On Power and Corruption
AUGUST 01, 1965 by LEONARD E. READ
Lord Acton, writing in 1887, packed a profound truth into a simple sentence and, by so doing, coined a famous axiom: "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely."¹ This is quoted frequently, but popular repetition, by itself, has nothing whatsoever to do with comprehension.
There is evidence on every hand that power does tend to corrupt, and many a thoughtful writer has taken note of the fact. Henry Adams, in 1905, wrote in his autobiography:
Power is poison. Its effect on Presidents had been always tragic, chiefly as an almost insane excitement at first, and a worse reaction afterwards; but also because no mind is so well balanced as to bear the strain of seizing unlimited force without habit or knowledge of it; and finding it disputed with him by hungry packs of wolves and hounds whose lives depend on snatching the carrion.²
Countless thousands, doubtless, are aware that power tends to corrupt. But Acton’s axiom, regardless of its validity and the number who know it to be a truth, conveys no more than any other pat saying unless there be a knowledge of why power tends to corrupt. Only then, from this knowledge, can there be a correct deduction of how one may avoid the tendency.
At the outset, let us consider the problem from the standpoint of how I can keep power from corrupting me. There are at least two reasons why the diagnosis should be approached in this first-person manner.
One: Beyond what may result from my exemplary behavior, I am severely limited in doing anything to insure the incorruptibility of others. This is exclusively a personal problem—and a deep one, at that. Nor is there much I can do to escape the effects of the corruption that befalls others. The most useful contribution I can make is to discover how I can lessen my own corruptibility and to share the results, if any, with those having a similar aspiration.
Two: Humanity is not my responsibility, I am my responsibility! Indeed, even I am too complex an enigma for me wholly to unravel; but, by dealing with me as best I can, I serve my fellows in the most fruitful manner possible for me. The temptation always is to correct the thinking of others, though we have little competence for it, instead of attending to our own improvement. As a consequence, no one’s thinking is upgraded. Nor is this first-person approach inconsistent with the Cosmic Scheme, as I interpret it: Evolution is its method; and, as related to man, this calls for growth in awareness, perception, consciousness. This emergence does not have its root in any collective abstraction: institutions, societies, nations, humanity; its wellsprings are to be found exclusively in individuals. In each individual instance, I am my responsibility!
As to Acton’s axiom: When it is affirmed that power tends to corrupt, there is, obviously, allowance made for exceptions, that is, power does not, in every form, necessarily corrupt. And as to his "absolute power corrupts absolutely," this seems only to suggest that the nearer absolute power is approached, the more certain is corruption, for absolute power by a human being is inconceivable.
But no meaningful analysis of this axiom is possible unless I know of the varied kinds of power and, also, of the nature of the corruption which the several kinds of power tend to induce.
Various Kinds of Power
The first kind of power that comes to mind is political control of creative actions, authoritarianism, a relationship where the will of a man or a clique is imposed on others by physical force—that is, by a constabulary, the do-as-I-say or-die variety.
There are forms of power, however, where violent force or the threat of it is absent. An example is power of the press: having a newspaper, a journal, a platform, a soap box, an audience.
Another variation is that more or less unsuspected power which stems from approbation and opprobrium: others do as one suggests, hoping for approval or desiring to escape disapproval. Such power, for instance, is wielded by a small, self-appointed group in
In this company, the most casual witticism or the most intentional snigger may snuff out a career, while a favorable adjective or merely a liquor-ish grunt can start a newcomer’s reputation climbing faster than Comsat…3
And do not overlook the power of acquisition—purchasing power—that attends successful specialization and exchange.
By far the most influential kind of power in shaping the lives of others derives from excellence; it is the power to evoke emulation.
It seems that the power one may exert over the lives of others ranges all the way from the power of repulsion to its antithesis, the power of attraction. Yet, all forms—there are many others—have a trait in common, a trait I must keep uppermost in mind: each packs authority of sorts. The questions I must finally answer are, how does power, whatever its variety, tend to corrupt? Then, learning of this, what means may I employ to overcome the corruptive tendency?
If power takes many forms, it may be supposed that there also are various types of corruption. There are, of course, the baser forms of corruption commonly associated with that term: bribery, stealing, lying, cheating, fraud, misrepresentation, going back on one’s bond, and the like. If the problem consisted solely of these foul kinds of corruption, I would commend attendance at Sunday school and let it go at that. But I suspect that all of these open and despicable abuses, taken together, do not approach in damage the more subtle forms of corruption that power tends to induce.
The Power of Achievement
Consider first the wholly commendable kind of power, the power that derives from sheer excellence, the power to evoke emulation. How can this possibly be corruptive? Superior achievement in any activity prompts applause, acclaim, adulation, flattery. This is heady stuff and, if taken seriously, fosters an unrealistic self-esteem. Knowing how little one knows gives way to know-it-allness; it brings on an appraisal of self at odds with reality—a damaging psychosis! To suffer such corruption is to unfit me for my highest purpose.
When the esteem for an individual reaches that point where others "hang on his every word," he achieves an enormous authority which most surely will be corruptive unless accompanied by a commensurate self-responsibility and self-discipline. In short, as others hang more and more on every word, every word must be more carefully weighed—if such power is not to be corruptive.
Am I to shun excellence because of its corruptive tendency? Indeed not! But how to gain immunity from the tendency? A Roman emperor, riding through the streets of
What about purchasing power? How can this, in the absence of coercive force, tend to corrupt? Perhaps there is a cue in the oft-heard phrase, "Money talks!" Money, undeniably, has an authority of sorts.
Abundant purchasing power tempts me to "throw my weight around"—that is, to get my way regardless of how unmeritorious my way may be. Buying special favors or preferments is a common practice as is buying one’s way out of self-incurred messes. It’s the misuse of purchasing power that accounts for the saying, "The love of money is the root of all evil." Again, purchasing power may lead one to a perversion of high purpose, make him unfit to achieve it.
Purchasing power, per se, is not the root of evil. The more purchasing power others possess, the more can I receive in exchange for my goods or services. Wealth serves the moral purpose of freeing one from the drudgery which poverty imposes. It makes possible the devotion of self to those activities for which one is peculiarly suited. It permits one to get ever deeper into life along lines in harmony with one’s real being.
But, when a man uses his purchasing power to run away from a life of doing, that is, as a means of denying a development of his faculties, he vegetates. And when he uses it to buy off the penalties of error or of bad judgment, he fails to exercise the corrective faculties and begets a fool. When misused, purchasing power is destructive of self, wholly evil, and, thus, corruptive.
Am I to shun purchasing power because of its corruptive tendency? No! If I am to avoid corruption—becoming a vegetable or a fool, I need only keep in mind that the authority—power—which wealth bestows requires a responsibility that guards against misuse. I had a wealthy banker friend who was a very modest tipper and yet, wherever we went, people vied with each other to wait on him. He counseled me, "Only he deserves good service whom others are eager to serve." He never affected superiority with his money or his manners, a temptation to which so many yield. He treated everyone, regardless of how lowly the wealth status, just as he would wish to be treated were the situation reversed. It is easy to see how this self-conduct, in tune with reality and the Golden Rule, leads to the development, growth, and purification of the psyche—the opposite of corruption.
Purchasing power, doubtless, tends to corrupt its possessor, but it does not follow that it must necessarily do so.
It seems hardly necessary to examine the tendency of other forms of noncoercive power to corrupt self. That the tendency exists, and if yielded to is self-destructive, comes clear with reflective thought. This is the rule for me to keep in mind and adhere to: Authority and responsibility must always be kept in balance if the psyche—mind, soul, spirit, in a word, I—is to remain in balance and, thus, uncorrupted.
This brings me to that form of power which a person or a group possesses only by reason of having a gun or a constabulary. It is the power to compel compliance, compulsion resting on violence or the threat thereof.4 I will omit any discussion of how this kind of power corrupts when exerted privately, as in piracy and the like, and confine my reflections to how it would or would not corrupt me were I a part of society’s organized police force, namely, government. It is in this realm that absolute power is most nearly approached and absolute corruption most seriously threatened.
The Power of Compulsion for Defensive Purposes
The mere possession of a gun by a person, or the backing of a group by a constabulary, does not, in itself, corrupt. As long as the gun hangs on the wall or the constabulary remains "at ease," all’s well and good. Nor are any corruptive tendencies implicit in the use of this power to fend off the aggressive actions of another or others. The power, when thus held in check, can be no more than a secondary action of defense; it remains quiescent except when triggered by an aggressive or offensive action. Such a limitation of the organized police force is what I mean when referring to a government of limited power.
Individuals owning guns for defensive purposes will, for the most part, leave them hanging on the wall. The possession of this power to do violence rarely tempts them to aggressive action and, thus, the power does not tend to corrupt them. For instance, though the owner of firearms might feel a deep compassion for a poverty-stricken friend, he would hesitate to turn himself into a holdup man as a means of raising money. He would give of his own goods or let the matter pass. Few Americans personally would resort to armed robbery to pay farmers not to grow wheat, or to subsidize TVA or mail delivery, or to provide medical care, or to secure the financial welfare, the material security, or the prosperity of "the poor." Not only can most people see the utter fallacy of such thievish means when practiced personally, but the mere thought of the practice does grievous offense to their moral scruples. Kept to the personal dimension, gun power shows little tendency to corrupt.
But let these very same people, upright when acting on their personal responsibility, organize themselves into a political collective, backed by gun power, and they become "wolves and hounds" intent upon "snatching the carrion"! Among men so organized, the tendency to corruption is enormous. To illustrate: the president of a corporation and the chairman of his city’s largest private hospital said to me, "I agree with you in principle, but I must, of course, ask that Federal aid be extended to our hospital. We’re short of beds."
"Would you personally raise the money by violent action or the threat thereof?" I asked him.
"Of course not," was his reply. "I’m no gangster."
This man’s likeness is numbered in the millions—our "best citizens" who would never personally pull the trigger, but whose lack of principle is clearly revealed when they encourage the government to rob countless unidentified Peters to subsidize their own selected Pauls. It is hard to believe that a man knows what is right when he persists in practicing the opposite.
Shifting the Blame
What goes on here? Why will a person enthusiastically embrace a procedure in collective action that is repulsive to him as private action? Why this double standard of morality? Why will the possession of gun power by an individual not tend to corrupt while its possession by a collective will tend to corrupt the individual members?
There must be more reasons than I can ferret out. One, of course, is the myth that an act, regarded as evil if privately committed, is rendered virtuous if sanctioned by a majority. This hocus-pocus leads careless thinkers to believe that an acknowledged evil can be transmuted into a positive virtue.
Then, there is that absolution the thoughtless individual feels when an act is committed, not in his name, but in the name of some collective nouns such as humanity, society, the common good, and the like. He somehow finds in these abstractions a sanctuary from personal responsibility. He gains anonymity behind a façade of words—or so he irrationally concludes.
The mob strings up Joe Doakes by the neck. No mobster thinks of himself as having committed the act. "The mob did it." Yet, how can a three-lettered abstraction hang a man? Every party to the act hanged Joe Doakes.
And every party to any unprincipled act of government is as personally responsible as if he had done this deed himself. Mere legality does not confer moral absolution; legality merely confers penal absolution and may be but a cover for gross corruption.
The Real Source of Corruption
This line of thought reveals an error which I, among others, have been making. Henry Adams, for example, in the quotation previously cited, associates corruption with the coercive power held by Presidents. And note how Plato in The Republic singularizes the evil effect by his use of the word, "tyrant," inferring that it is only the head of state whose power to use violence leads to corruption:
He who is the real tyrant, whatever men may think, is the real slave, and is obliged to practice the greatest adulation and servility, and to be the flatterer of the vilest of mankind. He has desires which he is utterly unable to satisfy, and has more wants than any one, and is truly poor… all his life long he is beset with fear and is full of convulsions and distractions… Moreover… he grows worse from having power: he becomes and is of necessity more jealous, more faithless, more unjust, more friendless, more impious, than he was at first; he is the purveyor and cherisher of every sort of vice, and the consequence is that he is supremely miserable….
When Edmund Burke wrote, "There never was for any length of time corrupt representation of a virtuous people.," he correctly affirmed what I and so many others have been overlooking, namely, that a corrupt head of state presupposes a source of the corruption: numerous corrupt citizens. The tyrant’s corruption stems from popular conferments, some of which are outright demands for the employment of coercive powers. In the instance ofsuch persons as the hospital chairman—who wouldn’t think of taking violent action personally—these demands are to some extent innocent in the sense that their sponsors know no better. Their limited reasoning abilities prescribe the limitation of what is self-corruptive.
The Sin of Silence by Those Who Know
But other conferments from the people to the head of state are made by those who give assent by silence. In the case of individuals who have acquired the ability to think for themselves, this may be the more self-corruptive of the two offenses. For instance, if I alone can see an impending disaster and fail to sound the alarm for fear of endangering my own position, my silence is more corruptive of me than are the overt acts of those who, in their naivete, initiate the disaster. The more abundant one’s endowments, the greater the potentiality of self-corruption: "Lilies that fester smell worse than weeds."
In any event, I must never entertain the dangerous notion that the tendency of power to corrupt applies only to the man out front and, by so doing, exclude myself and others from this tendency. We are the truly responsible ones and, thus, the very ones who are exposed to the most damaging sort of corruption.
The above puts the responsibility where it belongs: up to each I. When I ask the government to dictate how people shall act creatively, that is, when I acquiesce or join in the demand for subsidies, for wage and price and exchange controls, for Federal aid of this or that variety, for any of the current rash of political interventions, I am as power drunk as the ruler put in the vanguard at the bidding of me and my kind. A fraction is inextricably bound to the whole of which it is a part.
"As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he." This is to say that thought is the genesis of action: an evil thought is just as self-corruptive as an evil action is destructive of others. Clearly, corruption of me follows as swiftly on the heels of my advocacy of
5 That corruption also befalls those who suffer the effects of coercive power is conceded. But it is not power which corrupts them, for they don’t have it. Their corruption is induced by a political inhibition of their creative faculties, or by accepting something for nothing, or by a lessening of responsibility for selves, or by adapting themselves to a sheep-like way of life. To coin a term, they become "unpersons," bereft even of evolutive powers. Their corruption comes as a by-product of the wielding of coercive power. That’s at the root of their corruption, coercive power as it does on the exercise of it by the head of state. Thus, if I wish to learn how this kind of power corrupts me, if I am an advocate of it, I need only take note of how it corrupts the head of state, the administrator of it. I can review Plato’s "tyrant" and obtain an accurate reflection of what is happening to me.
To grasp the importance of the fact that power corrupts the advocate as well as the administrator of it, merely envision millions of corrupt individuals, each of whom sees corruption only in the person he and others have made their ruler, and suspects not the slightest corruption in himself. These weird spectacles are to be observed daily at national, state, municipal, and neighborhood levels and they are made up of workers, farmers, preachers, teachers, businessmen—ourselves and our friends. Not an occupational category can claim exemption.
Audit any board or committee gathering—private or political—that takes positions on public policies. Note the absence of introspection as to the quality of their own thinking. That they might have some intellectual and physical shortcomings themselves is seldom considered. Then note how readily these persons will importune the government for special privileges which are possible only by extortion, a practice not one of them personally would indulge. A common occurrence, in such a meeting, is to ask for a Federal grant in one resolution and for a reduction of governmental expenditures in the next! Here we have a failure to grasp that in each individual instance, I am my responsibility!
Yes, I am my responsibility. As I relate myself to the corruptive tendencies of power, I have noted that power falls into two contrasting categories as different from each other as black and white. There are, on the one hand, the various noncoercive powers such as purchasing power, the power to attract emulation, and the like. On the other hand, in a class by itself, is coercive power—the power to shape or influence the lives of others by violence or the threat thereof. Analysis reveals that both kinds of power have corruptive tendencies.
However, overcoming the tendency of noncoercive powers to corrupt is not an insurmountable problem. There is no one of these powers but what I would increase if I could, for their acquisition spells growth, emergence, "hatching." I need only understand that the growing authority which these powers bestow must be managedby a commensurate increase in self-responsibility. I need to keep firmly in mind my life’s purpose, lest I lose or pervert it. The self must be disciplined to the point where it never yields to the temptation to abuse newly acquired authority. If I cannot manage an authority-responsibility balance, I am not a fit prospect for these powers, nor will I long enjoy them. Indeed, proper management of enhanced powers is itself one of the challenges by which human beings improve or grow in stature.
"Many are called but few are chosen." Countless individuals are given a trial with these noncoercive powers but, if unworthy, are unable to retain them. Indeed, the slightest failure of responsible conduct induces self-corruption unfitness—and, thus, puts an end to the powers.
The development of noncoercive powers is consonant with life’s highest aim. The dangers of corruption, while very real, are subject to self-management or self-discipline, and, these, also, are powers consistent with life’s purpose. But what about coercive power? How can its tendency to corrupt be averted? The answer is so simple it needs no analysis: never invite or accept this form of power in the first place!
Acceptance of coercive power, that is, adopting violence or the threat thereof to reshape the creative activities of others, goes beyond the tendency to corrupt; corruption is coincidental with acceptance. But even more: any time any person so much as entertains the notion of a personal competence to control the creative activities of others, he imagines himself in the creator role; whereas, in reality, he is but another human being, as ignorant as the rest of us of his own creation. This wholly fanciful omniscience is a divorcement from reality; it results in such an overassessment of self that knowledge of self fades into nonexistence. The acceptance of this form of power and its attendant destruction of self-knowledge and self-discipline is itself the corruption.
The corruption implicit in an acceptance of coercive power is unmanageable. For this is a type of authority that can have no balancing responsibility. To illustrate: when the aforementioned hospital chairman feathers his nest by plucking millions of others, how, conceivably, can he be responsible for them? Coercive power, once unleashed, is an authority that is all sail and no anchor; it is without map or compass.
In summary, noncoercive power tends to corrupt and coercive power is itself corruption. Bending to the tendency of the former or acceptance of the latter brings on a warping of the psyche, a flight from reality, a loss of integrity, an unfitness to fulfill my highest purpose.
Noncoercive power is subject to self-management; that is, I can contain the tendency, keep it under self-control. But coercive power, because it is itself corruption, is beyond self-management. When I achieve noncoercive powers and fail to manage them, or when I employ or endorse or passively accept coercive powers which are unmanageable, I break faith with life’s purpose, divorcing self from growth, evolution, emergence. This is disintegrative, the end of which is corruption.
To keep faith with self, I must take instruction from whatever my highest conscience reveals as right. This may not, in fact, be The Answer, but is as close to it as I can get. This is integrative, the end of which is integrity.
Be it noted that when I break faith with self I thereby lose that quality in my constitution which restrains me from breaking faith with others. I am my responsibility!
¹ John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, Essays on Freedom and Power (Boston: The Beacon Press, 1948), p. 364.
2 From Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (New York: The Modern Library, 1931), p. 418.
3 See "The Most Brutal Audience in the World," The Sunday
4 For an explanation of how absolute refusal to comply with governmental edicts results in death, see Chapter III in my Anything That’s Peaceful (