Does power corrupt?

Nov 7 JDN 2459526

It’s a familiar saying, originally attributed to the Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are nearly always bad men.”

I think this saying is not only wrong, but in fact dangerous. We can all observe plenty of corrupt people in power, that much is true. But if it’s simply the power that corrupts them, and they started as good people, then there’s really nothing to be done. We may try to limit the amount of power any one person can have, but in any large, complex society there will be power, and so, if the saying is right, there will also be corruption.

How do I know that this saying is wrong?

First of all, note that corruption varies tremendously, and with very little correlation with most sensible notions of power.

Consider used car salespeople, stockbrokers, drug dealers, and pimps. All of these professions are rather well known for their high level of corruption. Yet are people in these professions powerful? Yes, any manager has some power over their employees; but there’s no particular reason to think that used car dealers have more power over their employees than grocery stores, and yet there’s a very clear sense in which used car dealers are more corrupt.

Even power on a national scale is not inherently tied to corruption. Consider the following individuals: Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt.

These men were extremely powerful; each ruled an entire nation.Indeed, during his administration, FDR was probably the most powerful person in the world. And they certainly were not impeccable: Mandela was a good friend of Fidel Castro, Gandhi abused his wife, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, and of course FDR ordered the internment of Japanese-Americans. Yet overall I think it’s pretty clear that these men were not especially corrupt and had a large positive impact on the world.

Say what you will about Bernie Sanders, Dennis Kucinich, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Idealistic? Surely. Naive? Perhaps. Unrealistic? Sometimes. Ineffective? Often. But they are equally as powerful as anyone else in the US Congress, and ‘corrupt’ is not a word I’d use to describe them. Mitch McConnell, on the other hand….

There does seem to be a positive correlation between a country’s level of corruption and its level of authoritarianism; the most democratic countries—Scandinavia—are also the least corrupt. Yet India is surely more democratic than China, but is widely rated as about the same level of corruption. Greece is not substantially less democratic than Chile, but it has considerably more corruption. So even at a national level, power is the not the only determinant of corruption.

I’ll even agree to the second clause: “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Were I somehow granted an absolute dictatorship over the world, one of my first orders of business would be to establish a new democratic world government to replace my dictatorial rule. (Would it be my first order of business, or would I implement some policy reforms first? Now that’s a tougher question. I think I’d want to implement some kind of income redistribution and anti-discrimination laws before I left office, at least.) And I believe that most good people think similarly: We wouldn’t want to have that kind of power over other people. We wouldn’t trust ourselves to never abuse it. Anyone who maintains absolute power is either already corrupt or likely to become so. And anyone who seeks absolute power is precisely the sort of person who should not be trusted with power at all.

It may also be that power is one determinant of corruption—that a given person will generally end up more corrupt if you give them more power. This might help explain why even the best ‘great men’ are still usually bad men. But clearly there are other determinants that are equally important.

And I would like to offer a different hypothesis to explain the correlation between power and corruption, which has profoundly different implications: The corrupt seek power.

Donald Trump didn’t start out a good man and become corrupt by becoming a billionaire or becoming President. Donald Trump was born a narcissistic idiot.

Josef Stalin wasn’t a good man who became corrupted by the unlimited power of ruling the Soviet Union. Josef Stalin was born a psychopath.

Indeed, when you look closely at how corrupt leaders get into power, it often involves manipulating and exploiting others on a grand scale. They are willing to compromise principles that good people wouldn’t. They aren’t corrupt because they got into power; they got into power because they are corrupt.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying we should compromise all of our principles in order to achieve power. If there is a route by which power corrupts, it is surely that. Rather, I am saying that we must maintain constant vigilance against anyone who seems so eager to attain power that they will compromise principles to do it—for those are precisely the people who are likely to be most dangerous if they should achieve their aims.

Moreover, I’m saying that “power corrupts” is actually a very dangerous message. It tells good people not to seek power, because they would be corrupted by it. But in fact what we actually need in order to get good people in power is more good people seeking power, more opportunities to out-compete the corrupt. If Congress were composed entirely of people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, then the left-wing agenda would no longer seem naive and unrealistic; it would simply be what gets done. (Who knows? Maybe it wouldn’t work out so well after all. But it definitely would get done.) Yet how many idealistic left-wing people have heard that phrase ‘power corrupts’ too many times, and decided they didn’t want to risk running for office?

Indeed, the notion that corruption is inherent to the exercise of power may well be the greatest tool we have ever given to those who are corrupt and seeking to hold onto power.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s