Friday, 6 April 2012

Why Power Corrupts?

This website provides some information about the origin of this phrase.

"Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely." You might have encountered it often and might agree with it.

[ If you don't agree, then do let me know about your views]

An excerpt from the website mentioned:
Absolute monarchies are those in which all power is given to or, as is more often the case, taken by, the monarch. Examples of absolute power corrupting are Roman emperors (who declared themselves gods) and Napoleon Bonaparte (who declared himself an emperor).
"Absolute power corrupts absolutely""Absolute power corrupts absolutely" arose as part of a quotation by the expansively named and impressively hirsute John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, first Baron Acton (1834–1902). The historian and moralist, who was otherwise known simply as Lord Acton, expressed this opinion in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887:
"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."
The text is a favourite of collectors of quotations and is always included in anthologies. If you are looking for the exact "power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely" wording, then Acton is your man. He didn't invent the idea though; quotations very like it had been uttered by several authors well before 1887. Primary amongst them was another English politician with no shortage of names - William Pitt the Elder, Earl of Chatham and British Prime Minister from 1766 to 1778, who said something similar in a speech to the UK House of Lords in 1770:
"Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it"
Acton is likely to have taken his lead from the writings of the French republican poet and politician, again a generously titled individual - Alphonse Marie Louis de Prat de Lamartine. An English translation of Lamartine's essay France and England: a Vision of the Future was published in London in 1848 and included this text:
It is not only the slave or serf who is ameliorated in becoming free... the master himself did not gain less in every point of view,... for absolute power corrupts the best natures.
Whether it is Lamartine or his anonymous English translator that can claim to have coined 'absolute power corrupts' we can't be sure, but we can be sure that it wasn't Lord Acton.

My question is: Why power tends to corrupt? Why is it that power has a tendency to make its possessor misuse it?

Please feel free to share any ideas.

An excerpt from Wikipedia article on philosophical term 'power'.

Power Political scientists have frequently defined power as "the ability to influence the behaviour of others" with or without resistance. The term authority is often used for power perceived as legitimate by the social structure. Power can be seen as evil or unjust, but the exercise of power is accepted as endemic to humans as social beings. In the corporate environment, power is often expressed as upward or downward. With downward power, a company's superior influences subordinates. When a company exerts upward power, it is the subordinates who influence the decisions of the leader (Greiner & Schein, 1988). Often, the study of power in a society is referred to as politics.
The use of power need not involve coercion (force or the threat of force). At one extreme, it more closely resembles what everyday English-speakers call "influence", although some authors make a distinction between power and influence – the means by which power is used (Handy, C. 1993 Understanding Organisations).
Much of the recent sociological debate on power revolves around the issue of the enabling nature of power. A comprehensive account of power can be found in Steven Lukes Power: A Radical View where he discusses the three dimensions of power. Thus, power can be seen as various forms of constraint on human action, but also as that which makes action possible, although in a limited scope. Much of this debate is related to the works of the French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926–1984), who, following the Italian political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527), sees power as "a complex strategic situation in a given society social setting". Being deeply structural, his concept involves both constraint and enablement. For a purely enabling (and voluntaristic) concept of power see the works of Anthony Giddens.

Is it in the nature of power to make its possessor misuse it or it's power which makes everyday corruption of any human look more visible? It should be the other way around. Least powerful people cannot be too corrupt because their corruption is easily caught whereas the most powerful keep on misusing power for enough long or perhaps forever.