I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption, it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. 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 certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.Members of the U.S. Congress should be forced to pay attention to that quotation--the whole paragraph, not just the famous sentence--several times an hour as they decide what to do about the current financial crisis. If there is a Congressional sound system, perhaps Lord Acton's words could regularly interrupt the soft music. Because no matter how dangerous the current financial situation, we may be facing even more dangerous abuses of power if Congress votes to give the treasury secretary everything he wants.
Paul Krugman, in this morning's New York Times op ed piece, "Cash for Trash," noted that some "are calling the proposed legislation the Authorization for Use of Financial Force, after the Authorization for Use of Military Force, the infamous bill that gave the Bush administration the green light to invade Iraq."
Krugman summarizes the administration's proposal thus:
... a taxpayer-financed bailout with no strings attached — no quid pro quo on the part of those being bailed out.... Add to this the fact that Mr. Paulson is also demanding dictatorial authority, plus immunity from review “by any court of law or any administrative agency,” and this adds up to an unacceptable proposal."After having spent a year and a half telling everyone that things were under control," Krugman says, "the Bush administration says that the sky is falling, and that to save the world we have to do exactly what it says now now now."
This sounds uncomfortably like the situation in 2001-2, when the president argued and Congress agreed that Mr. Bush needed to be authorized to do whatever he deemed necessary to fight terrorism. One result of the Authorization for Use of Military Force has been a major increase in executive power, often at the expense of human rights. If Congress decides to give the treasury secretary free rein to do whatever he deems necessary to fight world financial meltdown, executive power will increase still more.
In 1973, during President Nixon's second term, historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote a book called The Imperial Presidency. In 2004 in his book Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy, journalist Charlie Savage applied Schlesinger's term to the George W. Bush administration. If Congress passes the treasury secretary's proposed legislation, presidential power will have gone way past imperial. What term will historians and journalists coin to describe the result?
John McCain was slow to see the financial juggernaut coming, but his comment this morning was right on:
"Never before in the history of our nation has so much power and money been concentrated in the hands of one person, a person I admire and respect a great deal, Secretary Paulson," McCain said. "This arrangement makes me deeply uncomfortable. And when we're talking about a trillion dollars of taxpayer money, 'trust me' just isn't good enough."