January 17, 2014 columns

The Lust for Power

Smith explains how the insatiable desire for power and its corrupting influence have been dominant themes in libertarian theory and history.

In Machiavellism: The Doctrine of Raison d’État and Its Place in Modern History (English translation, 1957), Friedrich Meinecke wrote:

The striving for power is an aboriginal human impulse, perhaps even an animal impulse, which blindly snatches at everything around until it comes up against some external barriers. And, in the case of men at least, the impulse is not restricted solely to what is directly necessary for life and health. Man takes a wholehearted pleasure in power itself and, through it, in himself and his heightened personality. Next to hunger and love, pleonexia is the most powerful elemental and influential impulse in man.

The lust for power has been an important and recurring theme in western historiography. Tacitus (c. 55 - c.117) mentioned it repeatedly in his Annals of Imperial Rome, as when he suggested that “the motive of Octavian, the future Augustus, was lust for power”; that Lucius Marcus Sejanus (a hatchet man for the emperor Tiberius) “concealed behind a carefully modest exterior an unbounded lust for power”; and that “Drusus Caesar’s degraded character was animated by power-lust.”

Tacitus was greatly admired by eighteenth-century historians, so it is not surprising that many of them emphasized the desire for power as a significant factor throughout history. This passage from Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is typical: “Of all our passions and appetites, the love of power is of the most imperious and unsociable nature, since the pride of one man requires the submission of the multitude.”

The works of Tacitus were known to many eighteenth-century Americans through the translation (1731) of Thomas Gordon, a radical whig who earlier had co-authored (with John Trenchard) the libertarian classic, Cato’s Letters. (Thomas Jefferson owned three sets of Gordon’s translation, two of which he donated to the Library of Congress in 1815.) What made Gordon’s edition of Tacitus especially appealing was his own “Political Discourse Upon that Author,” a lengthy commentary that repeatedly warned against the temptations and dangers of power. Tacitus, according to Gordon, was “zealous for public liberty,” a “declared enemy to Tyrants,” and a historian “of extraordinary wisdom.” It is by reading Tacitus that we learn the invaluable lesson that only “treachery” will cause a free people to submit to tyranny. According to Jefferson, Tacitus was “the first writer in the world without a single exception.”

Thomas Gordon also translated The Works of Sallust (1743), in which we find the phrase “the ardent lust of domination.” This phrase caught the attention of Edward Wortley Montague, who presented an interesting analysis of the lust for power in Reflections on the Rise and Fall of the Ancient Republics Adapted to the Present State of Great Britain (1759). The “lust of domination, here mentioned by Sallust, though generally confounded with ambition, is in reality a different passion.” Ambition, which is a passion that “attends us from the cradle to the grave,” stems from “the desire of pre-eminence, the fondness for being distinguished above the rest of our fellow creatures”; and the nature of a specific ambition will vary according to “the different objects it pursues.”

The lust of domination is more general than mere ambition. It is a mode of “selfishness” whereby we attempt “to draw every thing to center in ourselves, which we think will enable us to gratify every other passion.” Montague goes on to argue that “selfishness” differs fundamentally from “self-love.”

[I]f we rightly define these two principles, we shall find an essential difference between our ideas of self-love and selfishness. Self-love, within its due bounds, is the practice of the great duty of self-preservation, regulated by that law which the great Author of our being has given for that very end. Self-love, therefore, is not only compatible with the most rigid practice of the social duties, but is in fact a great motive and incentive to the practice of all moral virtue. Whereas selfishness, by reducing every thing to the single point of private interest, a point which it never loses sight of, banishes all the social virtues, and is the first spring of action, which impels to all those disorders, which are so fatal to mixed Governments in particular, and to society in general.

It is the selfish lust of domination, not the rational motive of self-love, that will transform the most mild government into the “most insupportable tyranny.” A man motivated by that “destructive passion” will need the assistance of like-minded people” to serve as “subordinate instruments” in his pursuit of power, and this will require that he “put on as many shapes as Proteus.”

[H]e must ever wear the mask of dissimulation, and live a perpetual lie. He will court the friendship of every man, who is capable of promoting, and endeavor to crush every man, who is capable of defeating his ambitious views. Thus his friendship and his enmity will be alike unreal, and easily convertible, if the change will serve his interest.

Montague’s analysis—which was quoted at length by James Burgh in his influential three-volume work, Political Disquisitions (1774)—was an effort to explain how the lust for power, if not held in check, will invariably corrupt rulers. “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” When Lord Acton penned this celebrated aphorism in the late nineteenth century, he was summarizing a theme that had been widely discussed and carefully analyzed by earlier classical liberals, radical whigs, and libertarians generally. As Bernard Bailyn noted in The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (an indispensable book for libertarians), the “systematic” problem of the lust for power and its corrupting tendencies was regarded by eighteenth-century Americans as applicable to “mankind in general.”

And the point they hammered home time and again, and agreed on—freethinking Anglican literati no less than neo-Calvinist theologians—was the incapacity of the species, of mankind in general, to withstand the temptations of power. Such is “the depravity of mankind,” Samuel Adams, speaking for the Boston Town Meeting, declared, “that ambition and lust of power above the law are…predominant passions in the breasts of most men.”

Quoting from various contemporary American sources, Bailyn continued:

These are instincts that have “in all nations combined the worst passions of the human heart and the worst projects of the human mind in league against the liberties of mankind.” Power always and everywhere had had a pernicious, corrupting effect upon men. It “converts a good man in private life to a tyrant in office.” It acts upon men like drink: it “is known to be intoxicating in its nature:—too intoxicating and liable to abuse.” And nothing within man is sufficiently strong to guard against these effects of power—certainly not “the united considerations of reason and religion,” for they have never “been sufficiently powerful to restrain these lusts of men.”

As indicated by Bailyn’s reference to “neo-Calvinist theologians,” the ubiquitous problem of power-lust was discussed in ancient Christian as well as in pagan sources. In The City of God, for example, Augustine argued that “lust for power in arrogant hearts” was responsible for much of the moral corruption in Rome and played a significant role in its decline. Indeed, before Christianity became the state religion of Rome in the fourth century, Christian theologians took pride in contrasting the voluntary institutions of the Christian community with the coercive institutions of the Roman state. Tertullian argued that “all secular power and dignities are not merely alien from, but hostile to, God.” Secular governments “owe their existences to the sword.” All institutions of the Roman government, even its charities, were based on brute force. This is contrary to the way of Christians, among whom “everything is voluntary.” Rather than rely on coercive taxation, Christians contributed voluntarily “to support the destitute, and to pay for their burial expenses; to supply the needs of boys and girls lacking money and power, and of old people confined to the home.” Christians “do not hesitate to share our earthly goods with one another.”

Minucius Felix maintained that the Roman Empire began as a pact between criminals and murderers. The Romans acquired their power by “capturing, raping, and enslaving their victims.” John Chrysostom contrasted the use of force with the Christian community, in which “the wrongdoer must be corrected not by force, but by persuasion.”

Of all the sources that influenced how eighteenth-century Americans viewed power and its dangers, none was more influential than Cato’s Letters, a series of newspaper articles written during the 1720’s by the Englishman John Trenchard and the Scot Thomas Gordon. These articles, which were largely a popular presentation of the radical whig ideology found in John Locke and Algernon Sidney, are commonly viewed by historians as the greatest single influence on American political thought prior to the Revolutionary War. A complete collection of these articles was published in four volumes, and individual pieces were reprinted time and again in American newspapers. Then as now, the average person was not inclined to read weighty philosophical tomes, but the colonials did love their newspapers, and it was through this popular medium that Americans found many spirited passages about the lust for power. Here, from Letter #33, is one example among many.

Power is naturally active, vigilant, and distrustful; which qualities in it push it upon all means and expedients to fortify itself, and upon destroying all opposition, and even all seeds of opposition, and make it restless as long as any thing stands in its way. It would do what it pleases, and have no check. Now, because liberty chastises and shortens power, therefore power would extinguish liberty; and consequently liberty has too much cause to be exceeding jealous, and always upon her defence. Power has many advantages over her; it has generally numerous guards, many creatures, and much treasure; besides, it has more craft and experience, less honesty and innocence: And whereas power can, and for the most part does, subsist where liberty is not, liberty cannot subsist without power; so that she has, as it were, the enemy always at her gates.

As we shall see in subsequent essays, the unending struggle between liberty and power became the conceptual framework for many histories written by classical liberals and libertarians. As Lord Acton, the dean of liberal historians, put it, the “struggle for the concentration of power and for the limitation and division of power is the mainspring of history.”