Limits to power

Tuesday, 11 January 2011 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Can power be absolute and unlimited? Though in many instances it may seem to be so, in reality there are limitations. The limitations are broadly of two types. Limitations that are ‘enforceable’ and those that are ‘intangible’.

Enforceable limitations are those that the violation of which are punishable by the law of the land. It is these enforceable limitations which are easily violated.

For example, by subverting the enforcement authority to ignore and not take cognisance of violations, such as a company not submitting its annual report and accounts on time and using bribery or undue influence to avoid or postpone sanctions.

Intangible limitations are those that exist but are difficult to describe, understand or measure, although they do not exist as a physical entity, as in a law or regulation, it is still a limitation.

Social sanction

The best example is social sanction. That civil society may impose a stigma on persons who behave in a manner they disapprove. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction; this is an age-old adage, well proven over time.

People fear that what they do to others, especially the bad things, will come back at them. The possibility of retribution, Karmic law, ‘do unto others what you would want to be done to you’ are concepts that people abide by.

Violation of these intangible limitations in some situations may also involve violations of law, the enforceable limitation, but not always. Most often it is a situation an individual creates for him or herself through a moral choice.

By freely and repeatedly choosing certain sorts of things or courses of action, individuals shape the parameters of the perception their peers, civil society and the world at large, have of them. This perception if negative is a highly persuasive force on people to adjust their behaviour, in the hope to change the perception to a more positive level. It is only a foolhardy person drunk with power and crazed by his own imagined impunity who will violate these precepts.


It is the lesson of history that ultimately there has to be an accounting. Sports people follow the ancient adage ‘when the Great Scorer finally comes to write the score against your name, he writes not whether you won or lost, but how you played the game’. That is, played according to the rules and fairly in the correct spirit, complying both with the enforceable and the intangible rules.

There is an English proverb, ‘sow an act, reap a habit, sow a habit, reap a character, sow a character, reap a destiny’. The process of creating a public perception can be compared to the work of a potter who moulds clay into a finished product.

We hold ourselves in our hands and shape the perception others will have of us as good or bad. Within the course of a single lifetime, a particular pattern of behaviour leads inexorably to a perception being drawn, either positive or negative.

Power corrupts...

Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. In 1887, Lord Acton, penned these words in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton.

As Jim Powell of the Cato Institute has written, “Few recognised the dangers of political power as clearly as Lord Acton. He understood that leaders put their own interest above all and will do just about anything to stay in power. They routinely lie. They smear their competitors. They seize private assets. They destroy property. Sometimes they assassinate people, even mark multitudes for slaughter. In his essays and lectures, Acton defied the collectivist trend of his time to declare that political power was a source of evil, not redemption.”

Limitations to power and controls on behaviour are concepts which have been found in societies from time immemorial. In any process or system, checks and balances are essential and the lack of those safeguards will result in anarchy and disaster. Even in the animal kingdom there are basic rules which make up a part of instinctive behaviour.

Among any animal species one finds such rules, even among animals, power is not absolute, but limited and controlled. Exceptions are when an elephant is in musth or a rabid jackal thinks it can take on the mighty leopard!

Rules of conduct

When human beings first evolved, the family group had its basic rules of conduct, as tribes came together for protection from predators and other competing human beings, the recognition of the leadership of an individual and/or his family became customary. Rules evolved as to succession and settlement of leadership disputes.

The evolution of a group of persons who claimed that they could communicate with the creators of supernatural events, and even predict future events, such natural phenomena such as flood and drought, which was critical, once the humans has crossed the threshold from hunter gatherer to pastoral live stockmen to settled farmers, led to customs evolving on how to treat this priestly ruling caste and for their own survival a set of dos and don’ts which would ensure the continued respect from the community they served.

In time when the numbers became unwieldy, representation became a device of choice and people were chosen to express the views of a particular tribe, community, or those living in a geographical area. Rules evolved as to the selection of these representatives, their conduct, their accountability and the time frame during which they could operate.

These rules had to be promulgated, applied and violators punished. The need to separate the functionaries who carried out these functions of legislation, execution and adjudication evolved over time. The need for the supremacy of the law, that all beings and institutions are subordinate to the law grew over time. The axiom that the law, and nothing else, should rule, became entrenched in human thought.

The rule of law

The late Lord Bingham, one time England’s Master of the Rolls, Lord Chief Justice and Senior Law Lord, in a book, ‘The Rule of Law,’ has included accessibility of the law, equality before the law, right to a fair trial, legal accountability of servants of the state, a right to education, protection of fundamental human rights, application of law rather than discretion when deciding questions of legal liability, etc., among the fundamental eight principles which underpin the Rule of Law.

The written constitution of the USA, with strict separation of powers and the wide latitude given to media freedom is the best example of enforceable and also intangible limitations on the abuse of power.

Intangible limitations are probably more powerful than enforceable ones, in that the enforceable ones can be evaded and even in some situations avoided, in the absence of strong independent institutions, manned by free thinking men and women. But the intangible sanctions will definitely inexorably come home to roost, somehow, somewhere, sometime. That is the lesson of history.

FIFA and corruption

This lesson has been brought home very explicably in a recent incident. Readers will recall my column entitled ‘Kleptocrats prefer dictatorships to democracies’ in the Daily FT of Tuesday 14 December 2010. It dealt with alleged corruption in FIFA generally and specifically in awarding the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 one to Qatar respectively.

The point was that FIFA preferred the closed dictatorships of Russia and Qatar to the open democracies which were competing against them to host the event, allegedly as FIFA did not take kindly to the transparency and the free media scrutiny with which working in open democracies with a free press entails.

At that time, President of FIFA Sepp Blatter completely rejected the allegations; he questioned the losers’ sporting sprit, alleging that they were bad losers! But on 3 January 2011, the very same person made an announcement that an anti corruption committee would be set up within FIFA to police world footballs’ governing body.

Blatter said: “This committee will strengthen our credibility and give us a new image in terms of transparency. I will take care of it personally, to ensure there is no corruption at FIFA.”

FIFA already has an ethics committee, which will be probably redundant. But Blatter is coming up for re-election soon, in June 2011, for a fourth four year term and the cacophony world wide of allegations of bribery and absence of fair play in the FIFA process for determining the locations of the World Cup has in all probability forced Blatter to come up with a new face-saving device, to attempt to re-establish his credibility.

Classic example

This is a classic example of the persuasive power of the ‘intangible’ limitations to power. During the selection process two of FIFA’s executive members were debarred from voting due to allegations of them trying to sell their votes.

FIFA was also forced to investigate allegations of collusion by competing countries; the Secretary General of FIFA was compelled to warn all countries that mutual voting deals were against FIFA rules.

The voting was done, host nations decided and the allegations rejected. But within a month FIFA was forced to come up with a ploy to attempt to re-establish its credentials as an ‘honest and clean’ organisation.

May be Blatter’s worries about his imminent re-election was a concern, but this was no ‘enforcement’ limitation, there was no legal sanction pending. Blatter was above the law, in this respect; it’s not for nothing that in football circles he is nicknamed ‘The Pope’!

It was the ‘intangible’ limitation, the perception of public contempt, for a flawed and corrupt selection process, that FIFA and Blatter reacted to. This is a salutary lesson for all those who fool themselves with the temporary illusion of the impunity of power.

There may be situations where even though ‘enforceable’ limitations are subverted, the ‘intangible’ limitations affecting the situation may give rise to a change in the attitude of the persons concerned.

For example where the media is concerned, although all legal provisions for nonbiased and fair reporting may be subverted, the journalists themselves may respond to the intangible limit of public perception of their credibility and decide to report in a balanced manner.

In the same way, the judiciary, although all legal measures to ensure their independence may have been negated, the judges themselves may decide to act in an independent manner to protect their reputation and the very concept of an independent judiciary in the public eye.

We see such things happening from time to time. Intangible limitations to power are difficult to undermine all the time, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days of the year.

(The writer is a lawyer, who has over 30 years experience as a CEO in both government and private sectors. He retired from the office of Secretary, Ministry of Finance and currently is the Managing Director of the Sri Lanka Business Development Centre.)

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