It’s so common a phrase as to be received wisdom:
“Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
You’ve probably heard this phrase bandied about in political conversations since you knew what politics was. In fact, you’ve probably said it yourself, especially if you’re in the small-government circle. It has the power of a proverb. But it’s not true.
I know, I know. But as James Madison once pointed out when talking about the Constitution and term lengths, proverbs are not always true. In his case, he was contending with the claim that any term over a year long would invite tyranny. In my case, I contend with the popular misquote of Lord Acton.
Lord Acton, who was a 19th-century British Catholic historian and author, was a famous classical liberal whose name has been given to a modern think-tank. He spoke out strongly against the doctrine of papal infallibility during his time, though without effect. It was during his arguments on whether or not historical figures should be held accountable that he wrote this letter. The full quote is actually this:
“Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. People in power tend to be corrupt. But there’s a cause/effect problem here. Lord Acton is certainly more correct than the misquote, but he makes the same cause/effect mistake. Power, by itself, possesses no moral qualities. It is a tool to be used or not used; the blame is in the user. Therefore, the fact that those in power tend toward corruption so much as to make that trait ubiquitous says more about human nature than it does power itself.
Essentially, I’m saying that power does not corrupt. It reveals corruption.
The fact of the matter is that we can’t necessarily gain, in a single blog post, enough of a true historical account to paint the picture necessary. However, three very different men come to mind when examining this problem: David, King of Israel; Caligula, Emperor of Rome; and George Washington, President of the United States.
David’s example is necessary because he is shown blatantly to be a man of integrity. On several occasions, he is the only Israelite with the faith necessary to do what is right. For this he is called a man after God’s own heart. However, in one of the more famous stories of his life (2 Samuel 11-12), he committed adultery with Bathsheba, murdered one of his own men to cover it up, and then did not repent until God sent a prophet to convict him. That is a next-level failure of moral quality, and he could not have possibly gotten away with it if not for his position as absolute ruler of Israel.
However, it is clear from a simple reading of 2 Samuel 11 that David did not commit this sin because he was King, but rather was capable of doing so because of his position. This is a necessary distinction. David would not have been capable of this sort of conspiracy if he had wished to, had he remained a shepherd. But, given the absolute power of Kingship, he got away with it – until God stepped in.
The example of David demonstrates how power enables corruption.
Of the horrifying Roman emperors, Nero tends to get all the credit. Sure, he was even worse than Caligula was. The difference is that while Nero was clearly insane, I’m not certain Caligula was. According to the account of Roman historian Suetonius, Caligula would often quote the line “Let them hate, provided that they fear!” His terrors were deliberate, intended to corral the Senate to support him despite their reservations, out of fear of retribution. He was, of course, assassinated.
However, something interesting is contained in Suetonius’ ancient account of the despot. Rather than blame the position for Caligula’s behavior, Suetonius repeatedly calls Caligula a monster, and implies it is his nature that is corrupt, not the office of Emperor. In fact, he gives examples from Caligula’s childhood to demonstrate how terrible he was, even as a youth.
Caligula’s example demonstrates how corruption is intrinsic. Not once in Suetonius’ work is the power of the Emperor blamed. It is always Caligula himself.
Unlike the previous two rulers, Washington never had absolute power – but he probably could have, if he had wanted it. In 1783, several of the soldiers under his command, frustrated and mistreated by Congress, decided they would take action. This was called the Newburgh Conspiracy, and it’s possible that even Alexander Hamilton was sympathetic to them. After all, the soldiers had not been properly paid as they were promised, Congress had largely ignored their plight, and in their estimation, Washington would get things done much more efficiently than the slow-moving, often parvenu Congress.
Washington had none of it. As soon as he heard of the conspiracy, he attended the meeting of it. Though many officers were, in essence, calling for a military dictatorship, he gave a short speech calling for patience. It wasn’t so much the speech that moved the officers to back down from their plans for a coup. It was that, to read a letter from Congress afterward, he had to use glasses, saying “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.” This reminder of Washington’s dedication to the country they were essentially seeking to overthrow stopped the conspiracy in its tracks.
Washington demonstrates that a principled person rejects absolute power for himself.
What does this all mean?
What we can learn from these examples, though admittedly incomplete, is that while power does not corrupt, anyone aware of their own intrinsic corruption will reject absolute power. The only way to avoid abusing power is to restrict its access to yourself, because any time one gives in to their own corruption, the severity of the consequences – and how far those desires will go – is determined by how much power they have. Power does not make one evil, but it greatly increases one’s capacity for it.
Even though it is incredibly common to hear, the proverb that power corrupts is empirically untrue. This does not, in any sense, mean we should limit political power any less. We should just understand why that is necessary.
Our responsibility is to use the tool of power wisely.
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