July 5, 2004

On the Corruption of Power

In the 19th century Lord Acton wrote: "Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Today is the 4th of July, an American celebration of a the signing of the Declaration of Independence, a document that repudiated arbitrary and capricious exercises of power by governments and people who occupy high offices of government.

Today I saw Fahrenheit 9/11.  The subject of that film is a modern day government and modern day high officers who have discarded Constitutional limitations and regressed the science of government back to what it was before July 4, 1776, but with members of the present day Executive Branch of the United States Government undertaking the roles then performed by King George III and Lord North.

Fahrenheit 9/11 is disturbing.  But the assertion of supra-Constitutional powers by American Presidents is nothing new.  Lincoln and nearly every president of the 20th century claimed and exercised powers beyond those in Article II.  And to make the situation more troublesome, when Congress gives an inch, Presidents routinely take a mile.

But the nature of this behavior changed with presidents Reagan and Bush the elder.  Iran-Contra went beyond mere excess and became corruption.

This corruption was accepted by the public at large.  Rather than being condemned, corruption was adopted into private practice.  Can one say with confidence that the corruption of Enron and Worldcom did not have roots in the contempt for law that came to be the norm of Presidential behavior during the 1980's?

Within the last few weeks we saw Executive Branch memorandums surface that claimed that President Bush the younger has powers that are bounded neither by law nor international treaty.  And within the last few days we heard the former president of Iraq make a disturbingly similar claim regarding his own powers and immunities.  If Bush has such powers in the United States, then how can we condemn a foreign president, no matter how evil, for the exercise of those same powers in his own country?  Fortunately last week the US Supreme Court slapped down at least a few of these presidential clams.

Corruption, like disease, creeps into the body politic and infects the lesser organs as much as the greater organs.  Methods practiced by those at the top, by our President and his officers, come to be practiced in the huge administrative agencies of the US Government.

Take, for example, the matter of Internet Governance.  The US Department of Commerce has created a secular arm through which it sheds, and shreds, Constitutional and legal limitations.  The US Department of Commerce has created and supports the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, ICANN, a body that is so hostile to the public interest that it has gone so far as to assert that its own Directors may not examine its financial records.

ICANN has powers of government.  ICANN openly dictates who may and who may not engage in certain forms of business on the internet.  Without the ultra-vires backing of the US Department of Commerce this would be overt, and perhaps illegal, restraint of trade.  The private corporation of ICANN exercises the very governmental power of recognizing and derecognizing who are to be the internet representatives of sovereign nations.

ICANN represents a new kind way for governments to evade Constitutional and legal constraints - ICANN is simply a new way for governments to exercise the kind of arbitrary and capricious powers that were so clearly rejected on July 4, 1776.

As Fahrenheit 9/11 so clearly demonstrates, it is time to remember the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and force our government and officials to toe the line.  And as ICANN so aptly demonstrates, this remedy must be applied to all branches and all agencies and not be a cosmetic applied only to at the top.

Have a happy Forth of July.  But please do more than light fireworks; take time to re-read the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution and consider the degree to which our present government conforms.

Posted by karl at July 5, 2004 12:25 AM