Power and Corruption

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

These ominous words from historian John Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton have joined the canon of popular catch phrases.

And while some psychological studies argue that power simply “heightens pre-existing ethical tendencies” – bringing out a person’s best or worst morality – the idea that power corrupts seems to resonate.

The popular question, would you rather be forgotten or hatefully remembered? gets to this point as well. As if those are the only options. To be great – to be remembered – is accept your own corruption.

Conceptualized differently, power doesn’t necessarily corrupt so much as it deadens. When radical organizations come into power, they become institutionalized, bureaucratic, attached to the new status quo. What once was radical becomes entrenched and stagnate, needing a new radical wave to sweep it aside.

Much of my work ultimately comes down to questions of power. Examining power, mapping power, sharing power, building power.

But if power is so terrible, why should we fight for it so? And if power is destined to corrupt us, how do we escape that destiny?

Well, for one thing, even if “power corrupts” that is not sufficient cause to leave the corrupt in power.

And if we all shared equal power, or if at the very least if there was less entrenched unequal distribution of power – the ultimate goal of many I work with – perhaps that would mitigate the corruptive influence of power.

If absolute power corrupts absolutely, perhaps we’ll be saved by modest power corrupting modestly. The power of the people should always serve as a check on the power of authority.

And if power corrupts, how can any of us with even a modest modicum of power hope to emerge unscathed?

Perhaps we can’t. Or perhaps we’ll get lucky and power will just make us more ethical after all.

But neither conceding nor hoping sound like sufficient solutions.

Perhaps the best we can do is to be honest with ourselves. To regularly regard our morals, to check ourselves for corruption as we might check ourselves for ticks. To question ourselves, to doubt ourselves, to hold ourselves up to the light and invite honest feedback.

Perhaps what we must do is to acknowledge our own corruption and then join in the fight to stamp it out.


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