Why Power Doesn’t Corrupt (Absolutely)

Note: This is a revised version of my original essay, which can be viewed below the update. 

Why Power Doesn’t Corrupt

The common adage that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrects absolutely” was first used by Lord John Dalberg Acton in an 1887 letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton. Acton’s point was that people are corrupted by power when they obtain it, and anyone who has absolute power is certain to become corrupt. Proponents for limited government and separation of powers tend to use this quote liberally (pardon the expression).

The spirit of that statement is not inaccurate. However, without proper context it leaves out a greater fundamental truth about humans. If we take it literally, it means power corrupts men, i.e. corruption originates form a thing, not a person. Power is evil, not the man who wields it.

However, power doesn’t corrupt a person any more than giving them a weapon makes them violent. A person can choose to utilize a weapon properly, i.e. using it only for self-defense. But they can also use it for illegal purposes. Or they can choose to not use it at all.

Mere observation reveals that even powerless man are prone to the same immoral behavior as a crooked politician. A man who uses power inappropriately was predisposed to do so before he obtained power. It came from within, not without. Giving a man power merely allows him to fulfill desires previously restricted by a lack of opportunity or capacity.

It is common in high school English classes to recite the “power corrupts” maxim when reading George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm. However, it is evident from the beginning of the novel that the animals who act corrupt once they gain power were corrupt before that. It is through his less-than noble scheming Napoleon can consolidate power to the point where he and other pigs are unrecognizable from the humans they claim to despise.

In Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, the titular character is a brave Scottish general rewarded by King Duncan for his gallantry during a battle. After witches foretell he will become king, Macbeth is goaded into killing Duncan by his manipulative, scheming wife. Once he assumes the kingship, he attempts to wipe out his potential rivals, including their children.

Macbeth is often described as a “good” man corrupted by power. Yet if one reads the actual play, they will find nothing to suggest he was a good man other than his guilt-stricken conscience, which he ignores at every turn. His advancement is solely due to his skills as a soldier. Lady Macbeth immediately exhibits her depravity the moment she learns about the witches’ prophecy. Had they been “good” people, they wouldn’t have interpreted the prophecy as a license to murder Duncan.

Some might say that simply proving corrupt men seek power doesn’t mean good men can’t become corrupt if given too much power.

But therein lies the point: All men are born imperfect. The difference between “corrupt” men and “good” men whether they acknowledge this limitation. Good men aren’t immune to the same temptations as evil men. They are merely self-aware and avoid circumstances that entice them to act on those mutual desires.

“Good” men who are seemingly “corrupted” by power merely appeared to be good due to circumstance. Power doesn’t pervert a man’s soul as much as it reveals his true self by what he does with it.

J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings demonstrates this well. The One Ring represents absolute power and can only be used for evil, irrespective of a man’s “intentions” for it. Thus, the division between “good” and “corrupt” men is defined by those who accept the truth and with it their own susceptibility. Faramir rejects the Ring when given the chance to keep it. His brother, Boromir is eventually consumed by his craving for it – though he later redeems himself. Even the hobbit Frodo, who is initially able to resist the power of the Ring much longer than anyone else, eventually succumbs.

In the Book of Judges, Gideon is offered kingship by the people of Israel as a reward for defeating the Midianites. He immediately turns it down for himself and for any sons he sires. When the Israelites later demand a king so they can be as other nations around them, God warns them of how their king will use that power for his own benefit. Their first king is Saul, who quickly disobeys God’s orders and murders Levite priests. He is replaced by the young shepherd boy, David. Yet, even David, referred to as a man after God’s own heart, succumbs to his baser desires once he obtains power.

George Washington is another example of how power affects all men, even if at times they have the commendable integrity to resist the wrong urges. After the American War for Independence, he resigned his commission from the Continental Army. The relinquishing of power shocked European aristocrats who had expected him to use the military to take control of the country and make himself a king. He certainly could have done so. However, after becoming president years later he used military force to suppress participants in the Whiskey Rebellion protesting unfair taxation. Yet, he later resigned after two terms and refused to serve a third – he could have easily served for life.

That men use power inappropriately does not mean they will always will do so.

Perhaps one of the problems is that the “power corrupts” saying inevitably leads to the conclusion, however subtle, that if we have “restrictions” on government our freedoms and rights are protected no matter who is elected, because what matters most under this thinking is limiting power, rather than people. Casual observation of our political situation easily contradicts this idea.

One needs only look at the current condition of the United States Constitution to see where it fails to address the root problem. It follows Acton’s principle by establishing a government with enumerated powers, checks and balances between the three branches, and specific protections for individual freedom.

Yet unconstitutional actions today occur constantly to the point where the document bears little semblance to the actual government. This did not happen because we have an imperfect system (although we do).  Nor was it caused because there is a lack of proper restrictions. Those restrictions are there, clear and well-defined.

The problem are the men running the government, not the power “delegated” to them. As I said before, all men are imperfect, and when given power they will use it imperfectly. If given coercive power over others, they will go beyond what power has been given to them because a vital counterbalance has been eliminated.

This isn’t to suggest it is acceptable for a man to hold great power as long as he has sufficiently “good” character. That is the point. There will never be an ideal government system precisely because there are no men fit to hold the coercive power involved.

Tolkien seemed to understand this himself. In a 1943 letter to his son, Christopher commenting on the conflation of nations and their states, he wrote the following regarding man’s fallen nature (bold emphasis added):

The proper study of Man is anything but Man; and the most improper job of any man, even saints (who at any rate were at least unwilling to take it on), is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity. And at least it is done only to a small group of men who know who their master is. The medievals were only too right in taking nolo efiscopari [I do not want to be bishop] as the best reason a man could give to others for making him a bishop.

Tolkien correctly identifies the fundamental issue; men are, by their very nature, unfit to rule one another against their will. That speaks to the condition of mankind, not the power they wish to wield. Giving a man power enables that corruption and the ultimately irresistible temptation to use power for ignoble ends.

He also understands that the attraction toward power is not just a trait of “evil men.” Good men too have the propensity for it, whether it is bestowed to them or not. What makes them good in this sense is their self-awareness; if they seek righteousness, power is a stumbling block rather than a stepping stone toward achieving that end.

Power doesn’t create what is found in the heart of every man. Were men perfect, they would use power without abusing it.

By stressing voluntary associations and prohibiting aggression, libertarianism correctly focuses on men, not power. It prevents a monopoly on the perceived legitimate use of coercion, a vital necessity in consolidating authority. It also protects men who strive to be good from the temptation to act on the corrupt impulses which affect us all.

All men are tempted to use power improperly, even if obtained legitimately and in limited quantities. But if they have coercive power they will eventually use it for corrupt purposes, absolutely.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

Original post

Why Power Doesn’t Corrupt

There is the common adage that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrects absolutely” when discussing government and politics.

First used by Lord Acton in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887, the saying is used to describe how people are seemingly corrupted by power when they obtain it. It is often used to argue for limited government and separation of powers.

This adage, however well-intentioned, is incorrect, and until this misunderstanding is corrected it will be difficult for people to move beyond the concept of government as a means of justice, law, security, and other services.

Power Does not Corrupt A Person’s Character, It Reveals It

For the statement to be true, the underlying premise is that a thing or entity corrupts a person. In other words, it is the object that is evil, and the person is helplessly unable to make their own choices once they receive it.

Based on this logic, the situation defines a person. The problem is power doesn’t corrupt a person any more than giving them a weapon makes them violent. A person can choose to utilize a weapon properly, i.e. using it only to defend one’s self. But they can also use it for immoral purposes. Or they can choose to not use it at all.

A man who uses power for corrupt means was corrupt before he obtained power. Giving him power merely allows him to fulfill desires he would have otherwise been forced to contain due to limitations placed on him at the time. Thus, corrupt men will inevitably use power for corrupt purposes, as well as seek more power.

It is common in high school English classes to quote the saying “power corrupts” when reading George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm.

In the novel, Mr. Jones, the owner of the farm, neglects, abuses and mistreats his animals until he is thrown out. When one of the pigs, Napoleon, takes power, he eventually behaves so human-like that it becomes impossible for the other animals to tell him apart from Mr. Jones.

Nevertheless, it is evident from the beginning of the novel Napoleon is corrupt, power or no power. It is through his less-than noble scheming he consolidates power.

Macbeth, Shakespeare’s tragic play, is another literary example. A brave Scottish general, Macbeth is rewarded for his gallantry during a battle by King Duncan. But after a group of witches foretell he will become king, Macbeth is goaded into killing Duncan by his manipulative, scheming wife. Once he assumes the kingship, he attempts to wipe out his potential rivals, including their children.

Macbeth is often described as a “good” man corrupted by power. Yet, if one reads the actual play, they will find nothing to suggest he was a good man other than his conscience, which he ignores at every turn. His advancement is solely due to his skills as a soldier. Lady Macbeth immediately exhibits her depravity the moment she learns about the witches’ prophecy. Had they been “good” people, they wouldn’t have interpreted the prophecy to mean they should murder Duncan.

There Are Only Two Types of Men, and Both are Corrupt

Some might say that simply proving corrupt men seek power doesn’t mean good men can’t become corrupt if given too much power.

But therein lies the point. All men are born imperfect. The difference between “corrupt” men and “good” men is while one seeks as much power as they can, the other doesn’t, not because they are immune to the same temptations, but because they understand their imperfect nature makes them unfit to have it. If they are given or attain some power, they don’t cling to it, and if they are offered absolute power, they refuse it.

“Good” men who are seemingly “corrupted” by power merely appeared to be good due to their circumstances, only to reveal their true character when given the opportunity to do evil. Power doesn’t corrupt a man as much as it reveals their true nature.

J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings demonstrates this well. The One Ring, which represents absolute power, can only be used for evil, irrespective of a man’s intentions for it. Thus, the division between “good” and “corrupt” men is defined by those who accept their flawed nature, such as Faramir, who refuse the Ring when given the chance, and those like Gollum who kill for it. Even Frodo, who is initially able to resist the power of the Ring much longer than anyone else, eventually succumbs to the constant temptation.

In the Book of Judges, Gideon defeats a large Midianite army with only 300 men. When he is offered kingship by the people of Israel as a reward, he immediately turns it down.

Inasmuch as George Washington wasn’t flawless, he understood his limitations better than most men. After the American War for Independence, he resigned his commission from the Continental Army and disbanded it, rather than use it to take control of the country and make himself a king – something aristocrats in Europe expected him to do.

One needs only look at the current state of the United States Constitution to see where the “power corrupts” argument suffers. Americans want to take pride in our Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which outlines a limited government with checks and balances, as well as specific protections for individual freedom.

Yet, despite these limitations, outrageous instances of unconstitutional actions occur constantly. It’s not because we have an imperfect system, which we do. And it isn’t because there is a lack of proper restrictions on political offices. Those restrictions are there, clear and well-defined. We have corrupt men who, surprise, behave corruptly.  This is why governments eventual degrade and nations fall.

Perhaps one of the problems is that the “power corrupts” saying inevitably leads to the conclusion, however subtle, that as long as we have “restrictions” on government, our freedoms and rights are protected no matter who is elected. Casual observation of our political situation easily refutes this idea.

This isn’t to suggest it is acceptable for a man to hold great power as long as he has sufficiently “good” character. That is the point. There will never be a perfect government system precisely because there is no “good” man devoid of total depravity.

In the end, this is the fatal flaw of all government. Men are by nature prone to corruption. Corrupt men who act on their nature inevitably seek absolute power, absolutely.

Their goal is only made possible through government. Through libertarian anarchy, such men are held in check because they are denied a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, a vital necessity in consolidating power.

Mankind will never progress beyond the concept of the state until it grasps this truth.

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9 Responses to Why Power Doesn’t Corrupt (Absolutely)

  1. Anarcho Mama says:

    Reblogged this on AnarchoMama and commented:
    Excellent discussion of a common (yet misunderstood) phrase

    Like

  2. SalvaVenia says:

    Well done! Highly appreciated. 🙂

    Like

  3. tiffany267 says:

    I completely agree that power in and of itself does not corrupt. It merely allows an immoral person to make immoral decisions. But I vehemently disagree that humans are by nature immoral or “corrupt”. Humans are by nature rational creatures who should seek to live in accordance with the laws of the universe to maximize their individual personal happiness. Unfortunately, throughout history many have sought easy ways out of personal responsibility and have helped develop political (and religious) institutions helping them to manipulate others for their own benefit, rather than earning it through honest and fair interactions. The institutions themselves ARE corrupt and should ideally be dissolved, and the abusers should be legally and morally held accountable for their actions.

    Like

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