David R. Henderson  

Lord Acton on "Power Corrupts"

Bigger Government Multipliers ... Fiduciary Excuses...

I'm sure that most of you know the famous saying, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." I'm also pretty sure that a large percent of you who know the saying also know that it was the famous 19th century liberal (we would nowadays call him a classical liberal or a libertarian), Lord Acton, who said it.

What I found striking, when I went and looked for the quote, is the line that comes directly after. In fact, it's so striking that, when it's relevant, I use it in speeches and in interviews. The immediate next line is this: "Great men are almost always bad men."

Here's the whole paragraph, from a letter that Acton wrote to Bishop Creighton, and I found it, appropriately enough, on Liberty Fund's On-Line Library of Liberty:

I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.

When I read that, I immediately think of the question Hayek addressed in a chapter of The Road to Serfdom titled "Why the Worst Get on Top." Surely, this moral blank check is one of the reasons. If people think "the office sanctifies the holder"--I think of Sean Hannity of Fox News Channel, for example, who often talks about how he respects the office of the Presidency no matter who is President--then it's easier for the office-holder to get away with bad things. Who is attracted to the Presidency? All other things equal, people who want to get away with bad things.

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CATEGORIES: Public Choice Theory

COMMENTS (18 to date)

I doubt that THEY think it's 'bad things' they want. As one of the Du Pont's said at the time of the French Revolution, More evil has been done by poor logicians than by evil men intentionally doing evil.

Otto Maddox writes:

Power attracts the corrupt.

~FR writes:

This is why the President is constitutionally limited in his actions. And why a President who apologizes for not being an emperor gives me the creeps.

Silence Dogood writes:

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Chris H writes:

Why rely on old dead white guys to support the idea that power corrupts when we can use SCIENCE!

The Economist ran an article a few years back on a psychological study on this. An interesting aspect of the results is that people who believe they deserve their power are worse than those who feel their authority was illegitimate (the former group being rank hypocrites while the latter actually were overly submissive).

So one take away point is that people like Sean Hannity who talk about the sanctity of the office are helping to legitimize abuse of power which makes the problem of moral hypocrisy among the powerful even worse. This also confirms that the answer to the problems of politics can't just be put the good guys in charge because once they feel like they legitimately should be in charge, they're more likely to turn into jerks.

Doug writes:

If the worst tend to rise to the top then that's a plus in favor of hereditary monarchy and aristocracy. Prevent the ability to rise by choosing those in power based on the random luck of birth.

Mark M. writes:

Professor Boudreaux recently had a great article related to this:

Jeffrey Rae writes:


I have always been very fond of Acton's 'Power corrupts' quotation. It's my personal favourite but I have never known its origin or its context. The full quote is even better than the abbreviated version!

Jeff Rae

MG writes:

Contrast this quote with the aphorism: "You can't make an omellette without breaking a few eggs". I think Acton's quote cuts through the essence of what power is and what it is not. We wish it be a calibrated amount of discretion necessary to for government to "do something about it". It is more likely to be an on-off switch, that we turn on at our peril.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

An analogy to "the root of all evil:"

it is the love of power that corrupts; it is the all-consuming love of absolute power that corrupts absolutely.

Shane L writes:

"If the worst tend to rise to the top then that's a plus in favor of hereditary monarchy and aristocracy. Prevent the ability to rise by choosing those in power based on the random luck of birth."

Well I used to think that's how monarchies worked, Doug, but I've read so many stories of assassination and rebellion, of power seizures by military generals, lords, regents, eunuchs, princes, queens, bodyguards and so on, so it now seems that simple father-to-son inheritance of monarchy was regularly punctuated by butchery and the rise of new dynasties. What I like about representative democracy is that it creates a regular and peaceful way to change power; lose that and we'll get less stability, perhaps, not more - and even more wicked and violent people grabbing at the throne.

Arthur_500 writes:

It is always re-visiting the quotes of history. As the Unitd States developed its system of government it was based upon the idea that people are flawed!
The House would exercise its ambition over the Senate and they in turn would attempt to exercise its influence over a President who was fighting equally hard for his own ambition.
Curiously there seems to be a failure in this idea in the form of the Supreme Court that is supposed to rule on the Constitutionality of legislative and Presidential actions. They have no ability to bring about the changes they may dictate.

ThomasL writes:
I think of Sean Hannity of Fox News Channel, for example, who often talks about how he respects the office of the Presidency no matter who is President...

Hmm, that is not what Acton is saying. Acton is not arguing against the office of King or Pope, he is arguing against a notion that the office excuses the holder of responsibility for his actions, or that his actions are held to some other standard of rightness than the standard used for other men.

Acton was a devout Catholic and remained in good standing (despite his private qualms regarding infallibility). To think that with this he is making an argument against either office or authority generally misunderstands the man and his history. He thought he was making an argument *for* them, because the men that hold power needed to be held honestly to account at all times if legitimate office and legitimate authority were to be preserved.

Charley Hooper writes:

I think this issue arises partly because many people are pack animals who subconsciously or consciously want a power hierarchy. It lets them know "their place" and they feel safe and protected by the alpha individual.

Those who think like pack animals need a great leader at the peak of the power pyramid. And then, once you have that person in place, those people are willing to look the other way, just as a small town football team looks the other way when its star player commits some transgression. "We need that player to win the big game, so just slap his wrist." And so the corruption starts.

Those of us who love freedom and believe that all men are created equal generally have no use for a great leader. That's because the great leader can't give us anything we don't already have.

Gary Marshall writes:

Hello Mr. Henderson,

Its been a very long time. I communicated with you a ways back when some of your articles appeared in the Financial Post side of the National Post. Despite Mr. Corcoran's efforts, the paper has decidedly moved far to the left. Lamentable.

I see you were once a fellow Winnipegger. You left at a very good time. As you probably know, the place hasn't grown much since then for obvious reasons.

There is a very simple solution to Lord Acton's admonishment. It is contained in the proof below.

Gary Marshall

There is a very simple answer to government squander and corruption, as well as the deterrent effect of Taxation. if one can find the flaw, I shall be more than happy to give him $100,000 for the trouble.

The US Government, any government, is in deficit to the full amount of its expenditures because it generates none of the revenues to defray them. It merely confiscates them, or borrows them leaving another to settle up. In short, it merely hands the bill for everything it does to someone else. So the US Government deficit is actually nearing $4 trillion.

Nobody cares whether the full $4 trillion is wasted. They only seem to care about the wastage caused by borrowed money, which is slightly above $1 trillion. How truly sad that none seem to put as much energy into discovering how much wastage can be found among the taxed funds so badly expended, which is the bulk of it.

Money taken from productive purpose, whether taxed or borrowed, and put to unproductive purpose is money wasted. And that wastage that commands so much of the nation’s resources makes us all the poorer, deprives us of worthy innovations, deprives us of greater supply of desired goods.

So what must one do to stop this ever growing monster that has infected, perverted, and harmed every other nation on this earth?

Well, the answer will not come with Taxation, the forced surrender of one’s earnings and property.

Why have a government that spends $4 trillion, most of it wasted, when you can have a government that spends about $1.2 trillion, all of it spent for worthy returns? That $1.2 trillion and accruing interest will cost the nation nothing because in adding a $1.2 trillion dollar debt and accruing interest to the national debt, one will also add a $1.2 trillion dollar asset and accruing interest for the nation.

In other words, its a wash. A nation will have a government expending with profit in mind, and one will live in a nation in which one’s property is never confiscated, never again expended for the most absurd purposes imaginable.

Enjoy the proof I gave in my comment on one of Tamney's articles at Forbes (under the nick of economart). The proof begins:

The costs of borrowing for a nation to fund public expenditures, if it borrows solely from its resident citizens and in the nation’s currency, is nil....

Ken writes:

With respect to Prof. Boudreaux's post (and some here), I always thought one of the most trenchant comments Trudeau ever made via Doonesbury, back when it was funny and he still had something other than bile to offer, was a tossed-off "Impeach Presidency Nixon!"

David R. Henderson writes:

To think that with this he is making an argument against either office or authority generally misunderstands the man and his history.
I agree that it would show a misunderstanding on my part if that is what I had written. But it isn't. I didn't say that Sean Hannity agrees that there should be a President. Almost everyone does. What I wrote is that Sean Hannity respects the office of President. That's quite different.

Ken B writes:
Who is attracted to the Presidency? All other things equal, people who want to get away with bad things
I'm usually more afraid of people who want to get away with good things.
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