All Commentary
Sunday, August 1, 1965

On Power and Corruption

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.

Acton‘s axiom was derived from his observation of how ecclesiasti­cal power corrupts.

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 Beverly Hills:

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 Rome and receiving plaudits for his successful con­quests, had a slave at his feet who kept repeating, “Remember, thou too art mortal!” While the em­peror knew of the self-corruption which attends adulation and de­sired that he be not victimized by it, no doubt he failed in his aim. His method was at fault. It is upon one’s own conscience that reliance must be placed for a real­istic self-appraisal. The reminders of reality have to be self-remind­ers; the responsibility cannot be delegated to anyone, much less to slaves. The psyche is not exterior to self and cannot be managed by exterior forces. To down the cor­ruptive tendency, little more is re­quired than a knowledge of how excellence and its concomitant, flattery, tend to corrupt. With this understanding one can, with a modicum of conscious effort, be­come as impervious to fawning approval as to any other form of deference. When I know how lit­tle I know, then no one else’s over­estimation—honest or insincere—can unbalance me.

Purchasing Power

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.

Collective Irresponsibility

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.

Disciplining Oneself

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!

Foot Notes

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 New York Her­ald Tribune Magazine, April 18, 1965, p. 35.

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 (Irv­ington, N. Y.: Foundation for Economic Education, Inc., 1964. $2.50 paper; $3.50 cloth.)

  • Leonard E. Read (1898-1983) was the founder of FEE, and the author of 29 works, including the classic parable “I, Pencil.”