Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely

by Marc Moisan, C.D.

It was Lord Acton, the British historian, who wrote the famous quote: “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” But how much truth is there to the saying? If study of history is any indication, I would say that some men with power were corrupt, but it would be unfair, however, to insist that all power seekers are corrupt. In fact, some would argue that people high in their need for power are likely to excel in leadership positions and are the most likely candidates for promotion and management where they can influence others.¹

Some sociologists studying the tendencies of political parties to become less democratic have advanced that even in the most revolutionary parties, the leaders gained greater power and became entrenched in their positions. The party organisation becomes an end in itself, more important than the party’s original aim.² This opinion brings in part some credibility to the saying, at least in view of political power, but it can also be argued that accountability lessens the likelihood and level of corruption.

If power tends to corrupt, what about monarchies and dictatorship with absolute power? While in theory, such monarchs had complete power over their people; in practice, the influence of some groups such as clergy or aristocracy often limited the ruler’s authority. This statement does not necessarily contradict the saying; in fact, the reason an absolute monarch would bend to the pressure of others is probably the fear of losing support and thus power altogether. In essence, many of those with power would risk corruption to remain in power.

It would seem that once you tasted power, you begin to crave it. In that case, should our society limit the terms of office? If men of power knew they couldn’t remain in office past a certain period, wouldn’t they ignore the pressure groups? Probably, that is unless there are other “rewards” for them to look forward to. Corrupt men will not be so easily limited in their quest for power. That is not to say that terms of office are a bad thing, just that it won’t sway corruption.

It is believed that corruption tends to decline with the degree of civil liberties associated with democracy; however, studies have also shown an increase in newly democratizing countries, before falling as democracies become consolidated.³ What is so special in established democracies to counter corruption? Each time a scandal involving corruption is brought to light; officials look for ways to prevent reoccurrences. This form of “lesson learned” politic ensures constant improvement in government accountability. The democratic views pushed forward by the liberal politicians of eighteen-century Europe, such as civil liberties, rule of law and popular sovereignty are now an accepted reality in western democracies; but as long as we have politicians and bureaucrats to oversee our nations’ governments, accountability is our best and only insurance against corruption.

1. Sims, Ronald R. Managing Organizational Behavior. Westport, CT: Quorum Books, 2002.

2. Michels, Robert. Political Parties A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy. New Brunswick, N.J., U.S.A.: Transaction Publishers, 1999.

3. Rock, Michael T. Corruption and Democracy. DESA Working Paper No. 55. Aug 2007.

4. Moisan, Marc. Political Ideology and Canadian Political Parties. Diss. Royal Military College of Canada, 2003.

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This page was last edited on 17 March 2008 at 17:45 ADT.
© Copyright 2008 Marc Moisan