Why Power Doesn’t Corrupt (Absolutely)

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


  2. SalvaVenia says:

    Well done! Highly appreciated. 🙂


  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.


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