Friday, September 28, 2012

a better truth about power

Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely. That's the (slightly corrupted) quote that everyone knows about power and corruption. It's not very useful.

In the 1870s, Lord Acton wrote the following (in an argument about papal infallibility, a doctrine that was just then being debated — the Pope apparently wasn't infallible before the late 19th century):
I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders 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. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.
These words have become to politics what "No pain, no gain" is to athletics. Unfortunately, although they enlighten us about others and keep us worthily wary of others, they do little to tell us about ourselves. Granted, with this wisdom under my belt, if I ever get as much power as Hitler or Stalin, I'll know to dial it back. But it's just not the most important thing to note about the connection between power and character.

Here's a truth more forceful and useful: Power corrupts, and incremental power corrupts incrementally. That is, finally, something that hits home. It's true for all of us. There's an even better corollary:

Power corrupts, and slight power corrupts more than slightly.

Now that is something I need to know, something I need to guard against in my own character and environs, something I need to watch for in myself, in the kids I raise, in my family, in my work, in my church, and everywhere else I live life.

It's a truth that teachers, Sunday school leaders, committee members, and team captains should inscribe on the doorposts of their hearts. We've all seen it happen. It's the single moral lesson of The Office. (Is anything more horrifying and saddening than the sight of sweet Phyllis getting a tiny tiny bit of power over someone?) There's a fashionable idea that goes around every so often that claims that certain powerful positions only attract those who are already corrupt. But that idea isn't necessary: Occam doesn't need it, and, on reflection, neither do we. The thing is, we're already corrupt by nature. We're flawed human beings. To say that only the corrupt are drawn to certain positions of power is to allow the same distancing we do in the "absolute power" quote: the shift of responsibility and blame to a far-off other. Corruption is in Rome; Washington. Well, the fact is that corruption is within me and grows all out of proportion to the slight amounts of temporal power I have over other people.

Whew.

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