Power does not corrupt

lordactonHere are Acton’s famous words: “I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption, it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. All power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men … There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”

Taken literally, Acton’s aphorism is false. Power does not corrupt people; rather corrupt people abuse their power. Power does not do things; people who have power do things. And whether the power is used properly or corruptly is up to the person.

For example: Mothers have great power over their children, and teachers have power over their students. Does the power corrupt them?

Or consider other kinds of power:
body-builderMoney is economic power. Does wealth make one immoral?
Muscles are physical power. Does bodybuilding make one a bully?
Knowledge is intellectual power. Does a Ph.D. make you an evil genius?
Fame gives one social power. Does Hollywood turn you into a spoiled brat?

Some possessors of money, muscles, advanced degrees, and stardom are immoral/bullies/evil/brats, but many are not. The possession of power, then, is not the key factor: The character of the person is decisive, not the presence or absence of power. Power is the capacity, and how the capacity is exercised depends on the user.

Acton was speaking of politics, so perhaps we should ask: Is political power unique? Political power is an awesome force, the costs of political power’s abuse are high, and we can never be sure of the character of our politicians. So prudence dictates that we should not concentrate power and that we have checks in place.

power-redBut even here, politicians can use their power for good or bad. The power itself brings options with it, but the politicians choose which options to exercise.

Politicians are not like the characters in thrall to Sauron’s ring in Lord of the Rings or putty in Lucifer’s tempting hands like Eve in the Garden of Eden. Nor is anyone.

Taken literally, the “power corrupts” line says that the power is the agent and the person is the vehicle through which power works. But that’s to reverse the order of causation. The person is the causal agent, and the power’s manifestation is the effect.

7 thoughts on “Power does not corrupt

  • September 20, 2012 at 8:28 pm

    May we presume you have read de Jouvenal’s “On Power?”

    Take, for example, the word “corruption” at the time of Acton’s writing: “impairment of integrity, virtue or moral principle” or, as at death “decay and decomposition.”

    Coming into the command of power, finding and acting against oppositions from other power, seated elsewhere, does lead to corruption in the sense above stated. attaining power, or the aggregation of power leads to such corruption.

    Well, you might say such persons had not the integrity, etc. in the first instance. But, history and human experience provides other evidence.

    To corrupt in this use is to cause an adverse change in character.

  • September 24, 2012 at 3:51 pm

    Maybe power isn’t an intrinsic corrupter of humanity, it just appears so because those that would aspire for absolute power are always already corrupt.

  • September 29, 2012 at 6:15 pm

    As people like Murray Rothbard point out, the existence of ‘rent’ (excess economic profit) that can be derived from positions of economic power, will always attract the attention of the unscrupulous, the parasitic, the megalomaniacal – the high-functioning sociopath.

    It might well be possible that some of the people who seek political power do so out of what they consider to be ‘noble’ moties: they will strive to use the power of the State to force people to behave in ‘nobler’ ways. To resort to another aphorism: “[they] mean to be a good master, but [they] still mean to be a master: [they] mean to rule well, but [they] still mean to RULE.”

    And there is no more cruel and vicious creature than an empowered World Improver who feels that they are not being given their rightful deference.

    In that sense, Acton was right: on the very rare occasion that a political power-seeker is not driven by vanity, greed, megalomania and parasitism, political power will corrupt them. But 99% of politicians are corrupted well before they ever hold office.

  • September 29, 2012 at 6:16 pm

    Oops… I meant “the existence of ‘rent’ (excess economic profit) that can be derived from positions of **POLITICAL** power, will… [etc]”

  • November 4, 2015 at 1:45 am

    One wonders if, in order to get power one must be corrupted, if the ethical definition of corrupt doesn’t need a re-work.

    In other words, if good and impotent are the same things, that seems like good is a useless and undesirable condition.

  • April 8, 2016 at 11:32 am

    It Depends the way you use it!!! IF U USE IT FOR THE GOOD!! YOU BE GOOD IF U USE FOR THE BAD U BE BAD!!

  • November 30, 2017 at 10:16 am

    Most power is gotten by the use of fear. A powerful person gets to where he/she is by creating fear in others on several levels. This is corruption at its finest. A person who is powerful would certainly fear losing that power, especially when the people below realize he/she is now powerless and that original power was false anyway.

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