Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Everyone has heard and read this phrase many times over their life. Many stand by this supposedly deeply true and meaningful common phrase, and some of you reading this as well surely believe in the truth of this statement. It sure seems true; after all, look at all the terrible things that people have done over history when given great centralized power: Adolf Hitler, Genghis Khan, Maximilien Robespierre, and people like Barack Obama today, our former
terrorist Nobel Peace Prize-winning pacifist-in-chief. These people had and have great centralized control―power―and use it to subdue opposition as well as outright kill, but what is power?
Power, like many terms used in regular language, is one of those terms that everyone uses a lot yet know very little about. Power appears in the common usage as a near mystical term, evoking in mind the likes of wizards and witches who can destroy and bend reality to their whim. We say of such fantastic imaginary beings that they are powerful―full of power. We say of a fire wizard that they have the power of fire, or of voodoo witches that they have the power to curse someone, and we say of politicians that they are powerful people. What does power mean? Though it is clear that very few people think of it, in common usage, power means simply the capacity to do. Don’t believe me? You don’t have to even look it up in a dictionary, though it would certainly help a lot of people. It’s all in the way we use the word and what its use conveys.
If power is simply the capacity to do, the great myth that power corrupts and should not be sought falls apart. Power is a good thing; we as human beings always want more power. We want to increase our capacities to do anything. There is the power of art—the capacity to create art―there is the power of charisma—the capacity to move people to action; the list goes on. In our personal lives, we want power―all the power we can possibly get―be given, and develop ourselves. Power is how we actualize anything we want to make or do.
Now, the power that is targeted by the phrase “power corrupts…” is a specific kind of power: power over people, i.e. social power. However, this is not enough of qualification to make sense. People like Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi¹, and Vladimir Lenin all had this kind of power, and in great quantity, yet we generally look upon these people with some kind of reverence². So to make sense of the phrase it is also necessary to make a qualification that a specific use of social power is what is being referred to: social power through ‘negative’ force of violence of some form, or fear of something else induced to make people cede to one’s power. Here people generally lump the likes of Hitler and Stalin as proofs of the phrase, though this is done with mental abstraction from real determinate differences between these two.
So now that it’s clarified what the phrase refers to and very vaguely really wants to say, does it hold true? No. Martin Luther King Jr., at the height of his place in the Civil Rights Movement in the US, could have called for a revolution of blacks and would have gotten it had he done so. Likewise, Gandhi could have called upon the Indians he had influence over and called for the violent overthrow of the British and would have gotten it. In the case of Lenin, well, we know what he did. These individuals had great power, yet we generally—except for anarchists who hate Lenin—think they did not abuse their power.
Now, suppose that the structures of power are staffed by a vile and rotten bunch, such as the Democratic Party in the US. Well, in that case, tapping into that power would indeed commit one to be just as rotten as they are; perhaps not directly, but certainly indirectly insofar as one aids in maintaining that party as a whole³. Can we not then say that such structures are corrupting? Well, if by corrupt you mean ‘incentivize those willing to be corrupt to actually be corrupt because, hey, why not?’ then sure, I agree. Structures of power where the corrupt can easily be openly corrupt are definitely magnets for people susceptible to being corrupted. But if it is the case that these people are open to corruption, is it anything meaningful to say they are corrupted when this is just what they are willing to do to achieve their personal ends? Is it even coherent to say the structure of power which is full of said people is itself corrupt? Corruption starts looking less likely, and the fact that this is what these structures and people really are and do begins to seem far more likely.
“Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is false. Power, as it is what it is, allows the actualization of what already inheres in people. Power does not corrupt; it reveals who people really are to the extent that it allows them to. That most people become unethical and begin to treat people as cogs as extensions of their will given the chance only reveals what most people already feel about their fellow humans. I reiterate: power does not corrupt; it reveals who people really are.
1. He wasn’t that nice.
2. Well, perhaps not so much in our corner of the Left.
3. Political sheep dogs do this.