The Temptations of Power

A Meditation on Power Lures, Good Intentions and Bad Outcomes


Jay B Gaskill

Social justice is primarily about collective, as opposed to individuated justice. Possibly its highest expression was the liberation of the American slave population in the 19th century. When individual human dignity triumphed over inherited involuntary servitude at the end of the American Civil War, the causes of social and individual justice were both served.

Later, when “social justice” captured the imaginations of conservatives and liberals over the “evil rum” issue, it was another story. When Prohibition was enacted in early 20th century America, the causes of social justice and individual justice were both damaged, the former by opening the gates to endemic, violent, brutal corruption, and the latter by unjustly penalizing harmless celebratory or even sacramental drinking. As a practical matter, prohibition was a failed experiment in social justice that drove legitimate businesses into bankruptcy or into the clutches of crooks.

Flash forward to the early 21st century when the lines between religion and politics, once sharply drawn, have become blurred in the context of the pursuit of economic “social justice” through interest group politics. In an earlier, more innocent era, churches and synagogues mobilized on their own to help the poor, grant asylum to the refugees, and to champion the innocent against powerful, corrupt interests though the courageous and generous direct action of motivated individuals. But now it is permissible – even expected – that social justice can and should be accomplished via political means. This necessarily entails leveraging the powers of the government to make good outcomes happen. As often as not, bad outcomes ensue. More often than not, good people are punished and less-good people are rewarded in the mix; and when discretionary public resources are dried up, voluntary charity is hurt. Vladimir Lenin called this messy business “breaking eggs” as in you can’t make an omelet without cracking a few shells. This was another way of stating the classic, “the ends justify the means”, apology for individual unfairness.

For Christian communities this is Lent, a 40 day period during which through various means the devout (often the same men and women who passionately support the social justice political agenda as an expression of their Christianity) try to get in touch with the solitary desert sojourn of Jesus of Nazareth when he was tempted by the Devil. Yet they and we tend to forget the largest temptation of all; and so we miss the modern implications of an old, still relevant lesson. In three Gospel accounts, the devil takes Jesus to a high place and offers him, in effect, the kingship of the entire world.

What progressive politician, secure in his or her good intentions, could refuse such an offer? But Jesus did refuse, thus distancing his mission from that of a rebellious messiah backed by armed soldiers, in favor of the more subtle and ultimately more powerful role of a spiritual messiah, relying on brilliant exhortation and stunning example to change hearts and minds for all time.

Flash forward to the 12th century where we encounter the legend of Faust and the devil, destined to become the stuff of great literature and opera, the archetypal cautionary tale about playing with dark power. Faust is the classic “decent man”, the nice secular professional we might see at Starbucks or next door. He doesn’t want to rule the world. Though his demands are more modest than “make me king of the world”, they exceed his grasp. And when the devil grants his wish, there is hell to pay.

Lord Acton reminded us in 1887 that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” How soon we forget. Social justice progressives just don’t care about limitations on power when it gets in the way of their good intentions.

Traditional liberals and modern conservatives have more in common with each other than with the hard left, the so-called progressives who have gradually adopted the agenda of remolding human nature itself.

Political correctness is the new Prohibition. Beware whenever governments, having been granted the sole legitimate monopoly on the proactive use of coercive force, become the instruments of authoritarian social movements (whether nominally left of right). The techniques of state-sponsored coercion were honed by Red Russia’s Bolsheviks and by Germany’s Nazis; and later they were integrated into a pattern of governance that swiftly mutated into totalitarianism. The techniques of illicit coercion start with deception; then mutate quickly into intimidation; then mature into the mechanisms of enforcement, ultimately via armed agents of the state. In the clutches of malevolent minds, coercion starts with self-deception, the conceit that their ends justify their rough means. And yes, some legitimate coercion is necessary for any law-governed social order, coercion for good instead of ill. And here lies the trap: How do we know whether some proposed coercive measure is “for the good” or not? The key is whether the question arises in the context of a common respect for individual human dignity, grounded in life affirmation, veracity, and reciprocal, individuated justice.

This is why the pursuit of collective justice is always problematic. The modern and postmodern culture seems to have adopted a vague therapeutic approach in lieu of a justice-based one, and an expediency-based collective model in favor of addressing individual cases. In these and other seemingly innocuous ways we are gradually being disarmed against tyranny. Lent is an occasion for secular reflection on the nature and abuse of power. For the spiritually minded among us, it is an occasion to clear away the clutter and the static that distracts us from the capacity for reflection itself…and to remember Faust and a certain charismatic First Century Jew.


Copyright © 2013 by Jay B Gaskill, Attorney at Law >>Links and pull quotes with attribution are welcome and encouraged. >> For everything else, please email the author at outlawyer.gaskill@gmail.com.

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