Easterly, Acton, and Visionary Leadership

In prepping for my appearance on Radio Free Market this afternoon I’ve done some thinking about society’s search for Great Leaders and Great Men. This made me think about a recent post on Aid Watch by William Easterly that everyone should read and a few passages in Democracy in Deficit, which I’m ashamed to say I’m only now reading. I have come to believe more and more in the explanatory power of ideas, and I think the presumption that They need Us to govern them—or more specifically, that You need Me to govern You–is especially pernicious. It also got me thinking about Lord Acton’s insight about how very Great Men are almost always very bad men. Here are some quotes from Lord Acton that are especially relevant (I’m going to assume Wikiquote is accurate here):

“The danger is not that a particular class is unfit to govern. Every class is unfit to govern. The law of liberty tends to abolish the reign of race over race, of faith over faith, of class over class.”

“I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favorable presumption that they did not wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way against holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. All power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.”

“There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”

“Advice to Persons About to Write History–Don’t.”

“Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end.”

“Truth is the only merit that gives dignity and worth to history.”

Cross-posted at the Mises Blog and Division of Labour.

Art Carden is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, California, Associate Professor of Economics and Business at Rhodes College.
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