By Bas van der Vossen
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:
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 neighbours, 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.
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.
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?
*The article was previously published on Bleeding Heart Libertarians
Bas van der Vossen is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina Greensboro. He received his DPhil from Oxford University and has published articles in journals such as Law and Philosophy, Politics, Philosophy, and Economics, and Oxford Journal of Legal Studies. His research interests lie in political philosophy and the philosophy of law. He has written on topics such as state legitimacy, the duty to obey the law, and original appropriation.