We all know Lord Acton’s famous phrase: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Most people think Acton touched upon something of real importance here. But there’s a question about this saying I have never been able to answer to my own satisfaction: what does it really mean to say that power corrupts? Let me go over some possibilities:

(1)

Perhaps to say that X corrupts Y is to say that X changes Y in a way that is regrettable. If that is what Acton meant, then to say that power corrupts is to say that power makes people worse persons. Perhaps access to power makes one more prone to violate the rights and freedoms of others, more vicious, and so on.

This might explain why politicians, including ones who talked a big talk about civil liberties during their election campaigns (hi, Obama!), are so happy to support legislation that infringes upon the rights and freedoms of citizens. You and I would not support things like the NSA surveillance programs. Except, perhaps, if we became politicians too. It is the corrupting effect of power that causes otherwise good people to support things like these.

Now it is popular to say that all politicians are crooks. But upon reflection I find this explanation hard to believe. For one, it is rare for politicians to continue to violate the rights of others once they leave office. They do not try to spy on their neighbors, lock up people in their basements if they catch them smoking some weed, scam their friends, and so on. But if they really had been corrupted by power, in the sense that they were changed as people, this is not what we should expect. The corrupting effects of power seem to disappear once the power goes as well.

 

(2)

But perhaps I have taken Acton’s phrase too literally. Perhaps power does not corrupt in the sense of changing people into worse persons, but simply that powerful people have more opportunities to do bad things. Perhaps we are all as corrupt as the powerful. We just don’t have the ability to act on our rotten selves, whereas they do.

You might think this is implausible because you would not do all the heinous things that we see powerful politicians get up to. And perhaps you wouldn’t. But there may be a selection-effect here. The rotten among us might be especially attracted to politics precisely because of the opportunities it offers to get what they want regardless of how they get it.

Unfortunately this explanation does not do much for Acton’s saying. For in what sense, then, does power corrupt? Far from being a deep insight, Acton’s saying misses the real point: we are all bad people, and the politicians are just the ones with the most opportunity to do bad. That’s still important, but it’s not how Acton’s phrase is usually interpreted.

 

(3)

Here’s a third possibility. Perhaps access to power invokes and amplifies various psychological biases and heuristics in ways that are dangerous. We are prone to overconfidence, we tend to accept overly simple explanations and narratives, and we are very poor at spotting our own mistakes and biases. And perhaps these biases drive us to do things that we’d never think we’d do when we come into positions of power.

On this view, Acton’s saying becomes the political equivalent of that other old chestnut: opportunity makes a thief. Here  is a piece that suggests that this is what goes on. The process here is not exactly the kind of corruption discussed under (1) and (2). For these biases do not change our selves, nor merely allow us to do what we always wanted to do. Instead, they strengthen the worst in us.

I don’t find this explanation entirely satisfactory either. If power simply amplifies parts of us that are already there, then its corrupting effects are at best limited. But what, then, about the part that says that absolute power corrupts absolutely? Can this account deal with that? Being biased and overconfident is one thing. Being Mobuto Sese Seko or Stalin is quite another.

Maybe the truth lies in the combination of (some of) these stories. Or maybe we should add something like the fact that human beings are capable of desensitizing themselves to the humanity of others , with horrific effects. I am not sure. What do you think?

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  • eccentric-opinion

    I think the extent to which power corrupts is overrated. Rather, it is that corrupt (in a broad sense) people tend to seek power. I don’t think 2008 Obama intended to enact all the policies he enacts now, but if he had been asked to imagine the situations in which he would enact those policies, he would imagine a larger set of situations (the current situation among them) in which such policies would be acceptable than the set that a libertarian would imagine.

    • Sean II

      Having known enough of them to say so, I can attest that power holders really are a different breed to begin with. You can’t even get to the show without two traits: a.) The ability (which only grows from a grave psychic defect) to intuitively channel stupid people and say whatever they like to hear, and b.) The capacity to look at something terrible (like a fresh heap of dead fireman) and immediately start thinking which tie would work best at your press conference.

      Of course this does not rule out the possibility that power also poisons normal people, when they happen to find themselves holding it.

  • Mattheus von Guttenberg

    I tend to think more that power is simply magnetic to the corruptible. Noble hearted people have no interest in ruling others or being ruled.

    • Philopoemen

      Didn’t Socrates say something to that effect?

      • Mattheus von Guttenberg

        In Book II of the Republic, Plato (speaking as Socrates) gives us the case of the Ring of Gyges. He supposes that all men, if given a ring that made them invisible, would use it to commit crimes. There is some discussion on the nature of the truly just man, if he would use it or not, etc. A relevant point.

    • Les Kyle Nearhood

      You made my point, sorry i posted before I saw your post. But that is how i see it. Although I think maybe circumstances along with power might corrupt a good person.

    • Theresa Klein

      I kind of don’t think that’s right. We like to *think* that we have no desire to rule others, but maybe that’s just our way of rationalizing the fact that we’re not that powerful. Like a child’s “I didn’t really like him anyway!” when rejected. We convince ourselves that we didn’t *really* want the things that we’re not strong, or smart, or rich or lucky enough to have, to make ourselves feel better about not having them.

      • Mattheus von Guttenberg

        Who knows, Theresa? I’ve never been presented with the opportunity to rule it over others, so I can’t testify that I would in fact turn the offer down. All I know is that I consider political power revolting and the people who desire it ravenous and unscrupulous.

    • Vangel

      That is rather naive. Even those that mean well tend to use their power to coerce others to act in ways that they would reject normally. As Alberto Mingardi noted in his commentary on Tolkien and power, Tolkien took the view that power will always corrupt and will always tend towards evil. That is why when the Ping of Power is offered to him Gandalf rejects it by staing:

      “No! With that power I should have power too great and terrible. And over me the Ring would gain a power still greater and more deadly! Do not tempt me! For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself. Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strenght to do good. Do not tempt me! I dare not take it, not even to keep it safe, unused” (The Lord of the Rings, 2001, p. 60.)

      http://mises.org/daily/899/Tolkien-v-Power

      I think that many libertarians that are on the left have a rather naive view of human nature. We do not live in a utopia where men are selfless and come to power because they are nice and good. We live in human society and down here human nature is not what many on this site want or expect it to be.

  • Les Kyle Nearhood

    Another possibility to consider. Corrupt or easily corruptible people are drawn to positions of power in the first place.

    • Sean II

      The funny thing is…I think a lot of statists recognize this. If you ask them whether they think political candidates are nice people in the general case, they’ll say “of course not!”.

      But ask them what they think of FDR or Nixon or whoever, and suddenly they just love the guy.

      The obvious if perfectly crazy conclusion is they must believe power ennobles rather than corrupts. Or perhaps they believe true purity is possible only with power.

      • purple_platypus

        Or, here’s a crazy thought, maybe they think MOST of them are bastards, but there’s a handful of exceptions here and there. (Having said that, I don’t know anyone who thinks Nixon was one of them.) You know, there are people other than libertarians whose views are more nuanced than can be summarized in a ten-second soundbite.

        • Les Kyle Nearhood

          Yea, but they are all wrong.

  • Joy_M_H

    Power allows the actor to behave in her own way regardless of the information flow. In human relations, this allows for actions that stray from the moral ideal, aka corruption.
    David Graeber discusses this (see: http://www.haujournal.org/index.php/hau/article/view/120), and in feminist circles is known as the “threat of violence”.

  • j r

    You may be over-thinking this. Power is the opportunity to affect other people. The more opportunity one has, the more likely they are to avail themselves of that opportunity.

    Put another way, there is a price to pay for messing with others. If someone has something you want, it might be nice to just take it, but doing that would open you up to all sorts of repercussions. The more powerful you are, the less likely you are to face those repercussions and the less they would mean to you anyway. Power reduces the price you have to pay for messing with other people. When price goes down, consumption goes up.

  • Jameson Graber

    Here’s another theory: power doesn’t so much “corrupt” politicians as it does give them illusory visions of reality, in the form of grand narratives between good and evil. George W. Bush, in particular, seems to really believe his own rhetoric: there is a “war on terror” against an “axis of evil,” and during such grand epic battles against evil one must often take actions that appear extreme. So no, of course you, humble George, living in your Texas ranch and going to church on Sunday, would never spy on your neighbor. But once you put on your cape and try to save the world, well, it’s victory at all costs, no?

    (Just think about how many buildings blew up during the fight scene in the last Superman movie, eh?)

  • Matt Pierce

    I think the question is best answered by considering who or what is being corrupted. Lord Acton’s phrase makes the most sense if we think in terms of corruption of the system, rather than the individual. Power corrupts insofar as it erodes the system’s ability to temper the exercise of such power. I view Lord Acton’s phrase to be most insightful if interpreted not to assert that particular individuals are more likely to form corrupt attitudes when in power, but rather that all individuals have the similar inability to make decisions that will subordinate one’s own (necessarily self-interested) worldview to broadly accepted moral and political principles. The extent to which power is unevenly distributed is roughly proportionate to the extent to which widely-held norms will be undermined in practice. This is probably closest to #2 above, with the caveat that I do not think we are all “bad people” so much as “inherently incapable of designing a system that delivers outcomes which are broadly acceptable, no matter how well-meaning our designs.”

  • Fernando Teson

    Nice post, Bas.
    Why not simply treat this (as most other issues) as a matter of incentives? Occupying a position of power means facing a new set of incentives. Essentially, people in power are able to reduce the cost of acting in self-interest. A powerful politicians can violate the rights of others and get away with it more easily than you and I. Alas, many people in power succumb to the temptation. So maybe the word “corrupts” is metaphorical in Acton’s dictum. It simply means: when you are in power, the costs of unjustly harming others are low.

    • Basvandervossen

      So most people here seem to go for #2 above. And that’s what the language of incentives you use seems to suggest too – we’re already corrupt, the powerful just have access to the rewards of corruption.

      • Fernando Teson

        Yes. But we are not all equally corrupt: the virtue of a person is his/her ability to resist the temptation. The problem, as I see it, is that the person who ALREADY reached power has compromised enough with the truth and the good.

  • Devon Sanchez

    “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.” – Lord Acton

    I agree with Lord Acton’s case against the state apparatus and the office of “absolute” power some individuals hold. But, I disagree with Lord Acton’s justification. I don’t believe “power” tends to corrupt. What kind of power? Power can corrupt. Just as gambling can ruin lives. Similarly to that point, can one prove that people who grow in rough upbringing tend to be bad people?

    “Great men” are not almost always bad men. I understand he is probably speaking of men in public office but, regardless, the statement alone does not lead everyone to understand that nor is it true. Many men who hold office of power in public and/or private business are “great men”. Many are not. Some men of private office hold tremendous power and influence, sometimes great political influence, and yet they do not corrupt.

    Much of what he said has merit. Much does not.
    Do not try to suppose what he meant purely by that statement alone.
    Please read his entire address to Mandell Creighton.
    http://www.mcadamreport.org/Acton.html

    • steven johnson

      “There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”
      Unlike Thomas Paine, Lord Acton’s congregation of one exercises the power of the chair. I suppose his admirers excommunicate from their society of mind that commit the unforgivable sin of declaring his spirit to be demonic? This credo is admired because it epitomizes the stony heart of conservatism (including libertarianism.)
      Searching for meaning in “power” and “corrupt” and even “absolute” is irrelevant. Lord Acton merely declares that human nature is rotten, unfit to exercise power. It is a heresy against this divine (i.e., Acton’s) revelation that human’s inevitably misuse their power. That is why the state, composed of inevitably wicked men, is disqualified from intervening in the natural order. The natural order has been serfdom, slavery and capitalism at various times. It would be logical to apply this alleged insight into human nature to lords, slaveholders and billionaires, but all this is ideological. It merely mocks reason.
      It is powerlessness that perverts human nature. Sycophancy and deceit and apathy and soul-destroying cynicism are the legal tender of interpersonal commerce. The power of reason itself is undermined when the powerless are reduced to passive contemplation of their reality. Humanity learns by doing, not obeying. Lord Acton’s big lie betrays his monstrous malice, except to those who share it.

  • Fallon

    I bet that political power does affect the chemicals of the brain. Not unlike what happens to rapists while in the act. Or boys while torturing helpless animals.There is an element of self-selection in all, too. Some politicians are better at hiding the affects, and their intentions to get a fix, sometimes from themselves– like experienced drunks or serial killers. But others are not. The euphoric arrogance, stupidity and sadism shines through. Review the life of any Kennedy. Or Obama wasting that American teenager via drone. Nancy Pelosi’s almost Masterpiece Theater type of aristocratic insanity, very common among the elites, whenever she speaks at all, e.g. ‘Let’s pass the bill to find out what’s in it’. Former Sec of State Alex Haig after Reagan was shot, ‘I am in control here': Just when VP Bush, constitutionally the contingent successor, was on his way into DC…..

    That people put up with the madness may be an equal insanity, stupidity and masochism.

    • Basvandervossen

      But are the changes of a #1 sort or a #3 sort?

      • Fallon

        The popular ‘All politicians are crooks’ meme is pragmatic speech. If the philosophy police were loosed to enforce strict logical semantics the social world would come to a halt. Was Acton writing pragmatically or like a member of the Vienna Circle? Granted, I would say that there are no crooks, only crooked acts. Other than that, the question is about nature v. nurture. Can this really be settled? What about the politician that does what the public believes is right and even follows the rule book. Do they feel the libido domini, too? There are at least two instances of action, the positive political act, and then the impunity that follows. One could rape and go to jail. Or one could rape and then exercise political privilege staying free of prosecution. There may be a tinge of gratification in just knowing if one did X that there would be no consequences…

        As an observation, former elects do continue criminality after office, whether on K Street, Faux News or butt-sitting on special unearned pensions.

  • Theresa Klein

    People are self-interested and rationalizing. Power gives the the opportunity to do things that are self-interested, and they tend to find post hoc rationalizations to justify those actions.

    We find it ridiculous today that monarchs once justified their power by “divine right”. But people believed that for hundreds of years. People are pretty much capable of convincing themselves of the justness of doing anything that’s in their self-interest.

    I think the corruption is that, the rationalizing of doing what is in one’s self-interest that inevitably takes place.

  • JPeron

    I think our friends in Public Choice have done a lot of work on answering this question. Largely the reason that power corrupts is that power changes the incentives people have in dealing with other people. Clerks at the DMV are notoriously slow and unconcerned about customers. Is this because the DMV only hires lazy people or because the incentives are all wrong to give good services.

    In New Zealand there is no DMV and driver’s licenses are issued by the Automobile Association, which has offices open 7 days a week, short lines and attentive clerks. It isn’t because they just hire such people but because their incentives are very different from the incentives faced by people at the DMV.

    Power changes how people may deal with one another and those with power, like everyone else, maximize their benefits and minimize their costs. But how they can do this is very different than how others can do it. That changes everything.

  • MichaelDrew

    In this context, I think corruption refers to the use of power for personal or other parochial ends, rather than (or beyond) the ends for which the office that gives the corrupted person the power in question has, in a broad interpretation, been constituted in order to advance (usually the public good in some fashion conceived).

    Thus, in the case of an absolute and unquestioned monarchy, where it is not assumed that there is any difference between the personal ends of an officeholder and the ends for which that office is established, there is no such thing as corruption; there is just tyranny. A truly absolute monarch (as vice a constitutional monarch) can’t be corrupt, because there aren’t any ends it would be illegitimate for him to pursue within the scope of his rule (though his entire rule may be itself illegitimate). Other officeholders, the purposes of whose offices are defined by some body other than the officeholder himself (whether representing the public or representing some part thereof, or acting with other authority), can be corrupted insomuch as their actions are taken to purposes (I would say explicitly) other than the advancement of the ends to which the office was established.

    • Damien S.

      I think you’re misunderstanding ‘corruption’. The absolute monarch can’t be corrupt in the sense of breaking the formal laws, but he can be morally corrupt, doing things he should not do, whether by some divine morality, utilitarian calculus, or even a “I am the benevolent father to my people” justification.

      • MichaelDrew

        I don’ think I’m misunderstanding corruption, even if you differ on the nature of the theoretical obligations of absolute monarchy. I’m not saying that whatever the absolute monarch does is moral, I’m just saying that it can’t be corrupt, because nothing is outside the definition of the purpose of the office. You could say that an absolute monarch rules to the best interests of his people, but if that is laid down in some substantive way somewhere, then that delimitation on the scope of his legitimate prerogative defeats the stipulation that his rule is absolute (whatever he does is pursuant to the purposes of his office, because the purposes of his office are identical to his own purposes, whatever they are).

        But that’s beside the point – just an example. I’m not confused about corruption – corruption is using the power of an office for personal or parochial ends that are outside the purposes for which the office has been established.

        • Damien S.

          No. Corruption has many more meanings that that. Moral perversion; impairment of virtue and moral principles. Depravity. Wickedness.

          Acton is pretty obviously saying that even if you start with good intentions, power will tend to turn you bad.

          • MichaelDrew

            Obviously the word has those meanings. The question was, what is the relevant meaning here?

            I’m glad you’re clear about what you think Acton meant, because I disagree. i don’t think that he meant absolute power corrupts the person morally absolutely. I think he meant that absolute power leads to absolute disregard for what the legitimate purposes of the office that’s held are, and thus completely heedless use of its power for personal or parochial purposes.

  • Kevin

    I think it’s a combination of the 3, with #1 providing the base definition: “power corrupts” means that once you have power, you are willing to use it in ways that you would not have approved of if you did not have that power. This change of opinion can be permanent, but it is an opinion about having power, so it is only employed with power.

    Most corruption probably arises from the moral compromises required to attain and maintain power, but if we restrict ourselves to simply having power, then the primary cause of corruption is probably that the more power you have, the more you are responsible for outcomes. The real problem is that we suck at predicting outcomes and only those arrogant enough to believe they can, seek such power.

    Libertarian positions are particularly prone to corruption because their good is more often evident statistically long-term, rather than in every individual case short-term, which means that we must endure the harms of liberty for a greater good.

    Ironically, this too may appear to be a desensitization to the humanity of others. As God, you’d have to stand there and watch evil and mistakes and not intercede.

  • Damien S.

    Of course, political power isn’t the only kind of power. Bosses have power, as part of the economic hierarchy and even more so if the employees have few alternatives. Wealth is a power of its own: “Hey, I’ll give you $10 million to murder this person I don’t like. To you it’s more money than you’ll ever earn in your life, to me it’s pocket change.”

    The minarchist dream is a state that’s absolutely powerful enough to curb abuses by the wealthy (such as raising private armies), yet powerless enough to not be corruptible. It’s an interesting balance, shall we say.

  • Vangel

    “…what does it really mean to say that power corrupts?”

    It means that men are not angels and those that tend to have power over others will use it to coerce others to do things that they may not choose to do willingly.

  • Benkarkis

    I support the people that say Politics attracts people who want to wield power and influence the lives of others.
    Whether power corrupts? I don’t even know what “corruption” means in this context of Lord Acton. That your ego becomes inflated with hubris?

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  • Reverend Draco

    Wimpy said it best: “I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a Hamburger today.”

    Wimpy was a fat old Politician.

    That sentence is a perfect example of the mind of an addict at work, insofar as an addict’s mind does, when it comes to their addiction.
    From Cigarette smokers to Heroin addicts to Politicians, it’s all the same thing, mang.. . . it’s an Addiction.

    Take your Nicotine addict. He runs out of smokes, ain’t got a dime in his pocket. What’s he do? Goes to his friend’s house, the guy next door, and tells him, “Hey man, I’m outta smokes and I don’t get paid til tomorrow.
    I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a pack of smokes today.”

    Now. . . here we have a Heroin addict (cocaine addict, alcoholic, whatever), who has run out of his favorite dope. Check the pockets. . . Damn! No more cash til payday. . .
    Off to his friend, the Dope Dealer (since the Federales won’t let him go to 7-11 – for the Non-Corporate Drugs, anyway), and tells him, “Dood. . . I need a fix bad. . . I’m hurtin. . . but I don’t get paid til tomorrow.
    I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a mainliner today.”

    Starting to seem familiar?

    Our next Addict is the CEO of a Major Corporation. His business make a fucking fortune selling 100 year old technology at State-of-the-Art prices.
    But, people haven’t been buying as much of the shit he sells as they used to (because they’re fucking Broke), so he starts suffering from Money Withdrawals.
    Off he goes to his Dope Dealer in Washington D.C. (they have the best shit, mang), and tells him, “I need you to pass a bill to take money from people to Subsidize my business cause people ain’t buying.
    I will gladly pay you Tuesday for the Law you pass today.”

    Scary, ain’t it?

    Last, but not Least, we have Wimpy’s nephew, the Politician. Followed in his Uncle’s footsteps (cause his Dad went bankrupt trying to compete with Mr. Subsidy from the example above).
    He is feeling the effects of his addiction; the Power he has doesn’t give that same wonderful rushy-glowy feeling anymore. So to get that rush again, he needs more Power. Where do Politicians get Power? By making a new law to take Power from us. Therefore, he needs a bill passed in a hurry, there’s more money to steal for his friend with the Subsidized business (and not a few million for his own pocket, to boot), and a Rush of Power. So he goes to one of his peers (another addict like himself, as do most of us with addictions), and tells him, “I really need to get this bill passed, today preferably. I need you to vote for it, and since you have a Pet Law that goes up for a vote tomorrow, I will gladly pay you Tuesday for the vote you cast today.”

    Power is an addiction just like any other. Lord Acton said, “Power Corrupts; Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely.” But thats not quite the deal. . . Power is a Drug. Power gives it’s users a Rush just like Heroin, Cocaine, Meth. . . and people get Addicted to Power, same as any other drug. . . after a while, the Power one has isn’t enough. . . it just makes them feel Normal. . . Just like a Heroin addict has to do a certain amount of dope just to get through the day, to get that Rush again requires a larger amount of dope be taken.

    Power is Addictive. Absolute Power Addicts Absolutely.

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