expanding background checks for firearms purchases in spite of the fact that the expressed desire of the nation would require that they vote yes instead of no.

One Republican Senator, Pat Toomey, recently admitted that the bill he co-sponsored with Democrat Senator Joe Manchin faced opposition because senators were advised that supporting expanded background checks would be a victory for the president so some votes were about winning, as Charlie Sheen might use the word. The votes were not about justice or fairness or public opinion or public safety; they were motivated by a self-serving grab for power, especially when their own upcoming primary battles are a factor in the equation.

But leaders in Australia dared the voters and bore the consequences, including not being re-elected because as the Honorable Rob Borbich, former Premier of Queensland, Australia, said about his job: he served to make “society a better place” whether he was re-elected or not. John Howard, former Prime Minister (1996) and Tom Fischer, former Deputy Prime Minister of Australia (1996) agree. Political death, in Howard’s opinion, is noble.

Power taints the man or woman who wields it. Power betrays us, leading us astray. Countless true and fictional tales remind us of these truths. May the Senate awaken to them.