David R. Henderson  

Power Corrupts

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"Power tends to corrupt: absolute power corrupts absolutely."

This quote is, of course, from Lord Acton. Today, Megan McArdle has laid out beautifully how it corrupts. This is my favorite McArdle post in a long time. She starts with a long quote from Dan Ellsberg about advice he gave to Henry Kissinger in 1968 when Kissinger entered government. I won't try to summarize it; it's worth reading. Then she discusses how when you're president or attorney general and you have a lot of power, you tend to use it, assuring yourself all along that you're using it for good, and you tend to want more of it.

Megan walks right up to the edge and walks back. Although she concludes that American presidents and attorneys general shouldn't have so much power, she doesn't conclude that power corrupts. If she had reached such a conclusion, she wouldn't have written:

And since the president knows that he's a good person, and the people around him are basically good people, he's willing to trust them with power that no institution should have.

You can think something is true even if it's not true, but by definition of knowledge, you can't know something to be true if it's not true. So for Megan to say that the president knows he's a good person is to say that Megan thinks he's a good person. I don't. I'm not singling out Obama. I think all the presidents in my lifetime have been bad men; it's just that the degree of evil varies. I think the most evil was the president when I was born--Harry Truman.

Megan also writes:

I mean, I used to think that Janet Reno was evil--SWAT teams and tanks in child custody disputes? Really? Then we had a succession of new Attorneys General who all seemed to err on the side of megalomaniacal overreach. At which point I decided that it probably wasn't the person; it was the office. When you're sitting up there in that lofty perch, hearing about all the bad things that are happening in the country, and you know that you could do a lot more to fight them if you just had a little bit more power--well, sure, maybe it's not a good idea in abstract, but you're not going to abuse it, you're just trying to solve problems. Et voila, Waco.

I still think Janet Reno was, and is, evil. Here's another Lord Acton quote:

"Great men are almost always bad men."

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CATEGORIES: Public Choice Theory

COMMENTS (26 to date)
emerich writes:

You may be taking Megan too literally. If she had used quotation marks around "knows," her comment would have been unobjectionable. Her phrasing could easily be ironic.

Russ Waddell writes:

My favorite political philosopher discussed this in his three part series he collectively titled "The Lord of the Rings"

hutch writes:

being not very familiar with truman myself, why is he the most evil president since you've been alive. if someone had asked me to guess, i would've considered lbj or nixon.

c141nav writes:

If Megan

used to think that Janet Reno was evil--SWAT teams and tanks in child custody disputes?
then she should read what Judge Andrew Napolitano said about her in
Constitution Chaos
before she had AG power.

frankcross writes:

There's no forgiving Truman setting us on the road to fight communism.

But then I'm not so sure of myself as to call others evil when I disagree with them.

hutch writes:

as i think more about why truman, it has to be hiroshima and nagasaki, right? or at least a part of it.

Joe writes:

I hereby request a post from mr Henderson on explaining how and why each president in his lifetime was evil

That would be a fascinating post


MattW writes:

My guess is that he was referring to the A-bomb that Truman ordered on Japan.

HispanicPundit writes:

Prof Henderson,

Question: What books would you recommend to a person in his/her early 30's, who is a big supporter of free markets and is relatively new to this view of foreign policy? Specifically a general anti-war, anti-power and comes to overall conclusions that you make (presidents are evil)?

The more I read what you and Caplan write on wars, the more I agree (which is surprising, considering I supported both the Iraq and Afghanistan war). But I dont have the historical or logical argument to fully back me up. What books would fill this void?

Erich Schwarz writes:

In the matter of Harry Truman's putative evil:

I'll let Paul Fussell comment on whether Operations Olympic and Coronet would have been preferable to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Tracy W writes:
You can think something is true even if it's not true, but by definition of knowledge, you can't know something to be true if it's not true. So for Megan to say that the president knows he's a good person is to say that Megan thinks he's a good person.

I think you're being too Talmudic in reading Megan here.
Firstly, the English language has no formal definitions laying down what words really mean. You can define "knowledge" as including "you can't know something to be true if it's not true". But people can also define knowledge in numerous other ways, a quick search for the web definition churns up a set of definitions none of which explicitly exclude that set that you exclude.
Take this saying "“It ain’t so much the things we don’t know that get us into trouble. It’s the things we know that just ain’t so,”" (Artemus Ward)

It's a famous quote about knowledge, and it would make no sense if everyone used the word "know" in the sense that you did.

Secondly, people sometimes (often) don't consider all the possible interpretations of what they say. The rest of the post implies that Megan thinks not that highly of Obama, for example she says: "What evidence do we have that Obama is reluctant about all of this stuff? "
Every now and then I write instructions, which I want to be carried out exactly, and do my best to make sure are as unmisinterpretable as possible, and yet very often people do come back with alternative readings of what I said that I didn't even consider. So now I run these instructions past someone else first, and the more the better. But that's a slow cycle and not quite right for a blog.

As for the good-bad thing, perhaps the form of difference is between whether someone is fundamentally bad (and thus would be bad regardless of what situation they're put into, apparently some people are like that, my father has a friend whose son grew up in a stable, two-parent home, went to the local schools full of reasonably polite middle-class, reasonably law-abiding children, and always lies, bullies and torments nastily if he thinks he has a reasonable chance of getting away with it, and is now in prison on a 10-year sentence), and someone who is only bad if circumstances reward it (eg in an open-access fishery, fishermen will overfish, but if they were farmers who owned their own land and stock, they would almost certainly not kill off their breeding stock).

PrometheeFeu writes:

I think I agree with others that McArdle is not to be taken too literally. I don't think she is saying that President Obama actually is a good person. I think she is describing his perspective as himself thinking that he knows he and people around him are good people.

Also, there are many definitions to what makes a person "good" or "bad". One could say that Obama is a "good" person who would in most circumstances act in "good" ways, but when given too much power like all men acts in a "bad" way. Or one could say that the corruption of power turns him into a "bad" person. I think both of these ideas are equally valid and they may be testable. When Obama leaves office, what will he do? Mind you, this is not to absolve him of personal responsibility. After all, making politicians penally responsible for what they do could be one way to mitigate the power and the corruption.

It's also important to realize that as President he is probably overwhelmed with such issues and it is impossible for him to throw the whole power of his office behind every one of them. I'm sure that he actually believes Gates when Gates tells him those accusations are lies. And anyways, who would be an impartial investigator in such a situation? Any organization within the executive or the legislative branch would be polluted by the actions and interests of those at the top of those branches who have been attempting to censor and threaten wikileaks since the beginning.

David R. Henderson writes:

Good question. Because this is a blog about economics, I take only occasional excursions into foreign policy per se. The reason I even mentioned the other presidents is to handle the first objection many people would think of: that I am picking on Obama. So rather than give you a list of books and articles, I'll send you an e-mail so we can have a conversation about this.
I know that you are being sarcastic--that seems to be your style. But I'll play straight man. Yes, Truman's fighting of communism, intervening first in Greece and Turkey, was one of the worst things he did. (Of course, the other one, as hutch and MattW pointed out, is Hiroshima and Nagasaki.) He essentially started NATO and, had he followed Robert Taft's wishes rather than the interventionists, I think we would avoided the Cold War and Vietnam. Senator Vandenburg told him that to sell NATO and a permanent U.S. military presence in Europe, Truman would have to scare the hell out of the American people. He did.

Yancey Ward writes:

Another appropriate adage:

"The road to Hell is paved with good intentions."

Noah Yetter writes:

Tolkien analogized it best. The One Ring is a direct metaphor for political power.

Evan writes:
I'll let Paul Fussell comment on whether Operations Olympic and Coronet would have been preferable to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Of course those Operations Olympic and Coronet would have been worse. But there were other options besides invasion and A-bombing cities. Repudiating the Potsdam Declaration and accepting a conditional surrender for instance. That would have damaged America's national honor, and probably led to Truman's impeachment, but not incinerating little kids is roughly a billion times more important than national honor and infinity times more important than not being impeached. Demonstrating the bomb's power by dropping the first one in a less-inhabited portion of Japan is another possibility.

I don't get Fussell's claim that only someone who'd been there could really understand. It seems to me that if you'd been there you'd be highly likely to fall in with the groupthink of the time rather than be more objective.

Seth writes:

I wrote about why power corrupts here about a year ago.

Short answer: Self-interest and consequences (or lack of consequences).

Erich Schwarz writes:

"Repudiating the Potsdam Declaration and accepting a conditional surrender for instance."

Something like that had been tried with Germany in 1918 -- there had been an Armistice, not an unconditional surrender.

That didn't end up working well.

Then there'd been the start of WWII with the surprise attack by Japan at Pearl Harbor, and the Bataan Death March, both of which had a certain effect on people's willingness to leave the Tojo regime of Japan in place in any functioning form.

All of which I suspect is why, when I read the actual history of WWII in 1945, I observe so few actual people in the United States at that historical moment of time calling for Japan to be blockaded without an invasion or allowed a conditional surrender. Leaving Japan intact as an unsurrendered society just doesn't seem to have been something people found acceptable.

You can still argue that Truman was evil; but I think, if you look at the history of WWII, you'll have to admit that he was anything but some uniquely evil human being leading the U.S. in a direction that it didn't want to go. The viewpoint of men like Fussell was utterly commonplace. Yours and Prof. Henderson's seems to have barely existed, if it did at all.

Erich Schwarz writes:

"It seems to me that if you'd been there you'd be highly likely to fall in with the groupthink of the time rather than be more objective."

This is 2011, not 1945, and we're writing in the comments box of a pacifist libertarian blog. What's the "groupthink" here likely to be?

Groupthink's very hard to avoid if you're a normal human being, for reasons detailed by Paul Graham.

There's no silver bullet against it, but Graham suggests one partial remedy is to read history:

"We may imagine that we are a great deal smarter and more virtuous than past generations, but the more history you read, the less likely this seems. People in past times were much like us. Not heroes, not barbarians. Whatever their ideas were, they were ideas reasonable people could believe.

"So here is another source of interesting heresies. Diff present ideas against those of various past cultures, and see what you get. Some will be shocking by present standards. Ok, fine; but which might also be true?"

David R. Henderson writes:

@Erich Shwarz,
As I've mentioned before, I'm not a pacifist. Also, leaving the Tojo regime in place, which, I agree, would have been very bad, is different from leaving the emperor in place.

fred-m writes:

I think most miss the greater problem than the one Lord Acton stated. The real problem for us today is that power draws greedy, unscrupulous men to itself.

We have assembled and continue to assemble power in institutions in the naive belief that the power will/can be used to do "good". History teaches me that greedy unscrupulous men will eventually hold that power.

I've had to deal with a couple of acculturated sociopaths (the epitome of greedy and unscrupulous) in my life (I'm 64 yrs old) and two things I've found are that:

1. most people are not equipped for dealing with sociopaths

2. many people find sociopaths attractive, especially if they believe that they can achieve some desired goal by association.

Patrick writes:

Weakness corrupts, too. I respectfully submit that this is the real problem for libertarianism. A few bad people seek power, but the weak multitudes decide how much to give away.

Power corrupts the few, while weakness corrupts the many. The resentment of the weak does not spring from any injustice done to them but from the sense of their inadequacy and impotence. They hate not wickedness but weakness. When it is in their power to do so, the weak destroy weakness wherever they see it.

—Eric Hoffer

Tracy W writes:

Fred-m, out of curiousity, what's your advice for dealing with sociopaths?

Shane writes:

I often thought it is better to live in a good country (rich, peaceful, ignored) than a great country (powerful, high-profile, widely despised)!

Philo writes:

The question, Who was the most evil President of the latter half of the twentieth century? strikes me as too tough to be answered with any confidence; I certainly wouldn't endorse the answer "Harry Truman." Everyone has his moral weaknesses and character flaws, which incline him to do evil in certain situations. The true beneficiary of "moral luck" is he who is hardly ever put in any of those especially risky situations: he can go through life without doing great evil, and be adjudged by his fellows and, if he is prominent enough, by history to be an *all right sort of guy*. (It also helps one's reputation if few people find out about the evil he *has* done.)

Whatever the varying details, being President is always being in a risky situation.

A general question: does having great power *corrupt* the person, or merely reveal flaws in character that he had all along?

Richard Porter writes:

Truman most evil, I have a hard time agreeing with this assessment. Here is my off-the-cuff list suggesting perhaps that this statement needs some rethinking: Defeating Japan without sending two million American solders and sailors (including many fathers—mine included) to their death, demobilizing nearly ten million sailors and solders, getting General Douglas MacArthur to reconstruct Japan, integrating the armed forces, recognizing Israel, saving Greece from communism, the Berlin airlift, the Marshall plan, the successful Nuremburg trials, the Taft-Hartley act, and the Truman doctrine. Let me add one more: implementing the GI bill, which surely transformed American society and universities and especially graduate schools for the better.

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