“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men…." wrote John Dalberg-Acton on April 5, 1887 in a letter to Mandell Creighton. While Lord Acton’s observation was aimed at the widespread view that the King and Pope were presumed to be above wrongdoing, his words resonate far and wide today in a world where the powerful appear to believe they are entitled to absolute impunity from their wrongdoing. As Lord Acton recognized, corruption is a product of human nature; therefore, the only means of overcoming corruption is to prevent the consolidation of power under one absolute leader.
Kings hold absolute political power in a monarchy and Popes hold absolute spiritual power in the Church, but they do not necessarily have absolute power. After all, power takes many forms, including political, academic, economic, ideological, theological, technological, and military power. By creating a strong legal system, educating people, and fostering a broad-base middle class, for example, separation of power can be ensured to a large degree. Unfortunately, abusive leaders and other power seekers continually strive to legitimize, consolidate, and solidify their power, which is why the Peoples of the world must recognize and confront the threat of corruption.
The role of modern government is to properly address and balance the interests of all the Peoples of a nation. This requires the People have effective representation of their views and interests in government. It also requires a culture of transparency where public officials understand even the deepest of government secrets will eventually be revealed to the public. As democracy is a form of governance that allows people to express their needs and wants, it is most capable of correctly identifying and addressing the interests of its People. Democracy and all other forms of modern governance fail when they no longer represent the interests of their Peoples and become unresponsive to the needs of their Peoples.
To truly understand the value of democracy, people must first recognize that democracy is not about freedom. Democracy is about establishing limits. By placing limits on the authority of government on the national, provincial, and local levels, the citizens of a nation enjoy protections from the harms of oppressive, self-serving governments. By placing limits on small and large businesses, workers, consumers, and communities are protected from business decisions that cause great harm. By placing limits on individual behavior, citizens can be protected from crimes and crippling bigotry.
The limitations imposed by democratic governments help ensure all citizens enjoy the same protections. In doing so, individuals are given a large degree of freedom to act without undermining the freedoms of others; whereas, dictatorships ensure absolute freedom for those who are strong enough to impose their rule. In contrast, democracy harnesses the strength of the community. Where anarchy is the natural state of the human animal that provides absolute freedom to the point there is no government to protect the interests of anyone and might-makes-right becomes the law of the land, democracy balances the interests of citizens.
With all that in mind, even democracy is not enough to ensure freedom. After all, it can only protect political freedom. Financial security and freedom, for example, plays a major role in how much people indulge their political freedoms. Looking at economic philosophy through the eyes of sociologists, the teachings of Karl Marx provide insight into why American capitalism was more successful than Russian communism in the Cold War. Marx viewed war and social unrest, primarily, as an inherent conflict between economic classes. Those being the proletariats, i.e. the workers/producers of goods and services, and the capitalists, i.e. the exploiters of the producers.
Supporters of Marx viewed all conflict as more or less economic in nature while the Communists believed they could eliminate conflict by eliminating the capitalists, i.e. the wealthy elite. Unfortunately, they neglected to realize they were only creating a more permanent, more powerful privileged class that could more readily abuse power. In other words, they created an oppressive government class that lacked rivalry. In the West, Americans understood capitalists do not just exploit workers. They can add to the efficiency of an economy by organizing the distribution of resources and coordinating economic activities.
It is when the demands of the capitalists outweigh their benefit that they become little more than a disposal burden, i.e. laws should exist to jail and/or strip those, who use their wealth to hurt the US economy, of their resources. Thanks to an underlying philosophy of self-sufficiency and self-determination, Americans are expected to act as both proletariats and capitalists by offering their labor for a negotiated sum of capital. In other words, Americans are expected to demand reasonable compensation and ensure their own interests are met, which is the democratic way.
As such, Americans did not seek to eliminate the upper socioeconomic classes as they did in Russia. Instead, Americans sought to disperse power across a broad range of individuals in a variety of fields. Long before the issue of Communism arose, the American People aspired to build a nation based on equal opportunity. As such, the United States has long promoted multiple elite classes that anyone can join. This is why Americans believe every American should have the opportunity to work his, or her, way up to the status of the elites.
When small groups of individuals control the elite classes of the different power arenas in society, and/or the lower classes lose their ability to achieve a higher socioeconomic status, the powerful few have the ability to short-circuit democratic processes. In tandem, the interests of the many can only be addressed when those in power have a perceived interest in addressing our interests. Because minority groups, including the wealthy, are naturally inclined to seek power, as they must to ensure their interests are not neglected by the majority, and the powerful are driven to solidify/legitimize their power, a smaller elite class, which is based more on inheritance rather than true merit, will seek to undermine the interests of the majority when its interests conflict with the interests of the powerful.
Simply put, when the rulers of a nation have consolidated, legitimized, and solidified their power, they will have no incentive to respect democracy or address the interests of the majority. The greatest threat to the American way of life is, therefore, a consolidation of the elite classes and the inability of individuals to improve their socioeconomic status, i.e. everyone must have the opportunity to pursue their interests. The narrowing of the power elite classes is the greatest threat to democracy. Because the interests of the majority are no longer addressed, or even considered, the narrowing of the power elite is also the greatest threat to modern governance in general.
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