Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
(?-1899)
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Editor/Trans.
First Pub. Date
1881
Publisher/Edition
New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
Pub. Date
1899
Comments
Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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ABSOLUTE POWER

I.4.1

ABSOLUTE POWER. The opinion that absolute power is essential to the state, is very prevalent among statesmen and publicists. They disagree, however, as to who should be invested with this absolute power, the executive or the people; but they agree in the opinion that it should be lodged somewhere. Without absolute power, they say, there is no peace, no unity in the state, no authority which is either final or supreme. Absolute power and sovereignty are sometimes called synonymous. There are whole families of nations, with which a high respect for absolute power seems to be a natural tendency, which submit to it willingly and without reserve. It is not simply the lower races of negroes which have submitted to an absolute ruler. The Mongolian race and the superior Semitic peoples even, favored an absolute form of government. And though the noblest nations, the Aryan, did not willingly submit to this form of government, and were jealous of it, they still have shown similar tendencies, both in theory and practice. The democratic Greeks sought the most perfect political freedom in an absolute government of the people. The aristocratic Romans, the first in the science of law, adhered, in the principles underlying their private and public laws, and by way of national preference, to the idea of absolute power. Individuals of great energy and superior intellect, when at the head of the government, are most apt to be provoked to resistance by any limit imposed to their universal authority, and seek to justify their action whenever they overstep the limit imposed, by an appeal to the necessity of absolute power. Instances of a leaning toward absolute power are, therefore, frequently met with in the history of modern European states, and were the causes provocative of a great many political events. And it is not always bad men who incline toward absolutism.

I.4.2

—What is the meaning of absolute power? Absolute, in the full sense of the word, means freedom from all limitation. Really, there is nothing absolute but what is without beginning and end; a beginning and an end are limitations. The truly absolute, therefore, can be predicated only of a being unlimited and infinite, that is, only of God. Hence, absolute power, in the real sense of the word, can be conceived only as divine omnipotence. Absolute law is the law of God.

I.4.3

—All human law, on the other hand, is necessarily limited, because its condition precedent, what it supposes, man, is a limited being. Absolute power can not be attributed to man, because the limits of human nature render it impossible to attribute such power to him.

I.4.4

—In this extreme sense men have but seldom understood absolute power, and hardly ever claimed it. They understood and claimed this power in that extreme sense only when they regarded their ruler in the light of a divine being. A great many rulers of antiquity were worshiped as gods, and many of them may have felt themselves gods. Wherever polytheism prevailed, the people took little umbrage at this deification of man. And even where polytheism did not prevail, a people inclined to pantheism might worship certain heroes and princes as a temporary incarnation of the Deity. Even in our day such ideas have not totally disappeared. But as far as the more civilized nations and European nations are concerned, we need not fear that they will thus mistake the eternal God for man. The fiction of human omnipotence is, in our opinion, too ludicrous to serve as the basis of any political right. We know, indeed, that possessors of power, be they king or people, have a broader vision and exercise greater power than private persons, since they can command the services of many. But we know too well that the perception of those in power is subject to the limits of human vision; that there are some things it can not reach, and that they are subject in all their action to the same limitations as other men, and can neither change God's creation in any essential particular, nor even create the smallest organic being.

I.4.5

—All human law or rights, and consequently the absolute power which man can claim, is necessarily limited: (a) By the divine law. Since man, as a creature, supposes the Creator, and always depends on God, he must recognize the divine law as superior to him, and as conditioning human law. The divine law is really absolute, because it proceeds from the absolute Spirit and is infinite. Man can not even think of the divine law as non-existing; still less can he break its power. Whether he will or not, he remains subject to the great law of nature, and to the law of the divine guidance of the world. He can not do away with the order of the world any more than with the elements, nor with-draw himself from the irresistible power of time. (b) By the limited physical nature of man, from which human law, because it pertains to the visible, earthly order of things, can not be separated. These limits may be disregarded in individual cases, but they can not be removed nor argued away. When, therefore, as in recent times, it is claimed that absolute power is necessary, those who approve it seek to introduce it into the state in a covert manner, and to moderate it by the recognition of the above limits. They admit that absolute law or right is not of human origin, and they give it a divine source. God, according to this view, has invested man with the right of absolute rule for the purpose of securing and maintaining social order, and has raised human rulers to the dignity of his representatives and plenipotentiaries. To this extent, therefore, they claim that man may properly exercise absolute power. This view is a dangerous one in this age, because it mixes the true and the false so adroitly that it may easily mislead the unthinking. While maintaining an appearance of reverence for God, who alone possesses absolute power, it seeks to secure to the sovereign the most unlimited power possible. It protests against human assumption, and still would reap the fruits of that assumption. It will not allow a ruler to make himself a god, but puts him in the place of God, and encourages him to entertain the strange delusion that his thoughts and actions are under divine control, in a manner different from the thoughts and actions of other men. It derives the absolute power of man from God, and, with due humility, recognizes the dependence of man on his Maker, while it encourages, in the mind of the ruler, the insolent idea that he only exercises the power possessed by God before He delegated it to him. In the actual exercise of his powers the sovereign is thus raised to a level with the Deity, infinitely above the rest of mankind who are certainly his equals and not his creatures. The errors of this view are therefore essentially the same as if divine power were ascribed to man. Man can have rights and exercise power only within the limits of his nature.

I.4.6

—To the extent that God confides the exercise of divine right to man, He, by confiding it to him, confides it to a being with all the limitations of human nature, and hence the right so confided is changed from one absolute and divine into one human and limited. If this be not admitted, the human ruler arrogates to himself a power which can be but a source of evil to him, for the reason that it is not in human nature to exercise such power. By giving his limited freedom the dimensions of divine power, he becomes the plaything of his own caprices; and the person who knows how to influence these, has the ruler under his control.

I.4.7

—Absolute power, as thus defined, is most frequently advocated in Europe by absolutist parties, and there is a close relationship between such absolutism and these parties. Yet this idea of absolutism is not peculiar to absolutists, nor is it held by all absolutists. Neither is the political character of absolutism fully described by this definition.

I.4.8

—But the term absolute power is frequently used to express limited power wielded by man. We call those forms of government absolute in which the sovereign is the sole source, representative and dispenser of power—though that power may be limited in its nature—and not obliged to secure, by virtue of a constitutional provision, the co-operation and consent of others to his measures (especially of legislative bodies, ministers and counselors), nor limited in the exercise of his power by the rights—those of a political nature at least—of others. It is evident that of such absolute power there are different grades. In proportion as the recognized limitations of absolute power are increased, the absolutism of that power itself diminishes. It is admitted that this power is political in its nature, and hence is subject to the same limitations as the state itself. And just here we notice, with increasing civilization and the growing maturity of the human race, a deeper insight into the natural limitations of the state, its functions and its laws, an insight which has in no way weakened the power of the state. To the limitations already noticed we may add the following: (1) The limitation, unknown to the Romans, which is represented by the Church, whose religious authority is independent of the state, and which is freely recognized as an independent institution by all civilized governments. (2) The limitation of international law, which sees to it that the different states may co-exist side by side—a limitation the extent of which increases in proportion to the increasing solidarity of mankind. (3) Private law, which defines the rights of individuals, of the family, and of corporations, and which, though it is the duty of the government to regulate and protect it, is not in its nature the product of the will of the state, and whose changes are determined by the freedom of private individuals. (4) By the special nature and history of the people living in a state, and of the country they control. There have been, and still are, states in which, though all these limitations were recognized, absolute power was claimed for the central organ of government. And such was the case, not in absolute monarchies only, but also in absolute aristocracies and in absolute democracies. It can not be said that this idea of absolute power is so monstrous as the idea of absolute power spoken of in the first place above. A peaceful observance and a just administration of the law are reconcilable with the present idea of absolute power. The sovereign is not imagined to be a god or a fetich; he may be conscious of his own human nature and its limitations, and have an honest intention of faithfully discharging his duties to God and his fellow-men.

I.4.9

—We are obliged to admit, indeed, that in certain cases such a close concentration of all the powers of government in the hands of one man may be needful, and hence justifiable. Nations of inferior races need the absolute rule of a superior prince, or of nobler races, in order to enjoy life in peace, or to attain a higher grade of civilization. Such inferior races frequently have neither the desire nor the means of limiting the power of their rulers. Most of the Asiatic and African nations, and those in the northeast of Europe, are subject to this sort of absolute governmental power, and the doctrinarian introduction of constitutional limitations would render their condition worse rather than improve it.

I.4.10

—But to the more masculine and energetic people of a higher type, among whom there is also an aristocratic element, and among whom even the lower classes have a sense of justice and honor, the absolute form of government is, as a rule, unsuitable and intolerable. They can not bear the thought that all political rights accorded them are simply the gifts of royal grace. Having a knowledge of their own moral worth, and of the fact that they contribute to the welfare and share the fortunes of the state to which they belong, they can not understand why they should have political duties without also having political rights. And although they admit that the sovereign is entitled to share the highest prerogatives, and such a degree of political power as the unity of the state requires, they do not admit that the sovereign should enjoy all rights, and that the rest of the body politic should have none. They know that in an organism every one of its members, be it ever so inferior, has a significance of its own, and hence certain rights; and that, though the head may control the hands and feet, its control is limited by the power inherent in the latter, and that its rule over them can not, therefore, be absolute.

I.4.11

—The humane state, in harmony with what is noblest in human nature—the civilized state—though it requires an efficient central power, has no tendency toward absolute, that is, unlimited, political power, as against which the political rights of others count for nothing, and which is not controlled by some sort of limitation. It is only in exceptional cases, in times of great public danger, that the government seeks its own protection in the temporary exercise of absolute power. Threatened by the military force of a foreign enemy, or greatly agitated by party struggles,—exhausted and alarmed by outbursts of revolutionary passion,—nations even by whom freedom is highly prized may demand that protection which none but a dictator can give. When, in times of great need, the concentration of all public power in the hands of one man to save the nation becomes necessary, and when the confidence of the people in some great prince or soldier from whom help is expected is such as to remove all objections which can rightly be raised against a dictatorship, masculine nations grant absolute power to one man or else approve it, even when that one man assumes that power of his own motion. But the danger over, public order and peace re-established, the people again claim the free exercise of their political rights and privileges. The rule, therefore, in relation to civilized states is: Nowhere in the state should there be absolute power, while all power exercised should be regulated by law and defined by constitutional limitations. The exception to this rule is: In cases of actual necessity and great public danger, the sovereign power of the government, in answer to that necessity, may become absolute.

I.4.12

—Whenever, in modern times, nations have shown a tendency toward absolute power, it was either because they believed it to be necessary for the removal of obsolete institutions, or for the promotion of freedom and reform; or because the people, in their struggle for a liberal system of government, yielded to the despotism of their terrorizing leaders, or because they were compelled to seek, for the time being, the protection of a dictator, to re-establish public order, or to defend the government against domestic or foreign enemies. In such cases the principle of constitutional freedom and the public order were the object of the struggle. Absolute power was used as a means to these ends, or suffered by the people to gain new strength for the work of progress and reform. Absolute power was nowhere the ideal people desired to see realized. Wherever it has been sought to be permanently established, the attempt has been, among the civilized nations of our age, unsuccessful. The character of our age demands an efficient and energetic government, but at the same time insists that its powers shall be limited, and exercised with moderation. The people of our age are not willing to submit to absolute power beyond the actual necessities of the case. A government which tries to secure absolute power for any purpose other than the maintenance of public order and a free exercise of its organic functions, is at war with the spirit of the age, and thereby endangers its own existence.

MAX. EBERHART, Tr.
J. C. BLUNTSCHLI.

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