As with sex and money — and most of the important matters in life — many silly things are said about power. Perhaps the granddaddy of those silly things is the oft-quoted phrase, Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
There is an important truth that Lord Acton’s phrase tries to capture. But taken literally it is false, and it misdiagnoses abuses of power. So the issue is worth a closer look.
Power is the ability to do work. It comes in many forms, such as the cognitive power of thinking, the moral power of self-responsibility, the physical power of moving one’s body, the social power of influencing others, the political power of controlling others’ actions, and so on.
Abuses of social and political power are the most worrisome and, as Acton’s line suggests, the worst corruptions occur in nations that centralize political power the most. Social science data bear this out, as this Transparency International Corruption Perceptions graphic, for example, nicely captures: countries with more concentrated and less accountable government power tend to be more corrupt; and countries with limited and more accountable governments tend to be cleaner.
So a strong argument can be made for constraining government power, and it is tempting to see the possession of power itself as the critical problematic factor.
But consider these counter-examples:
* Mothers have life-and-death power over their children. They control their infants’ food intake, decide how to protect them from predators and the elements, and shape their children’s thoughts and feelings. Are mothers corrupted by that great power?
* Teachers have much power over their students. With their platform and their captive audience, teachers can instill the fear of bad grades or indoctrinate their students. Does that power corrupt teachers?
No, of course not. Most mothers and teachers use their power well, to the best of their abilities, while only a minority are abusers. So it cannot be that the possession of power is what causes abuse. What we say, properly, in the cases of bad parenting and bad teaching is that the character of those involved is corrupt.
Taken literally, then, 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. Whether power is used productively or corruptly is up to the person. To put it in yet other words, power is a tool, and how it is used depends upon the character of the tool’s possessor. The same tool can be used for good or ill depending upon the choice of whoever wields it.
The issue matters because it’s not just idle semantics. If power corrupts people, then people who do corrupt things have an excuse — The power made me do it. Power is here conceptualized like Sauron’s ring in J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy The Lord of the Rings: He who possesses the ring might start out as a decent fellow, but the power of the ring makes him become degenerate. Power is an external force that enters into people and causes corruption.
Consider some other counter-examples:
* Money is economic power. Does acquiring wealth make one become immoral?
* Muscles are physical power. Does bodybuilding turn you into a bully?
* Knowledge is intellectual power. Does a Ph.D. cause you to become an evil genius?
* Fame gives one social power. Does Hollywood success turn actors into spoiled brats?
In each case, some people use their power – whether monetary, muscular, intellectual, or social — in corrupt ways. Rich bastards, evil scientists, thick-necked thugs, and imperious prima donnas are staples of literature and movies.
But many other people who become rich, muscular, knowledgeable, or movie stars do not become worse. Instead they become more savvy investors, creative thinkers, effective laborers, or exalted beings who grace us with their style and glamor. Their power elevates them rather than corrupting them.
The possession of power, then, is not the key factor: The character of the person is decisive. Power is the capacity, and how the capacity is exercised depends on the user. 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 reverses the causal order. The person is the causal agent, and the power’s manifestation is the effect.
Lord Acton was speaking of politics, so perhaps we should ask: Is political power unique? Political power is an awesome force, involving as it does the use of police power and military power to enforce politicians’ decisions. And to Acton’s credit, his own formulation contains a qualification the popularized version omits: “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.”
But even with the “tends to” qualifier, politicians are in control of their power. There’s no pre-existing tendency that makes politicians use it one way or another. Power gives the politician options, and the politician chooses which option to exercise. Politicians are not like the characters in thrall to Sauron’s ring. Nor is anyone.
Contemporary American politics, with all of its quirks (See “Our Schizophrenic Politics”), is inconsistent in its understanding of power — both on the “conservative” and the “liberal” side of the divide.
In my experience, “conservatives” are most fond of the Acton line, as it argues for limitations on government power. The possession of power is a dangerous thing that should be checked. But they are also fond of sayings like Guns don’t kill people; people kill people, as that line supports a right to gun ownership. But a gun is a concentrated form of power, and if power corrupts then possessing gun-power should corrupt citizens just as political-power corrupts politicians. Either Acton’s line works in both cases or it works in neither.
“Liberals” typically have a more benign view of government power, and they have for generations now been content to give governments more regulatory control over our lives. But they are also afraid of guns and don’t believe that people can be trusted with them. Guns kill, so gun ownership should be severely restricted or eliminated. But an extraordinary number of guns are at the disposal of our politicians, so if we want gun control it is the biggest and most powerful guns — i.e., the government’s — that most need restrictions.
Power corrupts may not be literally true, but it is rhetorically powerful and points us to a reason why political power should be limited.
The problem is that we citizens always face a knowledge problem about our politicians: We can never be sure of their character. Police and military power can be used well, but in the hands of bad characters it can be terribly destructive. Democratic politics is an imperfect selection mechanism, and some of the politicians we select will no doubt corrupt the power we entrust to them. So prudence dictates that we not concentrate power and that we build many checks into the system.