Saturday, May 09, 2015

Power corrupts . . . sometimes

Tea, anyone?
It's inevitable. If you eat 1,000 more calories than your body needs every day, you will gain weight. If you drop a plate on the driveway, it will break.

     British Historian, Lord Acton (1834-1902) famously said, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men." I imagine most of us would take exception to the last part, at least if it comes without a definition of “great.” Furthermore, women should take exception to the inference that only men can be corrupted by power. Chauvinist!

     Emperors and kings, dictators and oligarchies don't figure much in our world, at least not in the West. But through the ballot box or by appointment we bestow the burden—or privilege—of power on all kinds of people and too often what I call the Acton effect reveals itself rather quickly.
     Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin, Allison Redford come easily to mind, and now Brad Wall is being charged by the opposition with spending taxpayers' dollars frivolously by sending emissaries ahead on trade missions to arrange his meals, accommodation, etc. This runs into a whack of money when the mission is to Asia. (The option of using travel agencies comes to mind.)

     We've been watching episodes of Wolf Hall on PBS periodically. It's centered on the court intrigue during the reign of Henry VIII; the manipulations and compromises of Thomas Cromwell in service of the king and the exercise of monarchial privilege wielded by Henry make for fascinating studies of the Acton effect in an earlier time.

     Meanwhile, I'm also reading Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff, a biography that takes us back into the century before Christ. Cleopatra inherited the throne at 18, conjointly with her 10 year-old brother (to whom she was also married for a time) and grew up in a family where members murdered one another in order to achieve and hold power. Yikes!

     Kings and dictators historically have assumed a privileged morality: kings do whatever they want—whose to stop them? Furthermore, in order to preserve the kingdom the ruler must exercise his power. He has to be, and be seen to be, leader and protector of his subjects.
     But that hardly explains Mike Duffy's finding ways to charge even his personal trainer's fees to the public purse. Many of us find ourselves entitled to expense accounts from time to time. Work on committees, appointment to leadership positions require that the personal costs we incur in order to carry out our responsibilities are reimbursed. 
     The temptation to be overly generous to ourselves is real, particularly because it's an honour system in part and cheating is easy. It is, nevertheless, theft, hardly distinguishable from shop lifting . . . ethically, morally. It's also easily justified under the rubric of “I work hard and long for this (company, committee, institution), they owe me.”

     I can also hear Mike Duffy say in his defense, “To do my job, I have to be fit; ergo, the personal trainer cost is really my employers' (taxpayers') expense.” (Politicians also need orange juice to do their job, even when it's $16.00 a pop!)

     We generally shorten Lord Acton's pronouncement to “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Maybe it's too cynical by half. I've known a lot of hard-working board members in charitable organizations who donate not only their time and work as well as their personal expenses to the cause they're supporting through their participation.
     Corruption is not inevitable, not like overeating that leads to obesity.

     But when politicians of any stripe confuse their status with people like Henry VIII or Cleopatra, we have good reason to protest. 
     Corruption has no legitimate place in a democracy.

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