Power Corrupts — Or Does It?

25 Sep

We’re all familiar with the statement attributed to Lord Acton (19th century British historian):

“Power tends to corrupt.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

We want to believe this is NOT true – that if WE, for example, were thrown into power, we would be beloved and benevolent rulers, only doing that which is best for the citizenry, the country, and the world.  And yet, what we observe in the dismantling of effective government in the United States would tend to support Lord Acton’s declaration.

A recent study at the University of Toronto has shed some light on the subject (published in the Journal of Applied Psychology).  Through a series of experiments with 275 people, undergraduate students and working adults, the study concluded that Power itself does not corrupt.

Rather, power tends to exaggerates ANY ethical tendencies.  If your ethical tendencies are overwhelmingly toward compassion, generosity, fairness, etc., you will probably not be corrupted by power.  But if there are any elements of greed, nepotism, racism, negative influence-peddling, etc., these will be greatly exaggerated by the addition of power, and corruption is difficult to avoid.

This seems to me to be a more satisfying interpretation of the effect of power on the powerful.  However, it does seem to raise a follow-on question:  Why does it then seem that  — given the thoroughly corrupted state of politics in this nation — most people who enter politics must go in with unhealthy moral attitudes?  Why don’t we get more people running for office who have a solid grounding in the kind of morality  (incorruptible) that most Americans would like to see exemplified in our elected representatives?

Can truly good people not get elected to office in today’s America?

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2 Responses to “Power Corrupts — Or Does It?”

  1. Joseph Edward Wages September 25, 2012 at 10:36 am #

    Why can good people not get elected, you ask. I can think of two reasons: First, there are no completely good people. All humans have foibles, at least latent foibles. And second, the “good candidate’s” platforms, focused on the good of the nation at large, have little appeal to the fallible electorate with their own foibles.

    It is amazing that our founders were able to design a powerful government and yet build in limits that would keep that power in good check for two hundred years, or so. Unfortunately the trend now is the remove those checks. That trend will eventually be the end of this nation.

    De Tocqueville’s two hundred year limit on the life of democracies seems to apply.

    • illero September 25, 2012 at 10:47 am #

      Good answer — foibles attract foibles. Those without serious foibles can’t attract those with even moderate foibles. Foibles — great word, isn’t it?

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