Christopher Lazarski’s Power Tends to Corrupt: Lord Acton’s Study of Liberty (Northern Illinois University Press, 2012) is, or at least ought to be, a reputation-making book.
It is the best discussion of the ideas of John Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton in sixty-five years, that is, since Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics, Gertrude Himmelfarb’s ground-breaking study.
The author achieves this in about the same number of pages (at least, sans apparatus) but, more importantly, he does so with equal readability, all the more remarkable since English is not his mother tongue.
After having immersed himself in the events of early 20th-century Russia, the fruit of which being his 2008 The Lost Opportunity: Attempts at Unification of the Anti-Bolsheviks: 1917-1919, Lazarski shifted his scholarly interest to the political thought of a 19th-century European who, while not predicting the Bolshevik Revolution, identified the spiritual fault lines that help explain such an anti-libertarian rupture with the past.
Currently Associate Dean in Warsaw’s School of International Relations at Lazarski University (founded by a distant relative), our author draws upon Roland Hill’s magisterial life of Acton for frame and meat, but does not minutely track that monumental biography.
What he does track are the contours of Acton’s prodigious learning. He divides his terrain into four parts, three devoted to Acton’s areas of interest—the ancient world (Jerusalem and Athens), the modern alternative (especially the Anglo-American tradition), and the revolutionary crisis to which that alternative succumbed (the French Revolution). A fourth part expounds and interprets Acton’s view of “the best regime,” a question rarely absent from Lazarski’s neat encapsulations of the master’s texts.
The seamless way Lazarski moves between those summaries and the logic of political ideas is a tour de force of which only a few academics are capable. I felt no mechanical pivoting between exposition and interpretation. Neither was I confused as to voice: without interrupting his narrative flow to hold up a cue card to the reader, Lazarski makes it clear when he is commenting upon and when paraphrasing Acton.
This book has brought home to me in a new way that “democratism” (my ugly term for the ideology of democracy) is the presupposition of our age. Its absolute value so informs popular consciousness that it rarely occurs to anyone to question it.
And therefore since “democratic” is a term of uncritical approbation, every criticism of democracy, however gentle, must be framed as a reform of something essentially right. (Anything more severe, it is presumed, can only arise from a mind unfavorably disposed toward freedom, never from a libertarian perspective.)
In the present atmosphere, therefore, one cannot reasonably hope to broaden the readership of a writer who wrote extensively about democracy unless one can show that he at least generally favored it. Lazarski’s book is no exception.
Acton’s warnings about democracy’s potential for evil—a moral hazard, “prone to degeneration” (266)—all documented here, are not as specific to democracy as this reviewer would like. Tyranny is a human potential, and democracy is but one possible avenue to it. It can also light the way out of tyranny.
As Murray Rothbard argued in Power & Market, democracy has little ethical content: it is either negatively libertarian (favoring the people against its rulers) or positively rights-violating (coercively redistributive).
This raises a basic question, an answer to which Acton presupposed but rarely addressed: what is “rule,” what is its object (who is the agent, who the patient)? What do the demos have right to deliberate about?
The democratist (the ideologue of democracy) presupposes that A must rule not only A (self-rule: the attempt to lead a good life and suppress the libido dominandi in one’s heart), but also may rule B (even when B is not A‘s child or other dependent).
Further, A and B may combine to tell C what to do with C‘s person and property and back up their will by force. If we find this way of putting the question intolerably abstract, that is because we are always in the middle of the muddle of our predecessors’ making, and sometimes it takes an astringent abstraction to untangle the knot.
We are never faced with the “state of nature” (an abstraction Acton rejected, but which we might charitably interpret as a thought experiment. Rather, each of us is always situated in a context produced by the countless millions of actions of our fellows—who also seem to presuppose that we may all rule one another.
I was therefore less interested in learning that Acton was “a democrat at heart”—why not simply a libertarian at heart?—or that there might be such a thing as “libertarian democracy,” than why such a description would be significant in the first place.
The leviathan state of Acton’s nightmares is alive and well. While it is not called “totalitarian,” nothing in principle is admitted to be beyond its range of action. How much terror it must resort to is deemed a tactical matter.
The “ethical” question is settled. Thomas Hobbes won. It is not clear what intellectual ammunition Acton the “idealist” libertarian had to discredit that the “realist” statist besides erudite warnings. Perhaps the job of discrediting the thought of one philosopher falls to another.
Other books on Acton failed to shed light on this point, and I have also come away from Power Tends to Corrupt equally empty-handed. I lay this fault at the feet, not of our author, but of his subject.
Acton referred to a “higher law,” by which he almost certainly meant the law of God, whom he worshiped at Mass, but he didn’t spell that out. “Higher law” is as inoffensive to the modern ear—and about as content-free— as is the “higher power” of the Alcoholics Anonymous pledge. It is God “at a distance,” to recall a popular song. (At a safe distance, one might add.) God is there, if He is, only as adjunctive and auxiliary to human pursuits.
God has certainly not, according to the modern mind, spoken plainly about what he has done, is doing, and intends to do. Modernity uninstalled the theism program in Euro-American self-consciousness. Acton did not engineer a replacement.
Acton wrote as the seeds of this cultural sea-change were embedding themselves in academia. He had many concerns, however, not the least of which the emancipation of Catholics in England. He paid some attention to Darwin, but never seems to have commented directly on the then-new Biblical criticism.
If Acton the Catholic was a modernist on this front (he died before Pope Saint Pius X formally condemned it), he would not turn to the Bible for instruction on political rule. Acton believed in conscience as “God’s voice,” Lazarski records, but conscience apparently untutored by verbal revelation.
Acton believed in divine providence, but only as assisting men in the achievement of their goals, especially preventing the derailing of their humanistic train but, again, not as assuring the accomplishment of God’s purposes.
Acton famously opposed infallibility as a charism of the pope, but did he not withhold it from Scripture as well? What, for example, was Acton’s view of his contemporary Bruno Bauer—who both befriended and tangled with Marx? Pursuing such questions may have unduly lengthened the book, but they also would have enriched Lazarski’s exploration of Acton’s idea of the “best regime.”
For Acton the Bible might have been something to be reverenced, a worthy object of investigation and defense by Church scholars, but not consulted. He apparently saw no need for his getting involved in that battle.
Acton contented himself with principles, like “liberty,” which in his case it functioned as the “transcendental” that harmonized history’s otherwise cacophonous aggregate of facts. Only in Christianity, however, is liberty, like life, like truth, divinely personified.
In Acton, as Lazarski reads him (and as I do independently), liberty enjoys a wraith-like existence that migrates from culture to culture, age to age. For example, liberty is seen as “departing” Jerusalem for Athens (p. 40), a substance that acquires new accidents, and accents, as it matures. But in what cosmos is this impersonal “growth” happening?
Unfortunately, I see scant evidence, including all that Lazarski has marshaled and arranged, for the proposition that Christ himself functioned as more than a principle in Acton’s historiography (whatever may have been his religious devotion). We may have in Acton an early exemplar of the modern failure of integration of what a Catholic “personally believes” and what he is prepared to affirm and defend publicly.
All the facts that Acton had at his command never could be enough for him to write his History of Liberty. That insufficiency might lie in the encyclopedic nature of his plan, and not necessarily in any psychological impediment to his “getting on with it.”
Acton’s insights into the facts were fatally qualified by the limits of his grasp which, unlike Christ’s, never comprehended the whole. Acton must have least implicitly assented to the proposition that in Christ all wisdom is deposited (Colossians 2:3).
Christ understands the whole and its constituent “facts,” and in Him they all cohere (Colossians 1:17), and has revealed the framework for interpreting them. Whatever we know, Christ knew first.
Reason is a tool, however, not a principle on par with faith: the power to draw inferences confers no power to generate true propositions from which to draw them. Left to itself, reason cannot supply one universal truth as the ground of induction or induction, but God can do so by his revelation in nature and Scripture.
The believer holds that God has done so. Following Catholic tradition, Acton held that all roads of human reasoning, regardless of their objects, lead to God.
But from what do they lead thence? The Catholic preferential option for “natural theology” is revealed at this point. If the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom as well as its end, its alpha as well as its omega, then reason must start, and not just end, with God.
Any interest in Acton’s famous rejection of Pius IX’s claim of papal infallibility can divert attention from the more general skepticism he may have felt toward any claim of infallible divine revelation. Lazarski does not ignore Acton’s struggles within the Church, but our author’s political focus understandably limited the attention he could pay to it.
As Lazarski notes, this strife probably contributed to Acton’s failure to complete his “Madonna of the future.” It took everything Acton had to get on paper the relatively little he did. He had no talent for, or even interest in, explaining what he was doing in terms that would satisfy a philosopher.
In contrast to Scripture’s concreteness, Acton waxed platonic about liberty. Although he warned against reification (which occupational hazard of the intellectual Whitehead called “misplaced concreteness”), when it came to “liberty,” Acton himself seems to have committed that offense against clear thought.
For while “liberty” implies personal agency, it is not itself a personal agent. It is an idea that informs the actions of individuals, who have and create histories; the idea itself, however, does not, cannot, have a history. (Realizing this, Eric Voegelin altered the course of his research in the 1940s.)
Papal support for arts bolstered Rome’s prestige, making it the “metropolis of the Renaissance.” For Acton, however, the indulging of clerical senses and the Reformation-provoking indulgence racket were not pre-Reformation Catholicism’s greatest offenses. The cardinal sin was rather the Church’s abandoning her role in counterbalancing royal power, reminding it of its limits under God.
There was instead a desire to achieve unlimited political authority for the papacy, making it a supreme global power, attracting the admiration of the first utilitarian and proto-Social Darwinist, Machiavelli. Let’s hear Acton on this point (referenced and paraphrased, but not quoted verbatim, by Lazarski):
Times had greatly changed when a Pope [Innocent IV] declared his amazement at a nation which bore in silence the tyranny of their king. In modern times the absolute monarchy in Catholic countries has been, next to the Reformation, the greatest and most formidable enemy of the Church, for here she again lost in great measure her natural influence. In France, Spain, and Germany, by Gallicanism, Josephinism, and the Inquisition, she came to be reduced to a state of dependence, the more fatal and deplorable that the clergy were often instrumental in maintaining it. All these phenomena were simply an adaptation of Catholicism to a political system incompatible with it in its integrity; an artifice to accommodate the Church to the requirements of absolute government, and to furnish absolute princes with a resource which was elsewhere supplied by Protestantism. The consequence has been, that the Church is at this day  more free under Protestant than under Catholic governments—in Prussia or England than in France or Piedmont, Naples or Bavaria. “Political Thoughts on the Church,” Selected Writings of Lord Acton, ed. J. F. Fears, Volume III, 32.
The denouement of the Church’s centuries-long support of state absolutism was her subordination (however unwilling) to the modern state. The new settlement put the Church in her place, as it were, as soon as it was politically opportune.
What is called “Catholic Social Teaching,” historically a matter of yesterday’s labors, amounted to the Church’s changing her tune from the absolutist statist blues to a social democratic rhapsody—which does not comport with her conceit that she speaks with divinely protected authority, yesterday, today, and forever.
At the end of Part One, Lazarski asks:
Are not current Western governments aspiring to display the same fondness for specialist, experts, and jurists; a similar faith in rational schemes; and a corresponding disregard for moral considerations, much as did the enlightened government of ancient regime” that Acton excoriated (102)?
To ask this rhetorical question is to answer it. The theoreticians of the modern welfare-warfare state do not recognize limits the scope of its action. They’ll all Machiavellians now, out or closeted. But while this may make Acton a prophet, it does not recommend him as a political pathfinder (a status to which he did not in any case aspire).
Power is a moral hazard, Acton warned, so let’s limit it. Let’s try to have a “mature democracy,” as they do in America. Easier said than done, for as Acton well knew, the battle is primarily against the libido dominandi, the insidious “enemy within.”
On a personal note. Power Tends to Corrupt has not forced me to discard my view of Acton as a “libertarian hero” (expressed in 2006 on LewRockwell.com): his lifelong focus on the struggle for liberty in history entitles him to that designation regardless of what more rigorous anarcho-capitalist libertarians have written. Not that I ever claimed consistency for Acton, especially on the question of socialism. But Lazarski’s book has reminded me that I often prefer Acton inconsistent to a libertarian consistent.
In the light of Lazarski’s documentation of Acton’s less-than-hardcore view of markets, however, I’ve concluded that the use of “libertarian” to describe him risks equivocation or anachronism. Kelly Creed’s insinuation, however, that I propagandistically cast Acton in the role of a “classical liberal stuntman” depends for its force on her reader’s ignorance of my earlier essay and the pains I took to qualify my locating him within the libertarian tradition. Hers was an inexcusable misreading, but as both essays are available on line, interested readers can ignore my protest and decide for themselves.
But my esteem for Professor Lazarski’s achievement in Power Tends to Corrupt, to whose rich canvas I have not done justice, does not depend on settling that difference of opinion: I unreservedly recommend it to every student of Acton, novice, apprentice, or master.