March 8, 2014

KEVIN WILLIAMSON: The Tyrant in the Gray Flannel Suit: Traditional American distrust of the centralized state is based on some lessons learned the hard way.

There is no one who can be trusted with political power. Lord Acton’s famous epigram — “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” — communicates a law of human life that is as inescapable as that of supply and demand: There may be variations along the curve, but the slope is always in the same direction. Even in a stable, liberal society such as our own, we have seen presidents, including the current president, abuse their power for personal and political ends, sometimes with shocking disregard for both law and propriety. The number of generals who have participated in the overthrow of civilian governments to which they swore oaths of allegiance is enough to populate a small army. In politics, great men are dangerous men.

There is very little in this world as dramatic as the coup d’état, but it is not only presidents and princes who are susceptible to the allure of power. New York City enjoys the services of the nation’s best-led and most professional big-city police department, but its officers have been known to abuse their power in ways ranging from the banal to the antiheroic, from taking petty bribes to acting as mob enforcers for the Lucchese crime syndicate. Political power is corruptible down to the level of public-school administrators and DMV clerks.

That’s why there should be as little of it as possible.