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Lord Acton: ambiguous democrat, libertarian modernist

By liberty I mean the assurance that every man shall be protected in doing what he believes is his duty, against the influence of authority and majorities, custom and opinion. Liberty alone demands, for its realization, the limitation of the public authority, for liberty is the only object which benefits all alike, and provokes no sincere opposition. Liberty and good government do not exclude each other; and there are excellent reasons why they should go together. Liberty is not a means to a higher political end.

It is itself the highest political end. It is not for the sake of a good public administration that it is required, but for the security in the pursuit of the highest objects of civil society, and of private life. Liberty enables us to do our duty unhindered by the state, by society, by ignorance and error. We are free in proportion as we are safe from these impediments For liberty comes not with any ethical system, but with a very developed one. With this no human authority can be permitted to interfere.


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We are bound to extend to the utmost, and to guard from every encroachment, the sphere in which we can act in obedience to the sole voice of conscience, regardless of any other consideration. The power of the whole is not to be set in the balance for a moment with freedom-that is, the conscience of the subject-and those who act on other principle are the worst of criminals.

The Church and the market; Who is Lord Acton?

It is easier to find people fit to govern themselves than people to govern others. Every man is the best, the most responsible, judge of his own advantage. The great question is to discover, not what governments prescribe, but what they ought to prescribe; for no prescription is valid against the conscience of mankind. The finest opportunity ever given to the world was thrown away because the passion of equality made vain the hope for freedom.

Lord Acton on liberty, power, and the light of conscience | Acton Institute

Whenever a single definite object is made the supreme end of the State, be it the advantage of a class, 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. Laws are made for the public good The public good is not to be considered, if it is purchased at the expense of an individual.

There are many things the government can't do, many good purposes it must renounce. It must leave them to the enterprise of others. It cannot feed the people. It cannot enrich the people. It cannot teach the people. The one pervading evil of democracy is the tyranny of the majority, or rather if that party, not always the majority, that succeeds, by force or fraud, in carrying elections. The most certain test by which we judge whether a country is really free is the amount of security enjoyed by minorities. Among all the causes which degrade and demoralize men, power is the most constant and the most active.

Those who have more power are liable to sin more; no theorem in geometry is more certain than this. A generous spirit prefers that his country should be poor, and weak, and of no account, but free, rather than powerful, prosperous, and enslaved. Justice is followed by equality and liberty.

Power Tends to Corrupt

The Stoics could only advise the wise man to hold aloof from politics, keeping the unwritten law in his heart. For our Lord not only delivered the precept, but created the force to execute it. To maintain the necessary immunity in one supreme sphere, to reduce all political authority within defined limits, ceased to be an aspiration of patient reasoners, and was made the perpetual charge and care of the most energetic institution and the most universal association in the world.

The new law, the new spirit, the new authority, gave to liberty a meaning and a value it had not possessed in the philosophy or in the constitution of Greece or Rome before the knowledge of the truth that makes us free. A State which has only 30, full citizens in a population of ,, and is governed, practically, by about people at a public meeting, is scarcely democratic.

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The short triumph of Athenian liberty, and its quick decline, belong to an age which possessed no fixed standard of right and wrong. An unparalleled activity of intellect was shaking the credit of the gods, and the gods were the givers of the law. It was a very short step from the suspicion of Protagoras, that there were no gods, to the assertion of Critias that there is no sanction for laws.

If nothing was certain in theology, there was no certainty in ethics and no moral obligation. The will of man, not the will of God, was the rule of life, and every man and body of men had the right to do what they had the means of doing. Tyranny was no wrong, and it was hypocrisy to deny oneself the enjoyment it affords. The doctrine of the Sophists gave no limits to power and no security to freedom; it inspired that cry of the Athenians, that they must not be hindered from doing what they pleased, and the speeches of men like Athenagoras and Euphemus, that the democracy may punish men who have done no wrong, and that nothing that is profitable is amiss.

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And Socrates perished by the reaction which they provoked. All Quotes Add A Quote. The History of Freedom 15 ratings.