Powerful tendency

Absolutely right

In their editorial last Sunday, The Journalist warned us that “Power Corrupts and Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely”.

Their editorial, and the quote about how power can corrupt, reminded me about a conversation I had with a friend of Bhutan several years ago. This is how she explained the context of the quote by Lord John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, an English historian and the First Baron of Acton (1834-1902):

In 1870, the Catholic Church entered a crisis over Vatican’s promulgation of the dogma of “papal infallibility” — the dogma in Catholic theology that, by action of the Holy Spirit, the Pope is preserved from even the possibility of error, when he teaches faith or morals in the context of divine revelation.

Lord Acton was a devout Catholic. He went to Rome to fight against the dogma of papal infallibility, but failed. It was in this context that, on April 1887, Lord Acton made his famous statement in a letter to an ecclesiastic scholar Mandell Creighton:

“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. “

This friend of Bhutan carries considerable influence and authority herself. And she explained that knowledge of this story could be useful in any fight against those who abuse authority and misuse power.

And for good measure, she added:

I have met only one man in my career who quoted the much misquoted quote accurately, word for word: His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo.


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  1. Let me be the first to add to what your good “friend of Bhutan” said. What follows is a paragraph taken from a book, The Politics of Bhutan by Leo E. Rose (Cornell University Press, 1977, pp.162~163):

    Furthermore, as might be expected from a body consisting primarily of local elites representing local interests, the debates during the two short three- to four-week annual sessions tend to focus on local subjects, and national issues are only rarely raised for discussion. This once led Druk Gyalpo Jigme Dorji Wangchuck to comment during a session that the Tshogdu had been established as a consultative body on national affairs, “but of late it is found that the questions raised in the Assembly pertain to private, district and village interests. Matters of national importance are not being raised.” He went on to urge the members of the Tshogdu to express their views without any hesitation, no matter how this might displease members of the executive branch of government, even the king. Indeed, he complained that the “love and respect” given to him as Druk Gyalpo prevented the Tshogdu members from “criticizing my actions and blinds them towards my mistakes.” Anything the king does, he said, is approved. This is harmful to the welfare of the country, for if the king makes mitakes, these should be “promptly pointed out by the members representing the monks and public.

    The author (who was Professor of Political Science at the University of California at Berkeley, and a leading scholar on the politics of South Asia and the Himalayan region in particular) adds a substantive footnote to this paragraph, as follows:

    Kuensel, 3:20 (Oct. 31, 1969). Here again may be a situation unique to Bhutan in which the leader of the executive branch of government complains about the lack of criticism from the representative body. Druk Gyalpo Jigme Dorji Wangchuck was of the opinion that the failure of the Tshogdu to assert itself institutionally against the monarchy could have long-run harmful effects for Bhutan – and for the dynasty. He was, perhaps, one of the few leaders of a traditional society who understood that most complex concept – that the powers of an institution can be expanded when shared with other political institutions, if in the process the ability of the government as a whole to function in new capacities is expanded.”

    Like Father, Like Son …

  2. I am in full agreement to these writers that you (OL and Zekom) have quoted. Bhutan cannot be blessed more than its leaders. On “Jigten Wangchuck” Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel’s unifying this small nation from the teritorrial Lords, the successive Desis with their sincerity and genuine love for the nation have sacrificed to save the nation from external invasions and internal discords. Desi Jigme Namgyel saved the country from the British invasion from Daranga-Gudam (Samdrupjongkhar). Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuck saved not only Bhutan but also Tibet from another risk of British invasion. Druk Gyalpo Jigme Wangchuck normalized the internal dissension. Druk Gyalpo Jigme Dorji Wangchuck guided the country to modernization. The beloved 4th Druk Gyalpo not only progressed the nation on the path of his farsighted father but also saved us from the fearful Indian militants in 2003. His Majesty now is already demonstrating to be a People’s King!

    How much can we the Bhutanese expect from our Leaders. I can see that no other leaders around the world will parallel our leaders with such selfless actions. Without such leadership, sovereignity of such a tiny nation between two giant neighbours is beyond my imagination.

  3. INVISIBLE says

    From the 12th floor where I work now, I can see White House through my window and Washington Monument in the distance reminding me that I am at a place that houses the superpower center of the world. But still no matter where I am, deep in my heart, I truly “concur” with OL, Zekom, YPenjor, and likes that true inspiration of power has been exemplified by Our Beloved Kings (Past and Present).

    If our OL, PM, & MPs could take any cues from Our Beloved Kings, then I dare say that people like YPenjor, Zekom, I, and likes will bow to you all with deep respects from our hearts – hearts can only won by hearts. Period.


  4. fuentsho says

    History is great, but the problem is “Power Corrupts and Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely” and sadly it is happening in Bhutan. The OL’s article stands so much true with the contemporary Bhutan but the worst is, will it become severe as we go along?

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