Thoughts from Lord Acton

As we prepare towards the elections next year, we should reflect on the purpose and limit of political power. Discussions have always been on which person or which party is competent  to wield power. However, a more fundamental issue is to clarify  the role of the state in society. This goes way beyond 2015; it will affect the true flourishing of our society. Who we are, how we fare, how we live –  these are all profoundly influenced by our political system. It should not be taken lightly.

The quotes below by Lord John Acton, a 19th century English historian, should help us ponder what role government is to play in society and how we, the citizens, can steer it in that direction.

Whenever a single definite object is made the supreme end of the State, be it the advantage of a Actonclass, the safety of the power of the country, the greatest happiness of the greatest number, or the support of any speculative idea, the State becomes for the time inevitably absolute. Liberty alone demands for its realisation the limitation of the public authority, for liberty is the only object which benefits all alike, and provokes no sincere opposition.

By liberty I mean the assurance that every man shall be protected in doing what he believes his duty against the influence of authority and majorities, custom and opinion. The State is competent to assign duties and draw the line between good and evil only in its immediate sphere. Beyond the limits of things necessary for its well-being, it can only give indirect help to fight the battle of life by promoting the influences which prevail against temptation, — religion, education, and the distribution of wealth.

The Stoics could only advise the wise man to hold aloof from politics, keeping the unwritten law in his heart. But when Christ said:“Render unto Cæsar the things that are Cæsar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,” those words, spoken on His last visit to the Temple, three days before His death, gave to the civil power, under the protection of conscience, a sacredness it had never enjoyed, and bounds it had never acknowledged; and they were the repudiation of absolutism and the inauguration of freedom.

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