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Absolute power corrupts: What Saddam teaches us about unlimited power

By W. James Antle III
web posted December 22, 2003

With the fallen dictator Saddam Hussein now in U.S. custody, it is only a matter of time before some form of trial will expose the full extent of his crimes against the Iraqi people and his neighbors. This will compound what we already know of the cruelty and barbarism of his regime.

Mass graves found by coalition forces are believed to contain some 300,000 Iraqis murdered during Hussein's 23-year reign. The fall of Baghdad revealed torture chambers and prisons set aside to hold children. It is believed that he drove close to a fifth of his population from their homes. He infamously used chemical weapons against the Kurds in 1988. With a record as vile as this, who knows what else will be discovered.

Gen. Wesley Clark and Slobodan Milosevic meet in 1997
Gen. Wesley Clark and Slobodan Milosevic meet in 1997

Yet Hussein is by no means unique in using his awesome powers to inflict destruction, human suffering and death upon unfortunate victims. Retired Gen. Wesley Clark took time out of his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination to testify against former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, the "Butcher of the Balkans" now facing prosecution for war crimes. Although the precise death toll is in dispute, Milosevic fanned the flames of nationalist warfare throughout his rule and stands accused of being the architect of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, Kosovo and elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia.

The 20th century was particularly bloody due to the depredations of tyrannical regimes. In the Soviet Union, some 27 million were killed by Joseph Stalin alone. Adolf Hitler had 6 million Jews murdered during the Holocaust and a like number of other civilians in territories under his control over the same period. Pol Pot's actions led to the death of a fifth of Cambodia's population. More recently, we have seen 800,000 Tutsis perish in Rwanda in 1994 alone, some 2 million civilians killed in Sudan's civil war and another 2 million starved or killed by Kim Jong Il's North Korea. In his book Death by Government, R.J. Rummel estimated that governments killed a total of 170 million of their own people during the 20th century, not including soldiers killed in wars.

It is difficult to fathom how such inhuman behavior could even be possible. The conventional explanation is that the dictators responsible for these deaths are evil personified. To be sure, Saddam Hussein and his ilk represent a particularly evil and sadistic group of people. But it would be a mistake to ignore the degree to which their savage cruelty was not just enabled but also encouraged by the awesome powers they wielded over other people.

As Lord Acton wrote, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." The aforementioned dictators had the ability to take whatever they wanted from their people at whatever price without any consequences. That is an enormous amount of power to have – it is the power to shape and control and the destinies of others for one's own gain. This is not a power that should be entrusted to any human being.

Dictators are surrounded by people who, out of fear and sheer sycophancy, always tell them exactly what they want to hear. They eventually come to live in something close to an alternate reality. The traditionalist blogger Lawrence Auster recently paraphrased Plato's observation in the fourth book of The Republic that "the tyrant lives in an extended hallucination, a dream state in which he feels free to act out every desire, no matter how perverse." A person whose mind is enshrouded by such hallucinations sees no reason why he shouldn't summarily execute an associate who has crossed him or commit some other grave evil to instill fear in others.

Obviously it's better to be governed by virtuous and responsible people rather than the depraved and insane, but people who attribute all the horrors accompanying tyranny to the character (or lack thereof) of the tyrant are rather missing the point: Simply allowing people to hold unlimited power is an invitation for evil, a tragic error which if uncorrected will almost certainly result in terrible consequences over time.

This is why constitutional government, with effective checks and balances against various people in positions of limited power, is more than a procedural concern. Constitutionalists are often accused of masking their positions on the substance of public policy in arguments about process. To some extent this may be true, but in fact there are sound substantive reasons to value processes that lead to the rule of law rather than arbitrary government. Without it, government can quickly shift from protecting our rights to violating them.

People across the political spectrum tend to think of government as some kind of magical "other," a distant being that exists with a mind and personality of its own. Of course, all governments are entirely human institutions. This becomes even more pronounced when the vast bulk of government powers are invested in a single person, as is the case in a dictatorship. The capacity of human beings to wrong others for their own benefit is well-documented throughout history; one of G.K. Chesterson's most famous remarks is that original sin is the only Christian doctrine that can actually be proven by reading the newspaper everyday.

It is nevertheless common to think that it is perfectly legitimate to discard the limits on government as long as the purpose is to empower it to do good rather than evil. But we seldom anticipate the ends to which power will be used. That is why the allocation of power is a decision to be carefully considered.

The holidays are an opportune time for those of us living in free societies to reflect on our good fortune. As an American, I am thankful to have been given the gift of liberty wrapped in the Constitution.

W. James Antle III is a senior editor for Enter Stage Right.

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