“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”But I’m not sure that this statement, however famous it may be, captures the essential truth about the relationship. Or at least, that it captures all that is essential about the truth of how power and corruption are connected.
In saying that power tends to corrupt, Lord Acton appears to be saying that if one adds power to a person’s pre-existing character, that character gets changed for the worse. This is how people almost always use Acton’s famous dictim, and I think it is only a limited part of the picture.
Another part of the picture is suggested by the statement from the author David Brin:
It is said that power corrupts, but actually it’s more true that power attracts the corruptible.”According to this view, if we see a great deal of corruption in the arena of power –and regrettably we surely do– it is because the kinds of people who choose to participate in power’s games are a non-random and morally sub-par group.
This view has a good deal of truth to it, methinks. Power is indeed an arena in which a zer0-sum game is enacted, and it therefore attracts a disproportionate number of those who want more than their fair share. (See for example an earlier essay of mine, “Evil and the Oval Office: A Half-Baked Idea,” at www.nonesoblind.org/blog/?p=394.)
It would be comforting to think that the extent of corruption one sees in the sphere of power were solely a reflection of this process of selection and self-selection that brings the corrupt forward to fill powerful positions. If prison guards tend toward the sadistic, one might conclude, it is because the role of prison guard is likely to be sought by people who wish to fill a role in which their sadism can express itself.
But then there’s that famous Stanford study in which students were randomly divided into guards and prisoners for the sake of an experiment, and in which the guards began rather quickly to manifest sadistic behaviors toward the prisoners, who as a group were indistinguishable from themselves just a few days before.
These “guards” were not an especially “corruptible” group who, because of their tendencies, were attracted to that powerful role.
I’m inclined to regard power less as a transformer of people’s character, as Acton asserts, than as source of opportunity: the possession of power permits people to make manifest a part of their nature that previously was hidden. Not that power corrupts. Rather, power gives people a chance to express impulses that others –those who are weak, and thus subject to the will of others, and those who act among equals who require them to stay within certain boundaries– keep a lid on.
This is a darker view than Lord Acton’s. And darker also than Brin’s. For it declares that there is corruption already embedded in the character of a great many people, and that giving such people the wider scope of action that comes with power simply serves as an invitation to put forth into the world the darkness that is already there.
And then, as people are also shaped by the actions they have taken, Lord Acton’s dictim comes in again: having enacted their worst impulses, people are also transformed into something more corrupt than they had been. Were those Stanford students undiminished by what they had done? Were Hitler’s Willing Executioners not degraded by their crimes? Power, by enabling corrupt actions, does corrupt.
Note, however, that I am NOT maintaining that such corruption is universal. Not ALL the prison guards in the Stanford experiment became sadistic. And not ALL the people who gain power in our world use it for corrupt purposes. Some rulers have used their power justly, for the good, without abuse, without corrupt and self-serving intent.
But there’s a final point to be made– a point of a wholly different sort: when someone in power participates in corruption, it is not necessarily a sign of corruption of character.
Imagine a person in a position of power who has reliable access to divine guidance. And suppose that the nature of this divine guidance is reliably moral in a consequentialist sense of the word. In other words, the guidance tells this powerful person which action among those available will do the most to make the world a better place. And imagine, finally, that this person invariably follows that moral/consequentialist counsel.
This thoroughly uncorrupted person in power, I am asserting, will often be guided to choose a course of action that involves him in corruption. [Note: as I speak of “he” and “him” I wish those pronouns to be understood as also including “she” and “her.”]
If our hypothetical powerful and uncorrupt person possessed COMPLETE power, this would not be the case. He could simply decide always and only for the good, and so it would be. But in the actual world, no one’s power is ever so total as that. And therefore, to to accomplish good, he will need to make common cause with others.
If he were in an ideal world, making common cause with others in order to achieve the good would not require our sterling leader to become complicit in corruption. But the real world in which he must operate is far from ideal. And among the others with whom he must make common cause there will be some who are corrupt.
A prototypical instance of this is the need, in World War II, for the democracies to make alliance with Stalin, a tyrant on whose hands was already the blood of many millions of his own (Soviet) people before the war had even begun. Another instance is how the creators of the New Deal required as allies the segregationist powers of the Jim Crow South.
Such instances could be multiplied almost endlessly.
This is always one of the consequences of choosing to operate in the realm of power– at least for those who are willing to accept that part of the responsibility that comes with power is the duty to achieve as much good as possible for the world, even though accomplishing that means inevitably that one must get one’s “hands dirty.”
This, incidentally, presents one of the greatest challenges facing citizens in their search for good leaders: how to differentiate between those who indulge in corruption because that suits their purposes, and those who participate in corruption as the necessary means of accomplishing truly good purposes.
So we have a fourth dimension of the relationship between power and corruption. Lord Acton is probably right that power tends to corrupt, and Brin right that power attracts the corruptible (and the corrupt). And power also affords people the opportunity to show the corrupt tendencies they’d previously kept hidden.
And finally, participation in power also requires even the uncorrupt to participate in the corruption of the world.
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