Truisms rot brains; absolute truisms rot brains absolutely

Once again I’ve come across the old saw, “power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  Most of us first encountered it in Orwell’s 1984, where it was used to avoid questions the author preferred not to address, but it predates that.  I’m not sure, but I think the original form says authority instead of power.  But what came to mind on this occasion was: why is this unscientific idea so attractive to certain layers, and what social role does it play?

The first question one must ask is, what does “corrupt” mean in this context?  My American Heritage dictionary tells me that the verb, “to corrupt” means “to destroy or subvert the honesty or integrity of.” Presumably, if the line means anything at all, it means that power or authority destroys or subverts the honesty or integrity of the person who holds it.

But, with this definition, it is obvious that it is far from universal. History abounds with examples of individuals in power who were not corrupted in any meaningful way.  The USA in particular is rich in examples: George Washington, who stepped down from his position of authority; Abraham Lincoln, who invariably put his duty as he saw it ahead of his personal desires; Malcom X, who, whatever his political limitations, attempted to convince with ideas rather than use his personal authority.  Other cases that come to mind for me include Lenin, who never made any attempt to circumvent the soviets or the Central Committee, but instead always worked to convince others of the correctness of his policies; and Trotsky, who, at the time of Lenin’s death, was perfectly positioned to simply use the Red Army to take power.  I’m sure most of you can find other examples without looking very hard.

No one who has expressed this idea has ever given the least hint of a scientific explanation for it.  Is it something in the biological make-up of the human being?  If so, what exactly?  Where did it come from, how does it operate?  Is it social?  If so, again, what is the mechanism; what social forces cause this?  Instead of an explanation, we get a truism, and one that doesn’t hold up empirically, much less theoretically.

So—why is it so ubiquitous?  Any idea that persists, whether it is right or wrong, serves a social function.  I think the function of this idea is the one that Orwell so skillfully used it for: to avoid dealing with difficult questions.  That is, the tough question is not, “why is the individual holding power being evil,” but, “how did we find ourselves in a situation where a single individual HAS such power?”  This latter question cannot, alas, be answered by a truism, but requires careful investigation of the circumstances: In Hitler’s case, for example, we have to look at the failure of the German revolutions of 1919 and 1923, the financial backing of the Nazis, &c.  In the case of Stalin, we look at the condition of the Soviet Union after WWI, at the wars of intervention,  at the failures of the revolutions in England, France, Hungary, and Poland.  It is difficult, complicated, and can’t be expressed in a simple formula.  However, if one can skip all of this by simply reciting a clever-sounding phrase, then one can avoid the hard work.

It’s so much easier that way.  Provided one cares nothing for truth.

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0 thoughts on “Truisms rot brains; absolute truisms rot brains absolutely”

  1. I believe that power tempts those that hold it into corruption. Some people can withstand the temptation…many cannot.

  2. It does seem throughout modern history that persons in a position of enormous power tend to become corrupted. There is something about having all that power that a human can’t withstand. It’s in our DNA or something.

  3. Steve:

    1. There are exceptions to every rule.

    2. What, you don’t believe in checks and balances?

    3. Even corrupt people can do some good. (Why, yes, I am a fan of Huey Long.)

    4. George Washington was already the richest fucking man in America. His decision not to tear the country apart in an attempt to become king is hardly worthy of praise, except perhaps in the negative sense. (I trust you’ve read enough writing of the time to know that while some people wanted him as king, most of those who became Americans were sick and tired of kings.)

    5. You may be thinking of this because I just made a post that quotes Lord Acton. He did not express it as an absolute. He said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

  4. Okay, yet another:

    7. Have you got something against Orwell? Just because he’s been claimed by some shallow readers doesn’t mean he’s a shallow thinker. See, frex, Matthew Yglesias : George Orwell Was a Socialist.

    Have you read Down and Out in Paris and London? I read it recently and quite liked it. I want to reread 1984; it’s been decades since I looked at it, and I’ve been running into an awful lot of Newspeak lately from liberals.

  5. Will: Believe in check and balances? What does that mean? What checks and what balances under what circumstances? Do I think there should be something to “check” and “balance” state power in the hands of the working class? Well, no.

    Yeah, well, we’re going to have to discuss Huey Long one of these days.

    Re Washington; I disagree emphatically. His decision not to remain in power was, indeed, worthy of praise. Wealth is not power. Once he stepped down, he lost power. Where is the corruption?

    Stalin is the perfect example of what I was talking about. To simply call him corrupt tells us nothing useful. What circumstances put him into power? What objective pressures, as well as subjective characteristics, led him to make the decisions he made? I’m currently reading Trotsky’s writings from 1932 (scary how accurately he predicts the way WWII would play out), and analyzing the details of why Stalin did as he did is far more complex and useful than just, “power corrupts.”

    And it is even more true for the other great dictators of the 20th Century: I don’t think you can even say that Hitler and Mussolini were corrupt: they came to power in order to do the very things they did.

    Er… “absolute power corrupts absolutely” sounds, well, absolute.

    “Power corrupts” is useless as a tool for understanding the past, and gives us nothing as a guide to action.

  6. I sort of have something against Orwell. The man who could write _Homage to Catalonia_ had the insight, wisdom, and skill to know that in _1984_ he was palming cards.

  7. It seems to me that none of the examples you hold up for praise are actual examples of absolute power. In each case there is a significant concentration of power, but some sensible limit is in place.

  8. Sayings like this are a mental shorthand to avoid dealing with complicated issues and often serve to end conversation/thought trails.

    One of my pet peeve sayings is “It is what it is” which is a dick thing to say in a conversation because it implies that you can’t really change something so you should accept it and stop talking about it. It’s a conversation stopper of at least that line of inquiry.

    Solid sounding slogans give weight behind untested ideas and support people who either refuse or don’t want to think about things or their position on them too carefully. “Spare the rod, spoil the child” “a watched pot never boils” are a couple that pop up.

    I think a large percentage of people really don’t want to think things through (or are incapable of it) and just want some sort of comforting structure to reinforce who they are and their beliefs. Most people don’t want to be challenged that some of their beliefs may be wrong or that they are on the side of evil.

    Cognitive dissonance prevents people from accepting information that invalidates their own beliefs resulting in a fragmented society. We all have our own reality because we can never truly be someone else but our communal shared reality is sharding by exactly the same forces that would seem to bring us together. At first tv and radio united people with a lot of common shared experiences. Then came 57 channels and the global news cycle. The web, global news and consolidated media all serve to bring the world closer together by bringing data closer to you but they also bring more crazies. Crazies that in the past people would have easily dismissed as loons now somehow get credence because they have a lot of followers. As time goes on it seems many americans have lost the ability to disagree agreeably and to have adult discussions.

    This new media allows social pariahs and oddballs to form vibrant communities that act as a reinforcing group of peers. In the case of gamers, sci-fi geeks, sca’dians and others this is a good thing since it provides a family away from family and a cohort of like minded people. When the organization’s goals are really unacceptable this same effect allows seedier and ugly groups to form and thrive. Militias, KKK, hate groups and terrorists all use the new media to bind themselves together in shared misguided goals.

    Overwhelmingly people refuse to think and line up to have governments protect us at all costs.

    Whenever a businessman claims jesus is his co-pilot or has lots of scriptures/religious stuff in his store or site I tend to check my wrist to see if my watch is still there and get a second opinion on the price for services rendered.

    A popular fallacy going on right now in some circles is ‘ad populous’ which is “more people are on my side than yours so I’m right”. I don’t know if it is a result of news media putting so much emphasis on polls over the years or what but basically this is an out flowing of herd instinct that can get really ugly. Racism, slavery, burning witches and corruption have been pretty popular by the masses at different times in history.

    Sorry about the rambling..

  9. Other examples of power corrupting might include Pol Pot, Kim Jong Il, Idi Amin and any number of other African warlords.

    “Power corrupts” is not a phrase for explaining the past. It’s a phrase for predicting the future.

  10. I’m curious. Why do you say that truisms rot brains? Are you refering to just this truism? Or to truisms in general? Or is there a particluar group of truisms that you are thinking of and refering to?

    What do you think truisms do to the brain that makes the brain rot away? Do yoiu think that truisms make people stop thinking? Do you think that truisms are used as an excuse to stop thinking? Or do think that people use them to move a conversation along to another topic that they are more comfortable with and therefore don’t have to think anymore? Is it something else? Why do you believe truisms are so bad.

    Do you include all kinds of truisms and rhetoric in this statement (ie: cliches, figures of speech, axioms, aphorisms, etc.) or are you limiting it to just the power corrupts statement.

    I have used one of them from time to time, but they usually get me thinking about the situtation that is taking place around me at the time that I thinik of it. I try to think of how the saying applies to the circumstances taking place, both how it fits and how it doesn’t fit. I usually then think of other situations that it has applied to in my life and try to start up a conversation with those around me about how it applies to them. (Of course, at that point, they usually roll their eyes, tell me to take another drink, and to stop thinking so much, but lets not go there just yet.) So for me, saying that a truism rots my brain doesn’t seem to apply.

  11. Steve, let me reread 1984 and we can get into it.

    In the US, “checks and balances” can be a farce, a way to let conservatives win. (Why, yes, I will rant about the Senate if you wish.) But the basic principle, that power should not be consolidated in the hands of one person or a small clique, is, IMNSHO, just plain smart.

  12. A PS: Yes, sometimes power seizes wealth, but wealth and power usually find a way to work together…not for the benefit of those who have neither.

  13. I’ve got to stop with the afterthoughts, but I was thinking about 1984 now, and I believe a common mistake people make is assuming that IngSoc is supposed to be considered a normal socialist party carried to its logical extreme. It’s not. It’s National Socialism, which is to say, a form of fascism carried to its logical extreme.

  14. Jim: “Do you think that truisms are used as an excuse to stop thinking? ” Yes, exactly.

    Will: “wealth is not power, but wealth buys it.”

    Which is exactly why it is laudable when a wealthy person refuses power.

    I think 1984 was much more about Stalinism than fascism, and, as such, made a lot of good points (especially concerning the rewriting of history, &c)

  15. John Aho @9: You wrote, A popular fallacy going on right now in some circles is ‘ad populous’ which is “more people are on my side than yours so I’m right”. I can’t make much sense of “ad populous”; it looks like somebody’s attempt to quote or abbreviate a Latin phrase they don’t understand. Can you elucidate?

  16. Truisms are a shorthand for what would otherwise be long-winded descriptions of things humans have learned from experience. In this case, “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely” sums up quite well the experience of humanity throughout history: most humans cannot be trusted with power coupled with no constraints/restraints.

    Some people have a good, solid moral compass inside and behave themselves because that’s the kind of person they wish to be; other people behave themselves because they’d lose their jobs/go to jail/etc if they didn’t. If you give the latter kind of person the kind of power that allows them to do anything they want without consequence, you get Caligula.

    You also have the person whose moral compass is just a bit askew: he believes in an ideal, and that ideal is more important than individuals. Given enough power without constraint, such people may feel that they can actually achieve their Utopia, and do “what is necessary” to make it so. Hitler may have been such a person; I have read things that make me think he sincerely believed that the “Aryan race” and civilization were doomed if something wasn’t done to save them.

  17. Whenever that particular line of pseudo-wisdom gets mentioned, I like to rebut with my own version: Power tends to attract the corruptible. It isn’t that the mere possession of power invariably corrupts the person wielding it, it is that people who seek out power are often the sorts who want it for the wrong reasons, and are thus corrupted by it once they have it. This is not a truism–as you point out, there are instances dotted throughout history of people that gained power and remained honest in its application. But they are far less common than the other sort, and stand out by that very exceptionalism.

    Oh, and @Mark Mandel: I believe he meant ‘ad populum.’ It’s a logical fallacy often confused with ‘ad hominim,’ wherein the arguer insults his opponent personally rather than address his arguments.

  18. It’s an aphorism. It’s not designed to stand up to detailed philosophical examination.

    But, if you do want to examine it that closely anyway — it only claims ABSOLUTE power corrupts ABSOLUTELY. And no human ever has absolute power.

    The fact that Washington and Lincoln did not fall face-first into hugely visible corruptions doesn’t mean they weren’t in some degree corrupted. You’d have to look MUCH more closely than I have to even start to have evidence either direction.

    Besides, I prefer Mike Ford’s version, that he gave me a badge of when I chaired Minicon 27: “Power corrupts. Absolute power is kinda neat.”

  19. Dragoness Eclectic: “In this case, “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely” sums up quite well the experience of humanity throughout history”

    Right. Except that it doesn’t. Instead, it directs us *away* from understanding the experience of humanity throughout history.

    DDB: I object to aphorisms that actually prevent understanding of complex and important issues. Another favorite of mine is “fighting for peace is like fucking for chastity.” It’s clever, but it falls apart as soon as you try to examine it, and it’s use tends to prevent the actual examination of an important issue. “Power corrupts” is the same way: it obscures what it ought to enlighten.

    And if it only true of “absolute power” and there has never been a case “absolute power” then it isn’t terribly useful, is it?

    But, yeah, I really like Mike’s version.

  20. Hmm. Did my comment fall into a spam filter? I tried to repost it, and I got a message saying it appeared to be a duplicate, but I don’t see it here.

  21. It’s certainly not a truism. Not every person who gains power gives up their former ideals or compromises on them (either in using that power, or in order to get it). The phrase neither explains history nor predicts the future – yes, I agree.

    But I do think the phrase has utility in the context of SELF-examination. If it plants the seed that reminds those who gain power to be mindful of how their perspective is changed by it, that’s a good thing.

    I can’t speak for anyone else in this, but I don’t think my experience is unique. I’ve observed, in myself, that possessing certain types of power creates the temptation to use that power in ways I know I oughtn’t, and that over time I start to come up with rationalizations for why it would be okay. One could argue, of course, whether that’s properly considered a process of corruption, or simply revealing a weakness that’s been there all along….

  22. I love you as a fiction writer but I am not sure this is a well thought out post.

    The idea is that we must scrutinize our leaders and not allow them to have absolute power.

    Washington was the first President. The scrutiny he was under by the rest of the political class certainly kept him from having absolute power and maybe kept him from being corrupt, we will never know.

    However, Lincoln is a different case. He did suspend Habeas Corpus. Only President ever to do that.

    The truism may not be absolute, but I believe there is plenty of empircal evidence that those who control the machinery of power rarely use it to benefit the weak.

    I will await your response for examples of where the policies of the rich have benefited the poor.

    This “truism” is the best argument for a free press, to ensure that there is no absolute power.

  23. I question your history concerning Washington. And Lincoln was, in my opinion, correct to suspend Habeus Corpus; but, correct or not, it can hardly be considered corruption.

    “The idea is that we must scrutinize our leaders and not allow them to have absolute power.”
    What leaders are those? You mean the leaders of the bourgeoisie, who are running our society? No, I don’t think we should allow them absolute power. I don’t think we should allow them any power whatsoever. And by putting the question in terms of degrees of power of individuals, we ignore the class content of that power, which is, in fact, the decisive issue.

    “I believe there is plenty of empircal evidence that those who control the machinery of power rarely use it to benefit the weak.”

    I agree, but I would argue this has nothing to do with corruption. Even G.W. Bush, one of the most vile, was no more corrupt when leaving office than he was before running. He was serving his masters to the best of his (rather mediocre) ability.

  24. I’m pretty much on your side with this. The “truism” that drives me nuts is, “Those who would trade liberty for security deserve neither.” It sounds great, but it sidesteps any substantive discussion of the trade-offs necessary for a successful society and a content populace.

    So, while I’d never really thought about Lord Acton’s famous saying in that light, I agree that it falls apart under pretty much any examination.

  25. Not impressed.

    “Power corrupts” is shorthand for something like: “as an entity’s power increases, a greater percentage of that power is directed towards remaining in power.” It’s a human rule and not a physical law; of course there are going to be exceptions. But it’s definitely a human rule, with a lot of historical, anthropological, sociological, psychological, and — it seems to me — evolutionary evidence behind it.

  26. I prefer Frank Herbert’s variation from the Dune series: “Absolute power attracts the absolutely corruptible.” The “absolute” part is less helpful, really. To me it is more of a reminder that if someone in power is found to be using that power in a corrupt way, that nobody should really be surprised. Obvious and small scale examples might be a border crossing official taking bribes to allow people to enter a country off the record, or a voyeur taking a job as a millimter wave scan monitor at an airport.

  27. It’s an interesting discussion, though by questioning our ability to put simple rules down to describe any human behavior, I question the value of challenging the “absolute power” rule this vigorously. Is there a truism or rule of this type that does withstand this level of scrutiny?

    The applicability of this particular saying is directly dependent upon its target’s sense of empathy and altruism. As a logical function of human behavior, we judge our desires vs. the consequences of acting on them. For many things in modern society, there are consequences of civil/legal punishment, and consequences of peer repudiation.

    I think half of “power” as it’s meant in this sense is the removal of these consequences. The other half, of course, being “control of something that can affect other people.”

    Attacking or defending this rule by anecdotal evidence is doomed to fail. For every Lincoln and Washington there’s a Stalin or Kim Jong Il. For every selfless community leader there’s a sherriff in Wyoming who uses his new “anti-terrorism” power to search a house for drugs, without due process… because power made it easier to do what he thought needed doing without consequence.

    I think “corrupt,” in this sense, simply means that a choice you would have viewed as “wrong” when there were consequences in place, you make anyway, when the consequences are removed. It has nothing to do with good vs. evil, just an acknowledgement that right and wrong are often determined by fear of consequences.

    Many, many drivers obey the speed limit not because they think it’s wrong to go faster, but because they fear the consequences of being caught speeding.

    I don’t know if this helps the discussion at all. But I think it’s a much more realistic framework for discussion: People limit their actions based upon arbitrary limits/morals, and fear of consequences. If you remove the possibility of consequences, are the arbitrary limits/morals still enough to limit people’s actions? Is that an accurate and useful way to reframe the truism?

  28. Of course, God is the only one with absolute power. And this truism is really saying that God and the Devil are one.

  29. As is often the case, the quote makes more sense to me when put in context:

    “And remember, where you have a concentration of power in a few hands, all too frequently men with the mentality of gangsters get control. History has proven that. All power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

    It is not that power inherently makes those who hold it corrupt. It is rather that loci of power attract those who are already corrupt (i.e. – seeking power not to fulfill the responsibilities which the power is entrusted for, but for its own sake to fulfill their own agenda).

    Since that understanding is nothing new, those who are corrupt and seeking power often clothe themselves in innocent justifications. When those are exposed for their falsehood, it also often appears that the power holder has been corrupted. Thus comes the first typical misunderstanding of the aphorism.

    I think the largest misreading of the aphorism is the assumption that this is an quick or personal process. It is a large-scale, generations-long sociological process, that of new niches for the exploitative opening, and of the exploitative maneuvering toward them through whatever protections have been set against their encroachment.

    Which, I will admit, I believe as much from personal prejudice as from examination of history or social science. It fits with what I’ve seen of humanity in microcosm: the rewards of properly using power are not nearly so tempting as the rewards from abusing it. Some people make the better choice anyway, but many more do not.

  30. Bruce: I’m sure that sometimes individuals in power use much of that power to remain there (Nixon being a good example). No, I do not believe it is a valid or useful generalization; quite the contrary. The most damaging part is that it leaves us looking in the wrong place for why power is being abused.

    I remember Way Back, when issues of police brutality were first getting publicity (this would be the late 60s), people tried to explain to me, “There are good cops, and bad cops.” They didn’t understand that the “good cops” were the ones I worried about, because they were the ones doing their job, and it was the job that is appalling. It is the ones NOT corrupted by power that I most fear and hate.

    Chris B: I suspect that, no, no truism can stand up to scrutiny. Perhaps that is the difference between a truism and a scientific generalization. Or maybe not.

  31. Nathaniel: An interesting point, but, even here, not borne out by an examination of history. Who is attracted to power? That depends: WHAT power, under what circumstances? When? Where?

    In the period of the rise of a culture, power tends to attract the best examples of that society; in the period of it’s decline, it attracts the worst. In 1860 we got Lincoln, in 2000 we got Bush.

    (Interestingly, this holds up even for much older forms. In feudal-monarchical society, the mechanism is more complex, because it has to work around inheritance, but it still holds up. Compare Charlemagne, Alfred the Great, Peter the Great with Louis XVI, George III, and Nicholas the II.)

  32. My opinion on Orwell is different. For a 17 year old reading 1984 it was certainly an eye-opener and a lot of those things in the book have home truths
    – War is Peace; (Operation “Freedom”)
    – Keeping the Proles down (Politicians allowing the proliferation of junk media, junk food, junk etc)
    – Changing the truth (Weapons of mass destruction);
    – We have always been at war with X and peace with Y. No. We have always been at war with Y and peace with X. (Iraq good to Iraq bad)

    But don’t recall the “Power Corrupts” being the underlying theme of the book – I thought that was Animal Farm.

    “Wealth is not power”. That’s one of the points that 1984 says towards the end. The motivation of the inner party was power. Not wealth or anything else.

    I believe the motivation of power rings true today – especially in a lot of western democracies. This article talks about the Australian political sector.

    I believe that humans by nature are more of a pack animal than a herd animal. A pack animal environment you have a hierarchical structure. (Disclaimer – that analysis is based on nothing but my own feelings and observations – no scientific basis)

    Do most assholes in history come to power do to the social, economic and other circumstances? Yes. The screaming majority, yes. But Stalin? I actually think it boils done to the guy was a genius asshole who used the environment and circumstances different to Trotsky.

    Peter the Great? Didn’t that guy kill is opponents to retain power – including his own son?
    George III? – I thought the UK monarchy by then was a already had most (or all) of the political power gone by then.

    I’m fluffing around here but getting back to your original argument, the term “power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely” is simplistic. But hey, that’s a reflection on how people in general assess things – based on one liners. People in general are intellectual slobs (myself included).

    The chapter “The two Winstons” by Simon Schama’s A history of Britain (book and DVD)talks about Orwell in some depth.

  33. schmwarf: Interesting. I’d call Stalin the poster-boy for an individual coming to power purely because of social and economic circumstances. He represented those who hung back during the October Revolution, and became functionaries afterward, and came to power because the defeats of the revolutions in Germany, Italy, England, &c. He is the perfect case of a non-entity achieving power exactly because he was a non-entity, and that is what was called for at the time. His outstanding personal characteristics were rudeness, ignorance, and lack of foresight.

  34. In the same vein, how about “The ends do not justify the means”? That strikes me as really, really silly. Of *course* the ends justify the means — that’s kind of how you decide how much and what kind of effort to put into something. In fact, it’s codified into law: self-defense (i.e. the end) can justify a number of otherwise illegal or frowned upon behaviours (means). Perhaps I’ve been treading water in the shallow end of the gene-pool, but I hear people blather that statement at each other in such a silly manner:

    “Don’t you know that the ends never justify the means?”


  35. With power comes difficult choices, with trade offs in “rightness” and “wrongness”. And your choices have impacts on peoples lives, if this impact is negative, they will see the choice as wrong and “corrupt” if it is positive, they will see it as good. Make big enough choices that hurt enough people, and you are now “corrupt.”

  36. Steve, does anything with a link go into the spam filter?

    Here’s a tweaked version of the latest comment I tried to leave:

    schmwarf, I think we agree on Orwell. In the comment I made which this blog seems to have eaten, I blathered about that. The quick version: 1984 says a great deal about power, whether it’s ostensibly socialist or capitalist or feudal.

    And I linked to “Why Socialists Don’t believe in Fun”, an essay by Orwell that’s mostly about literary utopias, but it has this great bit: “Men use up their lives in heart-breaking political struggles, or get themselves killed in civil wars, or tortured in the secret prisons of the Gestapo, not in order to establish some central-heated, air-conditioned, strip-lighted Paradise, but because they want a world in which human beings love one another instead of swindling and murdering one another. And they want that world as a first step. Where they go from there is not so certain, and the attempt to foresee it in detail merely confuses the issue.”

    People might quibble with what he meant by “in detail,” but as I read it, I agree with him.

  37. Chimaera, the means are the ends. If you put millions of people into death camps to create utopia, you’ve created a utopia built on the deaths of millions. I believe in redemption, and I believe that sometimes you have to make hard choices, but people who say that the ends justify the means are often sociopaths.

  38. The strength of many sayings isn’t that they’re time-tested truths but that they’re shorthand code for the target audience to interpret. Your example is a good one, because it is universally applicable to any hated person. On the one hand everyone knows it refers to judges and judicial activism, while the other hand knows it refers to lobbyists and CEOs. By using that phrase, people can encapsulate all the paranoia, fear and hatred of their audiences while simultaneously reminding them of what they’re fighting for, like the obvious need for more/less government regulation/interference.

    Less generally, the power corrupts quote comes from a religious moralist who spent a good deal of his time drawing connections between religious precepts, both personal and as enshrined in government, and personal liberty. His comment was the typical pessimistic view of humanity as tending toward sin and evil, and that’s how a lot of people still use it today. By ignoring leaders who serve honorably and focusing on those who are indicted for ethics violations on the low end of the corruption scale, Hitler on the high end, and all the other examples of bad morals in between these extremes, people who parrot this saying get to feel the smug satisfaction of knowing what was going to happen, and knowing they themselves are too clever to fall for the lure of worldly power, which not coincidently consoles them for lacking power anyway.

    Other sayings are handed down without any thought being given to them. They enter the vocabulary just like any other word of dubious origin, and are misused and misapplied all the time, sort of like “a watched pot never boils”, which was originally the very true observation that “a watched pot boils no faster”, and which has no bearing on what you asked, but it bugs me when people get it wrong.

  39. Nathaniel @34:

    I’m not sure who you’re quoting there, but it isn’t the original usage. Lord Acton first used the phrase in 1887, when he said

    “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 certainty of corruption by full authority. There is no worse heresy than the fact that the office sanctifies the holder of it. “

    I’ve always read that as applicable to Nixon’s claim that “the President is above the law”; I don’t know who inspired the original sentiment but I’m reasonably certain it was a spiritual cousin of Nixon.

    The idea certainly wasn’t original to Acton, by any means; for example, in the late 18th century, Pitt the Elder is recorded as saying

    “Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it.”

    I’ve never worried much about the literal applicability of truisms. They’re a convenient shorthand for reminding ourselves and each other of useful behaviors and warning against dangerous situations, and what can it possibly matter if the dish full of vinegar actually attracts more flies than the bowl of honey?

  40. Will: As far as I know, nothing is set up for any sort of automatic filter; no idea why you were having trouble posting that.

    L. Raymond: That’s a whole aspect I hadn’t thought of. I agree.

  41. L. Raymond – good observation.

    Reminds me of Africa in recent decades.

    There has been numerous occasions in recent decades on that continent where charismatic identities have seized power (by force, democratically or otherwise) on the basis they are casting out the old corrupt power thirsty establishment – only for him and his entourage turning into the beast they defeated in the first place.

    I think in general, power is very tempting to the human being. As a result the job of running a state seems to attract only those who want it (power, that is). I remember Steve saying something along the lines of (and stop me if I’m incorrect) – the US presidency should only be offered to those who don’t want it. But how do you get that to work?

  42. “Chimaera, the means are the ends. If you put millions of people into death camps to create utopia, you’ve created a utopia built on the deaths of millions. I believe in redemption, and I believe that sometimes you have to make hard choices, but people who say that the ends justify the means are often sociopaths.”

    @will: I respectfully disagree. The implicit third variable fitting between means and ends is one’s moral calculus, and without considering that, the expression is meaningless. You engage in ends-justified means every day. The end of secure shoes justifies the means employed to secure them (i.e. tying them). A mismatch between ends and means is not a direct relationship between the two, but is, rather, contingent on the set of values applied to each. Genocide is wrong, regardless of the ends it serves, only according to a specific moral valuation of genocide. Genocide is wrong, regardless of the means used to achieve it, likewise only in the context of specific moral valuation.

    Meanwhile, I can generally abhor violence, but still license myself those rather extreme ends if the end is sufficiently morally pressing, such as punching out the asshole who tried to kick my dog. And I can do that without being a sociopath. What makes someone a sociopath is their relative valuations and their lack of fundamental, basic and emotional buy-in to social norms and mores. Their idea of what means are licensed by which ends is out of kilter, but they, like everyone else, engages in means that they feel are justified by their ends.

  43. @John Aho #9: “It is what it is” is an expression useful *only* for moving discussion about history and causes into discussion about what can be done next. In other words, exactly the sort of discussion that skzb seems to hate.

  44. Chimera: The problem with the whole approach to ends justifying means is that the question is wrong. The relationship of ends to means is not one of justification, but of prescription. It is possible in one’s mind to create a scenario where a good outcome that can be achieved by evil methods; in reality, if you find yourself using methods you consider evil, there is something wrong with your goal, with your conception of how to achieve it, or both.

    In the example you give, your goal was to prevent injury to your dog, or to make sure someone understood that your dog ought not to be kicked; you used a perfectly reasonable method of obtaining that goal.

    Such abstractions as, “violence is bad,” are unscientific nonsense. What sort of violence, used by whom, under what conditions, to accomplish what? In the example you give, you arrived at a perfectly reasonable answer to those questions. That you may have arrived at the answer instinctively doesn’t invalidate it.

    The greater one’s understanding of a given goal, and of the natural laws that operate regarding it, the greater will be one’s clarity on how to achieve it. The end determines the means, it doesn’t justify it.

    I suspect that’s what Will was getting at when he said, “The means are the ends,” though I’m not certain.

  45. Steve, I think so: the ends determine the means, and the means determine the end. They’re inseparable. Sometimes the means can be buried from most people’s knowledge, but even secret means have consequences, both on those who know the secret and on those who are kept from the truth.

  46. I will have to chew on what you’re both saying. On one hand, I tend to agree with what you’re saying: certainly, if your utopia can only be achieved by genocide, I would think that perhaps there is something wrong with that particular concept and instantiation of utopia. However, I don’t know about means *determining* or *prescribing* ends. Certainly a given end warrants some set of means: securing one’s shoes licenses the tying of shoe-laces or even (shudder) the use of velcro straps (I try to be a tolerant person). It doesn’t license the mugging of some random person in possession of shoe-laces that you lack, however.

    As for violence and some jerk-off going after my rather pleasant and inoffensive dog, well, as a general heuristic, I seek to avoid violence. I’m not a complete peacenik and I’m not one of those “violence is never the answer” types (nor am I naive enough to consider direct physical intervention the only form of violence), but by and large, violence is unpleasant and damaging to both the hitter and the hittee. As such, I prefer to avoid it (and to be fair, it’s not like life isn’t generally accommodating in this regard for me; it’s not like my life is a never ending series of situations in which I would dearly love to punch someone in the nose). I certainly warned the fellow engaged in Operation: Kick My Dog that it was poor course of action. In the end, however, I really had no option (other, I suppose, than retreating back into my home at the first sign of potential conflict, which I was not willing to do). Now, we seem to be in agreement that violence was warranted — however, we can talk about the scale and scope of the intervention employed. The variety of means that can come into play in the attainment of a given end, none of which may be strictly necessary (even if sufficient) makes me dubious about the thesis you’re advancing. I am thinking it over though. Thank you both for your considered replies.

  47. “The greater one’s understanding of a given goal, and of the natural laws that operate regarding it, the greater will be one’s clarity on how to achieve it. The end determines the means, it doesn’t justify it.”

    Well said Mr. Brust.

  48. Some of this is related to “if all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”. When someone has power – every problem looks like a problem that will be solved by using that power.

    Even problems that should not be solved.

    Even if solving that problem messed things up worse elsewhere.

    People want “to do something”. Look at all the laws that “do something” – even when they don’t address the real problem. We ant to count. We want to matter. Even when our actions don’t help.

  49. In my experience, a large majority of authority-holders or power-wielders have been corrupted, if not always in the strict sense of losing honesty and integrity (though this is very common), then in the general sense of change for the worse apparently resulting from the use of power and authority.

    By authority-holders I mean not only legal power-wielders like politicians and police, but also people like managers and executives whose authority only extends to their subordinates.

    There are certainly people who seem to be immune to the corrosive effects of authority, but they are not all that common.

    Parents seem to be something of an exception to this rule. Many parents do appear to become coarser and less attractive people apparently due to the use and abuse of authority over their children, but not so many as in the other categories like politicians, police, and managers.

  50. The truism itself may or may not be true, but its corollary is certainly true, as you yourself have said: if you boil it down, it simply becomes: “absolute power to a single individual is imminently dangerous.” Whether or not power actually corrupts, the truism at least warns against entrusting too much to one person, and suggests the correct counteraction–simply, do not grant absolute power to a single individual. Isn’t that function enough?

    Actually, though–assuming zero correlation between power and corruption, the truism in fact overstates the danger of absolute power. If there really were no correlation at all, then, if we had enough absolute rulers to form a representative sample, we’d find probably about as many who were benevolent as were corrupt, and far more who were simply ordinary, somewhere in-between.

    But anyway, I don’t know–it’s like heuristic thinking, which is just how people work. Even if the heuristic isn’t itself precisely representative or correct, so long as the consequences are sufficiently reliable, then the heuristic may be retained indefinitely. And I think this truism isn’t too terrible so far as heuristics go. Perhaps Orwell was using it to avoid questions in his own time, or perhaps not; he’s gone now, so we can’t determine for sure anymore. But for now, and for the future, we still have this idea–absolute power is dangerous. The important thing, which the truism does not explicitly state, is that the danger is not to the empowered themselves, but rather to the societies that entrust them with that power.

    (An aside: my opinion is that power may or may not actually corrupt, but it certainly makes nearly everything you do have bigger and broader consequences, and you look a lot less evil when your mistakes and shortcomings can only harm yourself and those immediately surrounding you as compared to when they could potentially, at this increasingly globalized point in history, harm the entire world.)

  51. I’m reading Keneally’s American Scoundrel, a biography of Dan Sickles, and he mentioned a couple of things in passing that struck me as examples of Lincoln taking advantage of his power:

    1. He brought his wife’s sister, the wife of a killed Confederate general, into the north even though she refused to accept a loyalty oath.

    2. Like chickenhawks of all ages, he sent other men’s sons to fight, but he kept his own at a university, and then assigned him to a safe spot with Grant’s staff when the war was nearly over.

    Mind you, in his position, I might do the same. But it would still be hypocrisy.

  52. @47 schmwarf

    I wish it were confined to just one region, even one as big as Africa, but everywhere in the world, at all levels of society, we can find similar examples. But the fact we can think of a thousand corrupt people with little effort – from the local HOA to the UN – just shows how skewed our own perceptions are, because we also know of a thousand people who quietly go about their jobs, leading others without any plans for personal gains. They just don’t register as forcibly with us. Sayings like “power corrupts” lend themselves to bias confirmation. We remember the bad people who fulfill the prediction but ignore everyone else who doesn’t.

    I disagree that leadership should only be offered to those who don’t want it since that’s an easy way to fulfill another trite expression about paving the road to hell. The only sure fire way to get a series of good leaders is to change the culture that produces them. When a society becomes more provincial and self-absorbed, its children pick up on that, and we end up with generations of leaders who think the UN is the ultimate evil because it tries to bring the nations of the world into a closer working relationship. Making a society more open-minded and generous could be done, but that would take more than just a few generations worth of work.

  53. I would have thought that a writer such as yourself would have come across the concept Frank Herbert raises in the Dune Series, namely that it is not so much that power corrupts, but that power attracts the corruptible. Which in my experience and from what I know is certainly a ‘truism’ that can be quite easily validated by many historical examples.

    Then again, if you are curious as to why people spout nice sounding catchphrases without putting much thought into them, then you could do far worse than to contemplate the hack and slash fantasy of the Wizard’s First Rule.

    What is the Wizard’s First Rule?

    People are stupid and will believe just about anything.

    It’s that simple and yes, that is a truism, however, it was as much scientific empircal basis as even the most pedantic could ask for.

  54. If power doesn’t corrupt, how do we explain the Stanford Prison Experiments. A fluke?

    I do not believe history would bear that interpretation out. I believe history bears out the corrupting influence of power, and provides a showcase of why those with power over others need be watched very carefully.

    Will’s link to the MindHacks article mentions a few studies that similarly bear out the idea that power/authority over others changes one’s behaviors towards and intentions towards those people in a negative or deprecating manner, as well as one’s own behaviors — power tends to give one a sense that they are owed and simply better than others.

    Growing up in a small town, I can tell you that the folks with power, while not outright evil, certainly abused that authority in many small ways: the mayor’s wife never received a speeding ticket (the one officer who dared to do so ended up transferred to a new dept), the cops would take the beer and weed they collected as evidence home to party with, etc.

    Contrary to the assertion in the post, I would say there seems to be plenty of anecdotal and, yes, scientific evidence indicating power really does corrupt (skew?) one’s intentions and ethics.

  55. Alexander: I’ve come across it; again, like the original truism, it is over-simplistic to the point of incorrect.

    “People are stupid and will believe just about anything.”

    I know that many people wish to believe this. I suspect it is more complicated than just wanting to believe it because it makes them feel smarter; but in any case, I respectfully disagree.

    Rev: I am unfamiliar with that study.

  56. Is it? My experience tells me quite differently. I’d never deny your point that truisms cause lazy thinking, and I think in most cases it’s quite valid.

    The vast run of human history and the current situation, does tend towards pointing towards the simple reality that by and large, yes, people are fairly dumb in general and will believe just about anything.

    Say for example, how people accept truisms and neat phrases en masse instead of putting in the hard work to get at the truth.

    In the Stanford Prison Experiment, they set one group of students up as prisoners, one group up as guards.

    All hell fairly quickly broke loose. However, that is not in my opinion an example per se of power corrupting, but rather of a shiny uniform twisting even the most freedom loving. It had the added aspect of creating a situation of “us and them” where the side with the sticks had the view that they were the ‘good guys’ and the guys without sticks behind bars were the ‘bad guys’.

    What is far more troubling is the results of the Milgram experiment, where people were told to admintser electric shocks up to the fatal level for a ‘test’.

    No one was being electrically shocked, by the participants in the program thought they were.

    Most of them delivered the ‘fatal’ electric shock and only one person said “No.” way below the pain threshold.

    So I probably should have expanded what I said.

    In general, people are stupid, easily led, and will believe just about anything just so long as they’re told to by someone with an authoritative tone of voice.

    This is no doubt partly genetic, as humans really are pack animals genetically hardwired to follow the leader and do what they’re told.

    The reasons truisms arise is not just due to the fact that they’re neat and easy, but also that they often serve a useful function and in many cases, actually accurately reflect the situation they describe. Humans are prone to accepting this sort of thing because…they don’t like thinking things through by and large and it’s a lot easier to accept that what goes up must come down rather than trying to prove General Relativity yourself.

  57. @ 61 That study measured how people respond to authority, not how they themselves behave when they are in charge and acting autonomously, so I don’t think it’s pertinent to the original quote.

    As for your examples, all of which I recognize from similar experience, they are subject to confirmation bias, which is to say that people remember the incidents that disgust them but forget the police who do their jobs every day without breaking the law themselves, or the members of the city council who don’t take bribes or the myriad other people who go about their lives without tromping on others. Unless you grew up in a very bad town, the number of public servants you never heard about surely outnumbered any examples you can come up with.

    @62: This is the study in which volunteers were told by an authority figure to shock victims; the victims were actually part of the test, and faked pain to see how far the real subjects would go when ordered.

  58. @61: the Stanford Prison experiment–along with Milgram’s, incidentally–are classically listed as examples of deindividuation–that is, most psychologists point to the fact that the participants were led through various aspects of the experimental set-up (such as costuming, forms of address, etc.) to lose sight of their agency as individuals–not the fact that some of them are “empowered” and some of them are not. “Mob mentality” is another example of this; internet flame wars yet another. It’s interesting stuff–a lot of things happens to human behavior when we’re put in situations where we’re made to think as members of a group rather than as individuals. Some of them are very good; others are a little scary, and this is one of the scary ones. (For another scary one, look up “Kitty Genovese” or “the bystander effect” or, more broadly, “diffusion of responsibility”.)

  59. @64: While your point about confirmation bias is true, I believe there’s an underlying statistic to the anecdotes that would indicate a higher incident of such behaviors/attitudes among those with authority (while serving in that capacity) than those without. I can’t back that up right now, though, so it’s purely belief right now and I’ll leave it at that.

    @others: Ah yes, I’d forgotten about the Milgram experiment.

    All good points though, particularly about deindividuation.

    However, I wouldn’t argue that’s the whole of it. Studies never reveal just one thing, but facets of numerous things, so I disagree that one group being “empowered” has nothing at all to do with what happened, even though I don’t disagree with what Meigui is saying about mob mentality.

    So probably not the best study to look at. The MindHacks link points to some others specifically geared towards studies of authority, and I think we could find others if we bothered to dig.

    There’s also the aspect of an individual’s level of Authoritarianism that hasn’t been mentioned: given power, some certain people are simply more susceptible to behaving in a cruel and selfish fashion than are others.

    So, I don’t know, perhaps the phrase should read “Power tends to corrupt the corruptible.” Which doesn’t seem a very useful statement to me if only because it is entirely obvious.

  60. @64: I spoke too hastily, I guess — I retract my above statement about not being able to argue against simple confirmation bias in this case.

    Turns out there is quite a bit of good research supporting the anecdotal examples I gave, that is, on the tendency of authority figures to misbehave more than the norm (some of it is summarized in the Wall Street Journal article Will linked to earlier).

  61. John Aho: I tend to think of “it is what it is” as a useful shorthand for “Yes, we could mount a full-scale critique of the faults and failings of this thing or individual in question, but at the moment we need to focus on something else, so for now we should just regard those problems as part of the set of things we need realistically need to deal with. Because we can’t do everything at once.”

  62. I think another quotation that is bantered around as a truism is “money is the root of all evil”. But that doesn’t quite sync with “power corrupts” as money and power are sometimes the same but sometimes they are not.

  63. Alexander: The people are stupid argument will await another day. I’ve discussed it on LJ, and will come back to again, because it’s a button of mine. :-)

    The Milgrim experiment is interesting. A friend of mine wrote his psych Master’s thesis attacking it on the basis of certain assumptions in the interpretation; wish I remember the details, because it was brilliant.

    This is, by the way, a fascinating discussion, and I thank you all.

  64. @66 Oops about mixing up Stanford and Milgram. That sort of sloppiness is why I try to never post after work when I’m tired.

    But both studies bring up yet another reason why these sorts of sayings are not only pointless, but possibly harmful. In dismissing any sort of bad behavior by someone in authority by saying “well, power corrupts, you know”, people ignore such things as herd instinct and blur the line between simple bad behavior, such as not giving a particular person a traffic ticket, and actual corruption, like accepting bribes every month to ignore traffic violations by certain people. I think the harm comes when people decide to wipe out corruption and treat all problems by officials of any level as individuals consciously deciding to behave in a systematically corrupt fashion rather than recognizing the different roots of such behavior and dealing with them in more appropriate ways.

  65. schmwarf, the actual quote is “the love of money is the root of all evil”. When I was young, I thought the distinction was unimportant, but then I realized that Timothy was being translated too politely by King James’s scholars: he was saying “Greed is the root of all evil.” I agree with that, though he doesn’t talk about the root of greed, which calls for an examination of his culture.

    Steve, I suspect we agree on the stupidity of saying that people are stupid. (Alexander, please forgive my love of a good line. I don’t think you or anyone is stupid; I think most people are limited by the social system they inhabit. Blaming them for failing to see beyond the limits of their society is classic blaming-the-victim. Or, as Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

  66. The one word that has not gotten much play here is “power.” Are we all certain we mean the same thing when we use it? Is it closely synonymous with authority? It’s worth, from my point of view, distinguishing between “power to” and “power over.” The first presumes an ability, the second a (potential) hierarchic relationship.

    Acquiring the power to or gaining a position empowering me to move toward some positive goal is one thing. Being in a position to compel the compliance of others to move toward that goal (power over) is another thing. Neither is necessarily preferable to the other. But merely having the power to do something tempts me less to go beyond my moral limits than having the power over other people.

    In strictly interpersonal relationships, if people let me walk all over them, I do. Which is why for decades now, I have avoided the company of some. Give me power over you, and I will abuse it and you. Maybe this is not true for all people, but power over other people corrupts me.

  67. Let me see if I follow you here…the aphorism about absolute power tends not to be a “truism” so much as a programming tool:

    1) If power tends to corrupt, then power is bad, and good people don’t want it.

    2) The people in charge are bad.

    3) You don’t want to be bad; don’t be in charge.

    Therefore encouraging most people to leave matters involving power up to someone else.

    If that’s what you mean – verrry interesting.

    The Wizard’s First Rule struck me as both funny and stupid; what, was the wizard who fictionally made that up exempt? Or was he a fool and easily deceived into believing that he was better than everyone else in that respect?

    Re: ends/means discussion: Now there’s an aphorism I hate. The means ALWAYS have to be paid for. “Justified” is a meaningless babble word in that context.

    What about “You can’t have your cake and eat it, too”?

  68. DeAnna: Yeah, that is, at least, one effect. Another effect is that when things go bad in certain ways (Stalin being the poster boy), we don’t have to bother understanding why, we just hang, “power corrupts” on it in lieu of analysis and go on about our business smugly certain nothing could have been done.

  69. DeAnna – the “Wizard’s first Rule” is from the book that also shares that term as it’s title by Terry Goodkind, writer of the Sword of Truth series (“Wizard” being the first in the series).

    The books are interesting to start with, but I found them unbearable towards the end as the protagonist was blatantly pushing the author’s political agenda.

  70. I prefer the spiderman twist on this cliche. “With great power comes great responsibility”.

  71. Just found this, and thought it’d be relevant to this discussion–a Wall Street Journal article on this very topic, extensively discussing several scientific studies in support of the idea that power corrupts. Science in the media, of course, must always be taken with a grain of salt for spin or unscientific misrepresentation, and my area of expertise is more on the cognitive side with focus on memory and learning so I can’t do as extensive a spin-check on this one as I’d like myself, but it does have some pointers for further review of the available literature, if one has the time and inclination.

  72. This seems like a lot of rhetorical firepower to direct on one rather ordinary aphorism–does this phrase really produce that much mischief?

    I have always taken its political/social meaning to be similar in spirit, if not in literal signification, to that of “Qui custodiet ipsos custodes?” In both cases there is the implication that those who have power will at least be tempted to misuse it, and the more power they have, the stronger the temptation and the worse the consequences.

  73. skzb- A button it may well be, but a button worth pressing nonetheless. Take a look around at the world. Is it not a product of stupidity triumphant?

    will shetterly- Where there is no offense, there is no need for forgiveness. However, your argument lacks empircal validity. No matter what the social system is, there are smart people, and dumb people. The smart are always fewer in number than the dumb. This is a constant rule. As for Upton Sinclair, I counter this with my statement.

    The kind of man who would choose not to understand something because his salary depended upon him not understanding it, is largely worthless and should never be trusted with an automatic weapon around children, pets, or anything else of value.

    DeAnna- The Wizard’s First Rule is one of those things that you have to think about. The statement “People are stupid.” taken literally is well, stupid. It’s something that you’re meant to think on and ponder, especially when it applies to yourself.

    “People are easily led and will believe just about anything.”

    The point of the rule is to realise that you should take care not to be stupid yourself and not to be easily led, and to be aware that most people will be stupid and easily led.

    Take a look around you.

  74. The example that comes to my mind is Napoleon who went from ending the Reign of Terror and promoting many reforms to fomenting war for his own aggrandizement and empire building.

  75. “Any idea that persists, whether it is right or wrong, serves a social function.”

    But that function isn’t necessarily an explanatory one. Since we went from tribes to “civilization,” a move that largely entailed organizing ourselves into hierarchies, with power flowing upward from the many to the few. I think the endurance of this saw has more to do with our anxiety about power within hierarchal systems than any explanatory power it might be thought to have. I think it’s more to the point that people are concerned about the way those above them in a hierarchy will use their power, whether the particular hierarchy is a religious organization (though they often get free passes on the basis of “God said so”), a kingdom, or a corporation. I was just hearing a friend talk the other day about how a co-worker she had thought of as a friend had become (or revealed himself as?) an asshole (she was more specific in enumerating the changes) when he got into management. It’s that kind of experience that makes the truism seem true to people and, more to the point, causes the anxiety that sets the saw up as a warning.

    That said, I think when it comes to the practice of history or psychology, we need better explanations and understandings to parse out why or to what extent “power” “corrupts” or whatever it is that happens (or doesn’t) in a particular case.

  76. As for Orwell, I see your point, but again I suspect that it’s not simply that he is avoiding a difficult question so much as he has a different purpose. To the best of my understanding, Orwell was a socialist who believed that the ideas of socialism were so massively appealing that socialism was the way of the future: the only question for him was whether we were going to get authoritarian regimes that used the rhetoric of socialism to gain power or whether we might have something that he saw as more authentic and democratic. Although he didn’t put it as succinctly as “the bullet or the ballot,” he came pretty close to saying that (I can’t remember how he phrased it, which itself says something about who had the better summary).

    My point is that Orwell was less interested in exploring ideas than he was in warning us against the wrong path. He had some good insights along the way, but I’ve always seen his ultimate message, as expressed by the bleak ending, to be that if we go down this path toward totalitarianism, we’re doomed, no hope.

    Now, we can argue the relative utility of such a purpose vs. one that actually explores the important aspects of power dynamics and how we might navigate the temptations of power… we can also argue the validity of making an argument based on some divination of author intent, since that’s the basis of my half-hearted defense of old George.

  77. To start, I will admit that I only read about half of the comments, so if I am repeating what another said, I am sorry.

    Personally, I have never liked truisms for much the same reasons that skzb doesn’t. Stating something that is obviously true is meaningless and just a way to avoid a conversation. In the case of “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, I would argue that the statement is not even a truism. Why must Power corrupt? How does it corrupt? Will it always corrupt if a person stays in power long enough? In the case of that last question, there are examples of power simply not corrupting but really, that question is impossible to determine.

    What I think to be the more interesting section of the statement is “Absolute power corrupts absolutely. I was trying to think of an example of absolute power and at first, I couldn’t. In the end power is always checked by either the populace or another Power outside the first’s realm of power (whether that be another branch of government or another government entirely). So that got me to think of any hypothetical absolute power, which inevitably led me to God or a god. For Christians, Muslims, and Jews, they don’t normally think of God as being corrupted or even corruptible. But more importantly, with absolute power, one could argue that one even has the power to change what it means to be corrupted and thus God could never be corrupted because the meaning would constantly change and thus absolute power could never truly corrupt in any way.

    Now, I have no intention of blasting religion at this moment. I simply just chose a god as an obvious example. One could easily place hypothetical absolute power in the hands of anyone and receive the same outcome.

    I should also state (just for the humor of it all) that if power does indeed tempt those in a position of power to become corrupt in some way, that would not necessarily be a bad thing. With skzb’s definition of corruption, if power does destroy or subvert integrity of the person who holds it, those deemed to have a shady moral compass would inevitably change to the betterment. Maybe if the world waited long enough, Hitler may have turned out to be one, alright dude.

    Lastly, with the more generally accepted rephrasing that Power tempts those in power into corruption, the conversation would invariably lead to who should have the Power. As skzb has put it, one would not need a form of checks and balances if all power were in the hands of the people. My largest complaint with this idea is that people, in general, are stupid and easily manipulated. In large, society rarely seems to care about politics or the world around them if it does not involve them directly. This is evident largely when only half the nation (I am speaking as a US citizen) vote or even reads a newspaper. In cases of manipulation, it is scary to even think about. People often take a role based on what is either popular or what another says to be good. The recent craze with the Twilight book series is a good example. The books were not all that well written in my opinion and the story/characters were weak and cheap at best. Unlike, of course, skzb’s books which I fondly adore. But even those books not as great Brust’s novels, there are hundreds of better books out there that I can name off hand. I also run my own brewery and I am constantly being asked which flavor is the most popular. In the back of my head I am trying to grasp why should that matter. Don’t people have different tastes? Anyway, it seems to me, that having any kind of direct democracy, seems like a good idea in theory, but in reality is impractical. The same can also be said about our current government. It is so full of personal interests, lobbying groups, and politics that it seems insane that we allowed so few people to have so much power. While a handful of those in society thrive, many more are pushed to the side, or stepped on tho make room for them. With both systems unable to work well in a realistic society, what must we turn to? Well, my first instinct would be to give complete power to Mickey Mouse. I don’t think he would have the problems we normally associate with a dictator ship. Beyond that, I have no idea. I mostly just sit around poking holes in theories, rather than coming up with them.

  78. Is it something in the biological make-up of the human being? If so, what exactly?

    What the power-seeker values differs from what the human heart values. Actions based on the values in the first case are perceived as corrupt according to values in the second case.

    (Where ‘the human heart’ = our emotional connections to the people we actually know and care about, as opposed to generalized ideas of humanity and society.)

  79. As human beings, we dislike authority. Now, on the surface, this doesn’t seem to be necessarily true. However, when we consider a policy or subject broached by authority that we dislike, people and persons tend to vocalize their dislike for the person rather than simply the policy. This is very evident in politics, and can be seen often in historical works.

    Suetonius is notable for this kind of vocalization, of a sorts, having given us the classical version of Nero being a raving loon who played the harp as Rome burned and placed his horse as a Senator of Rome, despite the handicap of being born decades after Nero’s death.

    Now the association of authority with corruption does not entail a dislike of the position or the search for the position of authority. In many cases the position of authority itself is beyond reproach when placed next to the example of the person currently holding that position. Someone may be a bad general, a terrible president, a stark raving loon of a supervisor but by the very grammatical wording of those descriptions the position of authority retains it’s air of respectability.

    So, while we may consider authority to be corrupt, this does not stop anyone from trying to attain that position, even for altruistic reasons. However, that position can be considered to be tainted by any action that is disagreeable to anyone who views it.

    One might consider Julius Ceasar’s reign as first Emperor of Rome. Now, by all accounts, he was as utterly corrupt as he was ably and justly using his position of authority to empower the people and citizens of Rome. Which seems odd if you don’t consider the means of attaining that power (which was much less underhanded, and much more direct than the way the Republic attained it’s power).

    While George Washington is often considered above reproach in the current telling of history, that wasn’t so during the time he held power. He, and indeed the entire delegation writing the constitution were considered corrupt based on their own interests and by the people who disagreed with their views. Later his administration was viewed and vocalized as corrupt when attempting to collect on taxes for the fledgling country.

    So, why do we consider authority as corrupt? Because corruption is a buzz word that is used when disagreeing with someone who’s views we dislike, and if one group of people views a person of authority as corrupt, then they are corrupt. You lift your head above the crowd, and you make an excellent target of yourself.

    It’s also as unscientific as any “not even wrong” statement can be.

  80. I don’t mean to nitpick but….Nero didn’t fiddle while Rome burnt, that’s made up. Caligula elected his horse a senator, not Nero and that was most likely a ploy to anger the senate anyway.

    Also, Augustus, formerly Octavian was the first Emperor of Rome.

    Likewise a lot of what you have to say is a little…skewed in my opinion.

    Most people wouldn’t consider Julius Caesar to be corrupt if for nothing else that he gave a lot of his money away to the people, admittedly most likely as a means of gaining popularity. One might say that his invasion of Gaul was evidence of corruption in that it wasn’t specifically sanctioned by Rome and was clearly a way of him gaining more power and wealth to further his ambitions, but not many would say so.

    For an example of power corrupting…look at Stalin or Mao. Those are two fairly solid examples, although I would argue that Stalin at least was corrupt in that sense from the get go.

  81. This is amazing.
    _I found that throughout the conversation, whenever I thought of a missing point or a flaw in the discussion, just a bit further down someone else would have already posted it (or part of it anyway).
    _From the means being an end and vice versa (what is an end? Every mean is it’s own end, and all ends are made up of means), to bringing up those high school psychology experiments and realizing that they don’t quite apply, to realizing experiments are required that do apply and searching for them.

    (Not written in chronological order.)
    _Currently, I think one flaw comes from…
    “Because corruption is a buzz word that is used when disagreeing with someone who’s views we dislike[…]”
    _Every negative word is a buzz word for those one wishes to denigrate.

    _If we’re after an absolute definition of corruption, we can say it is when one travels farther from corresponding imaginary image of perfection. The perfect holder of political or economical power would be one who always makes the best choice reality allows. So if a holder of political or economical power is making worse decisions since taking said power (as the two articles posted say emphatically), we can say they are experiencing corruption.
    There must be some reason why there is no ~famous psychological experiment that focuses specifically on the effects of power. I know one who would know well, but is also asleep. My meager searching brings up nothing, so I will too for now.

    _And quite sporadically; wanting anything can be considered greed, and it is a basic thing every evolved lifeform has. It requires no explanation for existing, but instead an explanation of why it changes from natural, complete selfishness.

    (Is it rude to force indentation on systems that remove it?)

  82. And Hawk: Lincoln was not the only one to suspend Habeas Corpus. Bush, Jr. did the same thing during 9/11.

  83. It is complicated. The famous quote leaves out the subject — whom it currupts, assuming that the effect will affect all persons alike. I doubt that is the case, you picked some good examples for the opposite. But then — perhaps the system at the time of Washington, Lincoln, etc., actually ensured that persons with certain abilities and character traits were more likely to get to the top.

    I wouldn’t want to limit the subject to politics, though — the course the discussion has taken; The people who wield absolute power in their specific field are elsewhere. Cultures where men have the full say about everything a woman is, says, wears, or does I only want to mention.
    What undisputed power over others can do has been proven sufficiently in the famous Stanford Prison Experiment,
    … also some structures at working places seem to manage to bring out the little dictator in almost everyone, as I was able to experience.

  84. Deanna asked, “The Wizard’s First Rule struck me as both funny and stupid; what, was the wizard who fictionally made that up exempt? Or was he a fool and easily deceived into believing that he was better than everyone else in that respect? ”

    Previous posters have not accurately presented the WFR. The literal quote is:

    “People are stupid. They will believe any lie they fear to be true or want to be true.” In the context of its use in the book, it is about lies and how to use them, so it is appropriate to remove the “People are stupid” part, not the sentence about lies.

    And no, the discussion of the rule between the apprentice and the senior wizard made it clear that *no*one* is immune: the only defenses are vigilance and reason. While the protagonist was definitely written as smarter than everyone else (and a staunch capitalist which Steven would not appreciate), he was not inherently immune to the Rule himself. The moment we believe ourselves to be immune, we have fallen to arrogance and made ourselves more vulnerable than anyone else.

    Applying the WFR to this truism concerning Power leads us to a question: does anyone in our governments in the West (I am Canadian, so I can’t just limit myself to the USA) have absolute power?

    The answer is, clearly, “No.” As much as people wanted to believe Bush or Obama (or Harper in Canada) had or have absolute power, they simply do not have anywhere near absolute power. Their laws are confined by the legal system to restrictions based on treaties and Constitutions. Any Law can be written by those in power, but there are overseers that ensure that only Laws that do not violate certain limits survive. At the time of this writing, I have seen no evidence that either the legal systems of Canada or the USA have become slaves to the national leaders, neither President nor Prime Minister.

    Further, many of the examples listed as corrupted powerful people showed signs of corruption long before achieving power. Hitler was certainly anti-Semitic before achieving the Archchancelorship, and the Nazis used corrupt means to gain power in the first place, using blackmail, threats, etc. to eliminate competition. Lenin might have stopped Stalin’s rise, if he hadn’t suffered a stroke. And how many central and South American dictators were scum long before they stole their positions?

    It is more accurate to say that power attracts the corrupt than to say that power corrupts. So how do we prevent the corrupt from achieving power?

    Wizard’s First Rule. Use your reason and vigilance to examine the policies of those seeking power and look for the promises that are too good to be true. Watch for the lies you want or fear to be true, and don’t support those that use them. The only way to know a lie is to study the issue under debate, and I’m not talking about chatting with people in a coffee shop or online or on your favorite News channel (who tend to seek sensational people who give radical answers). If you want to understand economic issues, then talk to an economist.

  85. Clicked back on this dialogue after re-reading Reen’s eulogy (which moves me every time I read it).

    This time, I am stunned that I previously forgot something that immediately came to mind when I saw the words: “Truisms rot brains; absolute truisms rot brains absolutely.”

    This is a point very well made in Blair’s (Orwell’s) brilliant little essay “Politics and the English Language.” The very act of using a truism such as “power corrupts…” is that it doesn’t actually mean ANYTHING. By being so vague, the writer/speaker can have no clear idea of what he intends and even less certainty over what his audience will comprehend.

    Thus, the very point of using common phrases like this is to hide what one is saying. The aggregate effect of such communication is render null the public dialogue. Blair concludes with these bits of advice:

    “(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
    (ii) Never us a long word where a short one will do.
    (iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
    (iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
    (v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
    (vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”

    Good fiction writers know most of this intuitively. By this standard, however, there are statistically no good writers of non-fiction.

  86. Not bad. I like it. Those rules (in essence) also appear in Strunk & White. I agree with them. Paarfi does not.

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