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.

A better kind of patriotism

Jul 5 JDN 2459037

Yesterday was the Fourth of July, but a lot of us haven’t felt much like celebrating. When things are this bad—pandemic, economic crisis, corrupt government, police brutality, riots, and so on—it can be hard to find much pride in our country.

Perhaps this is why Republicans tend to describe themselves as more patriotic than Democrats. Republicans have always held our country to a far lower standard (indeed, do they hold it to any standard at all!?) and so they can be proud of it even in its darkest times.

Indeed, in some sense national pride in general is a weird concept: We weren’t even alive when our nation was founded, and even today there are hundreds of millions of people in our nation, so most of what it does has nothing to do with us. But human beings are tribal: We feel a deep need to align ourselves with groups larger than ourselves. In the current era, nations fill much of that role (though certainly not all of it, as we form many other types of groups as well). We identify so strongly with our nation that our pride or shame in it becomes pride or shame in ourselves.

As the toppling of statues extends beyond Confederate leaders (obviously those statues should come down! Would Great Britain put up statues of Napoleon?) and Christopher Columbus (who was recognized as a monster in his own time!) to more ambiguous cases like Ulysses Grant, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, or even utterly nonsensical ones like Matthias Baldwin, one does begin to get the sense that the left wing doesn’t just hate racism; some of them really do seem to hate America.

Don’t get me wrong: The list of America’s sins is long and weighty. From the very beginning the United States was built by forcing out Native populations and importing African slaves. The persistent inequality between racial groups today suggests that reparations for these crimes may still be necessary.

But I think it is a mistake to look at a statue of George Washington or Thomas Jefferson and see only a slaveowner. They were slaveowners, certainly—and we shouldn’t sweep that under the rug. Perhaps it is wrong to idolize anyone, because our heroes never live up to our expectations and great men are almost always bad men. Even Martin Luther King was a sexual predator and Mahatma Gandhi abused his wife. Then again, people seem to need heroes: Without something to aspire to, some sense of pride in who they are, people rapidly become directionless or even hopeless.

While there is much to be appalled by in Washington or Jefferson, there is also much to admire. Indeed, specifically what we are celebrating on Independence Day strikes me as something particularly noteworthy, something truly worthy of the phrase “American exceptionalism”.

For most of human history, every major nation formed organically. Many were ruled by hereditary dynasties that extended to time immemorial. Others were aware that they had experienced coups and revolutions, but all of these were about the interests of one king (or prince, or duke) versus another. The Greek philosophers had debated what the best sort of government would be, but never could agree on anything; insofar as they did agree, they seemed to prefer benevolent autocracy. Even where democracies existed, they too had formed organically, and in practice rarely had suffrage beyond upper-class men. Nations had laws, but these laws were subordinate to the men who made and enforced them; one king’s sacred duty was another’s heinous crime.

Then came the Founding Fathers. After fighting their way out of the grip of the British Empire, they could easily have formed their own new monarchy and declared their own King George—and there were many who wanted to do this. They could have kept things running basically the same way they always had.

But they didn’t. Instead, they gathered together a group of experts and leaders from the revolution, all to ask the question: “What is the best way to run a country?” Of course there were many different ideas about the answer. A long series of impassioned arguments and bitter conflicts ensued. Different sides cited historians and philosophers back and forth at each other, often using the same source to entirely opposite conclusions. Great compromises were made that neither side was happy with (like the Three-Fifths Compromise and the Connecticut Compromise).

When all the dust cleared and all the signatures were collected, the result was a document that all involved knew was imperfect and incomplete—but nevertheless represented a remarkable leap forward for the very concept of what it means to govern a nation. However painfully and awkwardly, they came to some kind of agreement as to what was the best way to run a country—and then they made that country.

It’s difficult to overstate what a watershed moment this was in human history. With a few exceptions—mostly small communities—every other government on earth had been created to serve the interests of its rulers, with barely even a passing thought toward what would be ethical or in the best interests of the citizens. Of course some self-interest crept in even to the US Constitution, and in some ways we’ve been trying to fix that ever since. But even asking what sort of government would be best for the people was something deeply radical.

Today the hypocrisy of a slaveowner writing “all men are created equal” is jarring to us; but at the time the shock was not that he would own slaves, but that he would even give lip service to universal human equality. It seems bizarre to us that someone could announce “inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and then only grant voting rights to landowning White men—but to his contemporaries, the odd thing was citing philosophers (specifically John Locke) in your plan for a new government.

Indeed, perhaps the most radical thing of all about the Constitution of the United States is that they knew it was imperfect. The Founding Fathers built into the very text of the document a procedure for amending and improving it. And since then we have amended it 27 times (though to be fair the first 10 were more like “You know what? We should actually state clearly that people have free speech rather than assuming courts will automatically protect that.”)

Every nation has a founding myth that lionizes its founders. And certainly many, if not most, Americans believe a version of this myth that is as much fable as fact. But even the historical truth with all of its hypocrises has plenty to be proud of.

Though we may not have had any control over how our nation was founded, we do have a role in deciding its future. If we feel nothing but pride in our nation, we will not do enough to mend and rectify its flaws. If we feel nothing but shame in our nation, we will not do enough to preserve and improve its strengths.

Thus, this Independence Day, I remind you to be ambivalent: There is much to be ashamed of, but also much to be proud of.