“Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Explain and discuss the implications of this view for Liberalism.
Liberalism focuses on the freedom of the individual. For all liberals, “freedom of the individual,” means that human beings are entitled to equal rights. For Bentham and Mill “freedom of the individual,” consisted of the freedom to follow the natural inclination of mankind to pursue its own selfish interests. Mill recognizes that individuals are self-seeking hence the possibility that more dominant individuals in pursuit of their own selfish interests would encroach upon the individual liberty of others. This is the basis for Mills harm principle (elaborated in “on liberty,” 1859):
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“The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others…”
Similarly, Hobbes and Locke recognized that since humans are greedy, selfish and power-seeking, human life without authority would be like a civil war of each against all. I suppose this can be the application of the view of Lord Acton regarding absolute power to the individual. If all individuals had absolute power over their actions, they would act corruptly. The implications being the establishment of a “social contract.” All individuals would recognize that it is within their best interests to sacrifice a portion of their liberty in order to set up a system of law; otherwise, their liberty and indeed lives would be constantly under threat. Thus arises a sovereign state, that enforces the law, in order to serve the people.
The problem with a sovereign state is as elucidated by Lord Acton that “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It is a concern that those who are appointed to enforce law and order are susceptible to the same self-seeking motivations as the people whom they governing. There are two alternative implications. An implication of Acton’s view is dealt with as part of Locke’s social contract. Government arises out of the consent of the governed. This implies that the obligation to obey the laws of government is not absolute. The government itself may break the terms of the contract. This is done if the government becomes corrupt. Accordingly, the legitimacy of government evaporates and the people have the right of rebellion.
This is one way of responding to the Actons’ concern regarding government. However, Locke resorting to rebellion erases the whole government structure. It would be a lot more efficient for the solution to the Actons’ concern to be sewn into the fabric of government. This would be done through constitutionalism; limiting government through a series of checks and balances, targeting Actons concern at the source, taking away absolute power, rather than responding to absolute power.
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