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Why Power Doesnt Corrupt (Absolutely) | The Anarchist Notebook

The Anarchist Notebook


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Anarchist perspective.

Why Power Doesnt Corrupt (Absolutely)


Posted on December 11, 2014

Why Power Doesnt Corrupt


There is the common adage that power corrupts, and absolute power corrects absolutely when discussing
government and politics.
First used by Lord Acton in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887, the saying is used to describe how
people are seemingly corrupted by power when they obtain it. It is often used to argue for limited government
and separation of powers.
This adage, however well-intentioned, is incorrect, and until this misunderstanding is corrected it will be
difficult for people to move beyond the concept of government as a means of justice, law, security, and other
services.

Power Does not Corrupt A Persons Character, It Reveals It


For the statement to be true, the underlying premise is that a thing or entity corrupts a person. In other words,
it is the object that is evil, and the person is helplessly unable to make their own choices once they receive it.
Based on this logic, the situation defines a person. The problem is power doesnt corrupt a person any more
than giving them a weapon makes them violent. A person can choose to utilize a weapon properly, i.e. using it
only to defend ones self. But they can also use it for immoral purposes. Or they can choose to not use it at all.
A man who uses power for corrupt means was corrupt before he obtained power. Giving him power merely
allows him to fulfill desires he would have otherwise been forced to contain due to limitations placed on him at
the time. Thus, corrupt men will inevitably use power for corrupt purposes, as well as seek more power.
It is common in high school English classes to quote the saying power corrupts when reading George Orwells
novel Animal Farm.
In the novel, Mr. Jones, the owner of the farm, neglects, abuses and mistreats his animals until he is thrown
out. When one of the pigs, Napoleon, takes power, he eventually behaves so human-like that it becomes
impossible for the other animals to tell him apart from Mr. Jones.
Nevertheless, it is evident from the beginning of the novel Napoleon is corrupt, power or no power. It is
through his less-than noble scheming he consolidates power.
Macbeth, Shakespeares tragic play, is another literary example. A brave Scottish general, Macbeth is
rewarded for his gallantry during a battle by King Duncan. But after a group of witches foretell he will become
king, Macbeth is goaded into killing Duncan by his manipulative, scheming wife. Once he assumes the
kingship, he attempts to wipe out his potential rivals, including their children.

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Why Power Doesnt Corrupt (Absolutely) | The Anarchist Notebook

Macbeth is often described as a good man corrupted by power. Yet, if one reads the actual play, they will find
nothing to suggest he was a good man other than his conscience, which he ignores at every turn. His
advancement is solely due to his skills as a soldier. Lady Macbeth immediately exhibits her depravity the
moment she learns about the witches prophecy. Had they been good people, they wouldnt have interpreted
the prophecy to mean they should murder Duncan.

There Are Only Two Types of Men, and Both are Corrupt
Some might say that simply proving corrupt men seek power doesnt mean good men cant become corrupt if
given too much power.
But therein lies the point. All men are born imperfect. The difference between corrupt men and good men
is while one seeks as much power as they can, the other doesnt, not because they are immune to the same
temptations, but because they understand their imperfect nature makes them unfit to have it. If they are given
or attain some power, they dont cling to it, and if they are offered absolute power, they refuse it.
Good men who are seemingly corrupted by power merely appeared to be good due to their circumstances,
only to reveal their true character when given the opportunity to do evil. Power doesnt corrupt a man as much
as it reveals their true nature.
J.R.R. Tolkeins Lord of the Rings demonstrates this well. The One Ring, which represents absolute power, can
only be used for evil, irrespective of a mans intentions for it. Thus, the division between good and corrupt
men is defined by those who accept their flawed nature, such as Faramir, who refuse the Ring when given the
chance, and those like Gollum who kill for it. Even Frodo, who is initially able to resist the power of the Ring
much longer than anyone else, eventually succumbs to the constant temptation.
In the Book of Judges, Gideon defeats a large Midianite army with only 300 men. When he is offered kingship
by the people of Israel as a reward, he immediately turns it down.
Inasmuch as George Washington wasnt flawless, he understood his limitations better than most men. After
the American War for Independence, he resigned his commission from the Continental Army and disbanded it,
rather than use it to take control of the country and make himself a king something aristocrats in Europe
expected him to do.
One needs only look at the current state of the United States Constitution to see where the power corrupts
argument suffers. Americans want to take pride in our Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which outlines a
limited government with checks and balances, as well as specific protections for individual freedom.
Yet, despite these limitations, outrageous instances of unconstitutional actions occur constantly. Its not
because we have an imperfect system, which we do. And it isnt because there is a lack of proper restrictions on
political offices. Those restrictions are there, clear and well-defined. We have corrupt men who, surprise,
behave corruptly. This is why governments eventual degrade and nations fall.
Perhaps one of the problems is that the power corrupts saying inevitably leads to the conclusion, however
subtle, that as long as we have restrictions on government, our freedoms and rights are protected no matter
who is elected. Casual observation of our political situation easily refutes this idea.
This isnt to suggest it is acceptable for a man to hold great power as long as he has sufficiently good
character. That is the point. There will never be a perfect government system precisely because there is no
good man devoid of total depravity.
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Why Power Doesnt Corrupt (Absolutely) | The Anarchist Notebook

In the end, this is the fatal flaw of all government. Men are by nature prone to corruption. Corrupt men who
act on their nature inevitably seek absolute power, absolutely.
Their goal is only made possible through government. Through libertarian anarchy, such men are held in check
because they are denied a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, a vital necessity in consolidating power.
Mankind will never progress beyond the concept of the state until it grasps this truth.

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Relat ed

Hell's Angels
If men were angels, no government would be
necessary. That is a famous quote taken from
Federalist #51 by James Madison reflecting on
the nature of man and the necessity of
government. Like the saying power corrupts
In "Central Government"

Money Doesn't Corrupt Politics


A favorite shibboleth among leftists and
Progressives is that we need to get money out
of politics. The common way they propose
to do this is by passing laws restricting the
amount a donor can give or something along
In "presidential campaigns"

The Myth of the Do-Gooder


Theres the old saying that the road to Hell is
paved with good intentions. Much like the
adage that absolute power corrupts
(absolutely), the spirit or intent of what is being
said is accurate, but the actual statement itself
In "federal government"

This entry was posted in libertarianism, Uncategorized and tagged absolute power, absolute power corrupts absolutely, animal farm, bill of rights, corrupt men, faramir,
frodo, george orwell, george washington, gollum, j.r.r. tolkein, King Duncan, Lady Macbeth, limited government, lord of the rings, the one ring, u.s. constitution. Bookmark the
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6 Responses to Why Power Doesnt Corrupt (Absolutely)


Anarcho Mama says:
December 11, 2014 at 2:43 am

Reblogged this on AnarchoMama and commented:


Excellent discussion of a common (yet misunderstood)
phrase
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December 11, 2014 at 3:09 am

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tiffany267 says:
December 11, 2014 at 4:08 am

I completely agree that power in and of itself does not corrupt. It merely allows an immoral person to make immoral
decisions. But I vehemently disagree that humans are by nature immoral or corrupt. Humans are by nature rational
creatures who should seek to live in accordance with the laws of the universe to maximize their individual personal happiness.
Unfortunately, throughout history many have sought easy ways out of personal responsibility and have helped develop
political (and religious) institutions helping them to manipulate others for their own benefit, rather than earning it through
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Why Power Doesnt Corrupt (Absolutely) | The Anarchist Notebook

honest and fair interactions. The institutions themselves ARE corrupt and should ideally be dissolved, and the abusers should
be legally and morally held accountable for their actions.

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