Does Power Corrupt?

There’s a common idea we encounter, that having a little bit of power can corrupt us, make us worse people, and that if we come into possession of a lot of power, it will make us truly untrustworthy and immoral.

Interestingly, the lesson derived from this principle is not what might be expected. The lesson is, “Don’t trust the people in power,” and even, “Make sure you have enough power to protect yourself from those people in power.” The lesson we take away is generally not, “Embrace powerlessness,” as we might be led to anticipate from the stated premise.

In this post, I want to reflect briefly on why I think it’s not generally quite accurate to say that power corrupts, and also why I think it is that although we’re all convinced power corrupts people, we have no particular aversion to becoming more powerful ourselves.

On the first point: When we say that power corrupts, what we really have in mind is the idea that people are bad, and the only way we can be kept from acting badly is by lacking the opportunity.

We don’t really mean that the person who is now more powerful and is suddenly a nasty personality was a good fellow all along and then the influx of power caused a change of character.

Rather, the jerk was hidden inside all along, starved for opportunity, waiting for a chance to stop pretending.

When we say that power corrupts, we really have in mind that power reveals. Power shows what was inside a person from the start, suppressed but waiting.

Think of Plato’s story of the ring of Gyges. A man comes into possession of a ring that makes its wearer invisible. This is power. Suddenly the man can do what he wants without being restrained, opposed, judged, punished. He becomes rich from stolen wealth, and sleeps with any beautiful woman who was previously just an unattainable fantasy. The point of the story is evidently that all people are like the man with the ring, though Socrates goes on to argue against that conclusion in the remainder of that dialogue.

The reason why we say that power corrupts, rather than saying that power reveals, when we surely mean the latter, is because we prefer not to dwell on our belief that all people are selfish and nasty and only ever one promotion away from showing that inner nature more fully.

We believe that we ourselves, and our friends and our family, are secretly like that. It’s easier not to dwell on it. But that doesn’t stop us from believing it.

And as I was saying earlier: although we are quick to blame the powerful who benefit themselves at our expense, we don’t mind the thought of being more powerful ourselves or of having a good relationship with someone who has power.

Clearly, the only reason for this can be that we’re convinced it’s a zero-sum game and a race to the bottom. Cheat or be cheated. If someone’s got to have power, it might as well be me and mine, or so we find ourselves thinking.

I truly believe we can find all this hidden in the common saying that power corrupts. And I think it’s all wrong — or at the very least, it’s certainly not obviously true.

There are two central reasons this belief is so widespread: because it can’t be disproven, and because we don’t want to play the ridiculously naive and trusting buffoons.

It can’t be disproved. It doesn’t matter how many examples you produce of people who had power or money and didn’t use it for evil ends. What if they were just good at hiding their tracks? Or maybe they just weren’t yet powerful enough to feel secure letting their true selves come out for all the world to see.

And we might make fun of theories that can’t be proved wrong, but in reality I’ve found that those are people’s favourite kind.

But even though it can’t be disproved, it also can’t be proved, and that’s what is always forgotten.

It is at least reasonable to be agnostic about whether everyone is deep-down evil.

I know there are people who are not so virtuous, people who only pretend to be good because they’re afraid of the consequences that attach to evil. I know this not only because history has furnished apparent examples, but because I can look into my own heart and see the terrible things I might have done at moments in the past if I could have gotten away with them.

I also know that there might be people who can become good enough to do the right thing, even when there would be no consequences for doing the desirable wrong thing.

Again, I know this not only because history has apparently experienced this (of which we can find many examples, for instance, among the lives of the saints).

Rather, in part I know it because I can look into my heart and remember the times when I have made the difficult choice to do what was right, and I can cast my mind back to see how those good choices are more frequent when I sincerely seek to become better, and work to that end.

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