Power Tends to Corrupt

A lot of things can be said about power but perhaps nothing has the accuracy and longevity of the observation of the English historian, Lord Acton (John Dalberg-Acton) (1834-1902) on the matter. In a 1887 letter he wrote:

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 certainty of corruption by full authority. There is no worse heresy than the fact that the office sanctifies the holder of it.

The first bit quoted above is often misquoted as “power corrupts” — leaving out the operative word tends.. It’s only a tendency, not a certainty. A little bit of power may or may not corrupt, depending on the character of the person. But no matter who, absolute power corrupts extremely and without fail.

Great men are almost always bad men. Try as one might, it is hard to deny that proposition even upon casual observation, let alone after a careful study of history. I cannot resist quoting a few lines preceding “power tends to corrupt.”.

…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. … Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. 

I wish the truth about power were taught in high school. It would immunize us against a lot of romantic notions about how wonderful the leaders of humanity are, or have been.

I have, to the limited degree I can, tried to find one example of a great man or woman — someone powerful enough to direct the fortunes of very large collectives and used it — who was not finally recognized to be bad. I can’t think of even one.

Note that I am not talking about some garden-variety, small time do-gooder neighborhood political leader or the CEO of some corporation; I am talking about people whose names are mentioned in history books and monuments built to their glory. (Please leave a comment if you can name one.)

As a rule of thumb, a heuristic, you can safely assume that they, the truly great movers and shakers of society, are bad people. No exceptions. It is said the bigger the guy, the harder the fall. It can be also said the bigger the guy, most likely the bigger the crook.

I think it has to do with the nature of the business. If you are the head honcho of a rinky-dinky one-horse town, the power you wield is so pathetically weak that it cannot go to your head unless of course you are pathologically deluded. But if you are the dear leader of a nuclear armed great nation (take your pick), you are likely to suffer from the pathologies of power. You may have started off being a nice guy but by the time you got to where you have the power, you have hopelessly lost whatever humanity you had.

The leaders of great nations commit the biggest crimes. Why?  Because they can. They have the opportunity and they do it.

That’s somewhat like like what the mountaineer George Mallory replied to a New York Times reporter in 1923 when asked why he attempted to climb those mountains: “Because it’s there.” As it happens he died in the third failed attempt to climb Everest.

Great men are not any less likely to be misguided morons than the average person. Any “favorable presumption that they can do no wrong” is fantastically wrong. The greatest example of this from recent history — wasn’t a pope or a king but had a much greater insatiable hunger for power — is Mohandas K Gandhi. He was vain enough to answer to the name “mahatma” (great man) and “bapu” (father.). Not all who are insane end up at the asylum; some get to kill millions and ruin nations.

As I wrote above, it would be good for us to learn in our younger years the nature of power and what it does to people. It would help us in recognizing the horror of our predicament in not being able to improve our collective lot.

There is a way out, and it’s simple to state. Make the collective smaller if you wish to avoid the insanity that accompanies power. (More about that later.)

What prompted this piece? Today on NPR I  listened to the program “Hidden Brain”, hosted by Shankar Vedantam. The episode “Who Gets Power — And Why It Can Corrupt Even The Best Of Us.” was excellent. It’s 50 minutes long but trust you me it’s worth a listen. Download the mp3 and listen to it while doing the dishes or commuting.

8 thoughts on “Power Tends to Corrupt

  1. Although, I agree that generally speaking, concentration of power is undesirable, still I don’t think it’s wholly correct that power always tends to corrupt.
    Abraham Lincoln once said,
    “If you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
    The message being that power is a test of an individual’s character. Not all those who have power turn out with base character.
    Take example of probably the only politician you’re a fan of, Lee Kuan Yew. The man had power, and he transformed the collective from the state of desperate poverty to a developed lot. I don’t know if you’d characterize him as ‘bad.’ And if you would, then I guess his bad nature worked.

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    1. Keshav, you wrote, “I don’t think it’s wholly correct that power always tends to corrupt”. Right. And that’s precisely what I wrote and emphasized that the word “tends” must be kept in mind. I wrote:

      It’s only a tendency, not a certainty. A little bit of power may or may not corrupt, depending on the character of the person. But no matter who, absolute power corrupts extremely and without fail.

      Lincoln’s quote on the matter is consistent with mine.

      I think it is worth reading carefully what Lord Acton wrote. “Great men are almost always bad men …” Almost always. If Lee Kuan Yew was indeed a great man, then he is the exception that justifies the “almost” qualification to “always.” In my opinion, LKY was a great man who was not a bad man. We must also keep in mind, that though he was very powerful, Singapore is a very small state, and therefore his power was severely limited. He was a very big fish in a very small pond. He was no Churchill or Lincoln or Mao or Stalin.

      Thanks for bringing up his case.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Don’t the US founding fathers qualify for being great and good, genius etc?

    A lot of them wanted nothing more than to keep the govt powers in check, and when their time came they gave up their post/power without a second thought.

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    1. As I always say, the leaders that a country gets is a random draw. The US got lucky and drew aces. India got unlucky and drew a couple of jokers. You know who.

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      1. nah, it’s not “luck”. There was the enlightenment, the spread of reason which happened in western societies.. basically they sat down and did the work on “how must we run civilization?”

        And once that culture was ready, it was a matter of time, a Thomas Jefferson came along wrote some high minded stuff.

        One theory I heard on some podcast is, the weather conditions and lack of farm land made the west desperate, that if they don’t figure the how-to for societies, they’d be dead soon.

        India and China with all their abundant farm land, always had enough rice and grains to keep everyone fed, so there never was an urgency to come up with complex philosophical principles on running societies.

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