Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Constitutional reform and the corruption of power

My attention was drawn by Nick Drew in a comment on a post below to a new book 'Soft Despotism' by Paul Rahe, reviewed by Mark Steyn. Tocqueville's intermediate institutions and Burke's small platoons as the fundamental strengths of society, undermined by central Statism. Yes, of course.

Tocqueville, Burke and Hayek are all worth re-reading at a time when the discussion is around constitutional change, but who else?

Can you name the writer who gave us "Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."? Or "And remember, where you have a concentration of power in a few hands, all too frequently men with the mentality of gangsters get control. History has proven that. All power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely"? Or even "The danger is not that a particular class is unfit to govern: every class is unfit to govern."? Yes, Lord Acton of course.

And on constitutional reform, in turn quoting Mackintosh, Acton wrote:
Constitutions are not made, but grow ..... custom and the national qualities of the governed, and not the will of the government, are the makers of the law, and therefore that the nation, which is the source of its own organic institutions should be charged with the perpetual custody of their integrity
In other words, our unwritten constitution is the amalgam of a complex series of horizontal relationships, of local institutions, that interact with the horizontal relationships below them and above them; a web of networks within which all the necessary functions of State and government slot. Coroners, Lords Lieutenant, Magistrates, Property Tax Valuers, Bishops, Port Health Authorities, Aldermen and Burgesses, Parish Councillors, Police Commissioners. And so on up the tiers until one reaches the Crown. And our nationally elected MPs, nationally appointed Circuit and High Court judges. All bound in a series of customary relationships. And many more.

The modern central State and a morally corrupt civil service have tried hard to untangle this web, and replace it with a series of legalistic vertical relationships with all the strings converging in the hands of government. Their dream is the malign nonsense of that black rogue Rousseau; a direct relationship between every individual and the State, with the destruction of all intermediate institutions.

Acton was of the view that only either a republic or a constitutional monarchy offered the prospect of liberty - all else was despotism. And liberty, he said, "is not the power of doing what we like, but the right to do what we ought".

Conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet echoed Tocqueville in the value he accorded local intermediate institutions. Absent those institutions, "loose individuals" became more and more dependent on politicians and bureaucrats for their survival. It goes without saying that such "individualism" was part of the problem and not the key to restoring liberty. Liberty is not Anarchy. Freedom at its core is freedom to follow our conscience; Lord Action wrote "all freedom consists in radice in the preservation of an inner sphere exempt from State power". Intermediate institutions - Burke's 'little platoons' - give meaning and structure to our lives and our liberties, and when Statist governments try to remove or disempower them, they rob us all of something infinitely precious. Burke wrote;
To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed toward a love to our country and to mankind. The interest of that portion of social arrangement is a trust in the hands of all those who compose it; and as none but bad men would justify it in abuse, none but traitors would barter it away for their own personal advantage.
And those words should echo in our minds whenever a central Statist such as Brown offers to draft a written constitution, for this is an invitation to sign away our liberty, to pawn our freedoms and surrender our rights - even to that inner sphere of Lord Acton's - for a central State would seek to usurp even our right to conscience.


Nick Drew said...

(fine freudian slip halfway down, R - Lord Action !)

the psychology of loyalty to the little platoons is endlessly fascinating - and very important to grasp if (speaking as a conservative) we want - as surely we must - to work with the knotty grain of human nature

(as a soldier I remember huge (and largely fruitless) efforts being made by a higher formation to promote its identity and capture the affections of the troops, whose loyalties squarely - and stubbornly - lay at unit level)

Newmania said...

Like that very much

Savonarola said...

Lord Acton

Kissinger on power; 'Power is the greatest aphrodisiac' This at the time he was escorting Nancy a 6ft looker whom he later married.

AProlefrom1984 said...

the problem with an unwritten constitution is that you need a certain level of civillization possessed by the political establishment, to avoid dictatorship. Where you have an establishment with 3rd world tendencies, then an unwritten constitution becomes a hindrance as it can be manipulated at will by a power crazed executive. We need a written constitution, but it should be written by libertarians, not the not-so-crypto commie in no. 10 at the moment.

The Great Simpleton said...

Nick beat me to it.

To see Burke's psycology of loyalty in action just look at the way the Army organises itself. Nobody could break the bonds of loyalty of the basic units, the section, company and platoon.

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