Wednesday, October 23, 2002


Jonah Goldberg (National Review Online) suggests, in his G-File today, that Lord Acton's quote 'Power tends to corrupt...etc." has been misconstrued by most readers so as to suggest that power is necessarily corrupting. This leads one to the quandry of concluding that all leaders of equal power are equally corrupt. Saddam Hussein and King George III are 'equally' corrupt according to this interpretation. Clearly such a silly result cannot stand, and Goldberg certainly makes a powerful argument that this notion is misplaced. Yet I don't think he's successfully rebutted the conventional interpretation of Acton's quote. Here is the relevant selection as quoted in the G-File:

I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favorable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way against holder 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. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. The inflexible integrity of the moral code is, to me, the secret of the authority, the dignity, the utility of history. If we may debase the currency for the sake of genius, or success, or rank, or reputation, we may debase it for the sake of a man's influence, of his religion, of his party, of the good cause which prospers by his credit and suffers by his disgrace. Then history ceases to be a science, an arbiter of controversy, a guide of the wanderer, the upholder of that moral standard which the powers of earth, and religion itself, tend constantly to depress.

While it is true that Acton is making an argument regarding the proper 'presumption' in historical examination of the powerful, it seems evident to me that he was indeed suggesting that power tends to corrupt (hence that bit about power corrupting and all). That power is a corrupting influence is all the more reason, in Acton's argument, for having a presumption (in painting a picture for the judgement of history) that leader's will tend down the bad path while in office. One, I think, can conclude this as the famous quote itself seems out of place if this is not his argument. What is Acton talking about if not the corrupting influence of power here? That power tends to corrupt very much buttresses his overall point. That power *necessarily* corrupts, as Goldberg points out, in fact 86's his argument. But if, as Goldberg suggests, his point was more along the lines that corruption has nothing to do with power (but rather the person in or out of power), why didn't he say as much? Goldberg makes a very convicing argument that corruption has little to do with one's station, but I think he fails in his attempt to suggest that this is Acton's argument. Acton's argument very much appears to be that power corrupts. That good men can go bad *because* of power. Which is all the more reason to keep two keen eyes on these jokers when writing their biographies. Start with bad (because the ruler probably is), and move on from there...seems to be the essence of Acton's point.

Goldberg's article, it seems to me, would have been better cast as a criticism of Acton's quip (which strikes as an over-simplified exaggeration in regards to absolute power). We shouldn't be afraid to argue with the wise...even one so over-quoted as Lord Acton. Indeed, the truth would seem to lie somewhere in between the two extremes (Power corrupts vs. Power doesn't corrupt). Goldberg is right to take issue with Acton's suggestion. Though it should be noted that the 'absolute power' of Kings may not have been what Acton intended in his warning. No king or dicator, no matter how powerful, has absolute power (which conjurs to mind the Divine). Afterall, if the power of kings was absolute, Thomas Beckett would have lived a long life and died of old age. The temptation of power (be it the power of the ruler or the power of knowledge) to lead us astray is a lesson that can be found in the Greek city-state and Aristotle's writings, in the story of Adam and the Tree of Knowledge, in the parable of the Prince & the Pauper, and on and on throughout history. Power puts the test to one's morality, and thus the better point (that Lord Acton should have made) is that power tempts the ruler to become corrupt (not as catchy, I know, but a better argument). It isn't that it 'tends' to corrupt (like someone 'tends' to get sick while in a roomfull of sneezing, stuffy-headed folks)...but that it *can* corrupt...if one allows it to do so. Indeed, it was this potential of power that lead the Founders, prominent among them George Washington, to establish a constitutional Republic where power was highly dispersed and checked: power against power.

Yet it cannot be ignored that Goldberg's rejoinder is in essence correct: corruption in the end is more a product of the soul than a product of the stole (as Washington himself aptly demonstrates). But power (and the accompanying ability to effect the world and its populace) is not a neutral force when it comes to morality. Like the apple, it tempts one to induldge the base side of one's nature. To put the caution of culture, the reverence of rules, and the call of conscience aside (oooh, fun with alliteration) because -you- -can-. Your average Joe is in no such position to so freely act without regards to the judgements of others. It is that absence of controlling judgement that forms the basis of Acton's argument that *history*, in its exacting examination, must be that controlling judgement (if only in retrospect). Goldberg answers to Rich Lowry. Who does Saddam answer to? OK, yeah, Saddam probably would have been the guy stabbing his buddies (metaphorically speaking) in the back to get a promotion had he been a regular joe working a desk at NoName corp., but I think it is evident that the power of dictatorship accented and augmented this base tendency. Saddam is an evil guy...and power unqeustionably made him worse. Like the fellow who stumbles on a briefcase of diamonds, the individual with power is presented with the real (as opposed to the theoretical) ability to fulfill his desires. It is a test that, Goldberg correctly notes, many not in power would fail. What must be avoided, however, is that in concedeing that power does not necessarily corrupt, we ignore its ability to in fact corrupt. One need only ask: what would we do if we could do anything we want without consequences? That very real possibility is what the person with absolute power is confronted with. It is why Acton argues it corrupts absolutely. Only a saint could refrain from indulging one's own interest, to any degree, in such an instance. And the person with real power deals with the same struggle, if subject to certain limits. We admire George Washington, not because he was a decent man, but because he *remained* decent despite the temptation of power. He turned his back on the clarion call (siren song, etc. etc...pick your metaphor) of abuse. To argue that power has no corrupting potential is to minimize the accomplishments of men like George Washington. To put it plainly (yes, I can do that), power makes it much more difficult to be good (i.e. avoid corruption). The Devil didn't tempt Jesus in the desert with a 9 to 5'er at AT&T. It is by no means a sociological law, as Goldberg argues folks have misconstrued Acton suggesting (wow, how's that for locution), but it is a temptation that cannot be trivialized. Those men who resist it should be commended. And those who do not should recieve the harsh judgement of history that Acton argued so powerfully for. D.GOOCH

Read Jonah's entire artilce at:


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