Aphorisms to Avoid, Special Edition: Absolute Power
Humans love absolutes. Yes or no. Chocolate or vanilla. Team A or Team B. We also love to blame the guy in charge. We tend to throw this particular aphorism around:
Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.
To many, this is a truism, but let’s go through it piece by piece and study its context.
Does Power Corrupt?
“Power” could mean anything: the power to control a population, to lead an army, to make a ham sandwich, or even to vote. Do all of these corrupt? Doubtful. Perhaps we can assume that the power we’re talking about here is the first I mentioned, to control a population.
But is it really the power that corrupted them? To say that “power corrupts” implies that the person who became corrupt did not have that quality until he or she gained power. This view isn’t just naïve; it’s also a way to avoid blame. In other words, if a powerful person we elected is corrupt, it wasn’t our mistake for electing him or her. In this view, the power of the position corrupts whomever we choose, regardless of their morality.
If we really believed that, why do we continue have that position?
The Myth of “Absolute Power”
The first thing anyone thinks about when they think of absolute power: dictatorships, fascism, the worst examples in history. I understand that. There are countless examples of nefarious leaders using their influence for all the wrong reasons, and I’ll never claim power of this kind is anything but a detriment to society. My retort is to point out that this “absolute power” was never as absolute as people wish it was.
Hitler had as close to “absolute power” as any modern leader has ever had, but it still rested on the willingness of the German people to let him do what he wanted. Theoretically, if Hitler had decided just before the battle of Stalingrad to become a nonviolent pacifist, his leaders and nation would have rebelled against him and continued the war. Hitler’s complete turnaround was obviously not likely, but so long as he promised populist (yet evil) ideas that the much of the population agreed with, he retained his power. So was Hitler’s “absolute power” really that absolute? Not if it rested upon the willingness of his followers to let him have the glory – or the blame – for the terrible things they wanted.
Power based on the will of the population isn’t absolute. But again, this shifts some of the blame to millions of people, which makes history more complicated than what we would like to believe. When we discuss horrible atrocities, we want to know whose “fault” it was. We don’t want to learn that millions of regular folks just like us cooperated to do these horrible deeds.
Finally, it is important to understand the context in which this phrase was first used. It comes from a letter from Lord Acton, an English Catholic historian, to Bishop Mandell Creighton. Here is a chunk of it:
No doubt the responsibility in such a case is shared by those who ask for a thing. But if the thing is criminal, if, for instance, it is a licence to commit adultery, the person who authorises the act shares the guilt of the person who commits it.
Here again what I have said is not in any way mysterious or esoteric. It appeals to no hidden code. It aims at no secret moral. It supposes nothing, and implies nothing but what is universally current and familiar. It is the common, even the vulgar, code I appeal to.
I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. [Bold mine.]
Acton’s words here regard telling history from a certain perspective. Generally, he supports the basic premise mentioned in the aphorism we use today, but with major deviations: the word “tends” to corrupt adds a new dimension to the concept. This means that power will not always corrupt the person who uses it, but implies a sliding scale of sorts when it comes to corruption. Again, it’s not that I disagree with his second clause, that “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” just that true “absolute power” is a rare thing in the modern world.
But finally, it’s clear from the first paragraph that this condemnation should go both ways: if a leader should endorse something wrong, he or she should be held to a higher standard, but if people endorse a leader who does something wrong, we are in this case “the person who authorizes the act” and we “share the guilt of the person who commits it.”