David R. Henderson  

Power Corrupts AND Attracts the Corruptible

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The Modality of Monogamy... Klein's battle for "liberalism...

I'm traveling this morning from Pennsylvania to Newark Airport to Toronto and so I'll be brief.

A friend on Facebook recently cited this quote from Frank Herbert. I had not heard it before:

All governments suffer a recurring problem: Power attracts pathological personalities. It is not that power corrupts but that it is magnetic to the corruptable. Such people have a tendency to become drunk on violence, a condition to which they are quickly addicted.

I do think power corrupts also--these are not mutually exclusive--but Herbert makes a good point. Friedrich Hayek makes a similar point in his chapter "Why the Worst Get on Top" in The Road to Serfdom. Hayek quotes Frank Knight. Hayek writes:
Neither the Gestapo nor the administration of a concentration camp, neither the Ministry of Propaganda nor the S.A. or S.S. (or their Italian or Russian counterparts), are suitable places for the exercise of humanitarian feelings. Yet it is through positions like these that the road to the highest positions in the totalitarian state leads. It is only too true when a distinguished American economist concludes from a similar brief enumeration of the duties of a collectivist state that "they would have to do these things whether they wanted to or not: and the probability of the people in power being individuals who would dislike the possession and exercise of power is on a level with the probability that an extremely tender-hearted person would get the job of whipping-master in a slave plantation."

I've sometimes heard public choice economists say, in justifying their use of a self-interest model to explain the behavior of politicians and bureaucrats, "Politicians and bureaucrats are just like the rest of us." No they're not; not on average.


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COMMENTS (12 to date)
DJ writes:

I've always wondered whether it's true that power corrupts, or if observed correlation between power and corruption is due to salience effects...

That is, if someone with no power is corrupt, do we ever take any note of it? They can't do much harm without much power.

Dan S writes:

Heh, Frank Herbert had such a knack for dramatic sweeping statements like that. I loved Dune but the sequels got super weird and I stopped halfway through the third one.

Have you ever seen this: http://calvinanddune.tumblr.com/

It's Dune quotes put into Calvin and Hobbes comics. It works surprisingly well.

Daublin writes:

Zing. An especially good point in the last paragraph.

Seth writes:

I'd say power corrupts AND is a magnet to the easily corruptible.

I think that there is a simple explanation for why power corrupts. Those in power have weak feedback checks on their behavior. Even the least corruptible can get out of control when they face no or worthless consequences for their actions.

Floccina writes:

Power does not corrupt it enables and leverages corruption.

Ano nymous writes:

I don't doubt that there is SOME corruptibility linked to possessing power, most especially due to a great number of corrupting influences, I think that a proliferation of the line of thinking you might take from this could be very useful in encouraging those who would be generally more desirable to have in those positions of influence to pursue that, and moreover, for people to harbour some reasonable degree of suspicion of those who are clearly covetous of positions of influence (but not too much, because then if the public is too suspicious, then no decent people will want it, because the act of going for it will lead people to charge them with all manner of bogus claims against their character, etc.).

Tom West writes:

Of course, for those on the left, exactly this reasoning is used to justify the need for a strong state.

With a weak state, corporations are the powerhouses that attract pathological personalities. They, having much greater wealth and power, subordinate the state to their desires, except that unlike a democracy, they can't be voted out if the populace doesn't like their influence.

With a large government, the ability of corporations to dictate to the government is quite limited (size rules), but of course you can get corrupt rulers. However, in a democracy, there is a lever for removing such rulers.

Ray Lopez writes:

Is this post not simply a rehash of the historian Lord Acton's* maxim?

*John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton, KCVO, DL (10 January 1834 – 19 June 1902)—known as Sir John Dalberg-Acton ("Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.")

And did Hayek confirm Godwin's Law?

David R. Henderson writes:

@Ray Lopez,
Is this post not simply a rehash of the historian Lord Acton's* maxim?
No. Read more carefully.
And did Hayek confirm Godwin's Law?
No. If there’s any sense at all to Godwin’s Law, it can’t be used to challenge someone who is writing in 1944 about totalitarian governments and mentioning the 3 leading practitioners.

James Hanley writes:

[Comment removed for supplying false email address. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring your comment privileges. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Craig Jones writes:

David Henderson says, "Power Corrupts AND Attracts the Corruptible."

Well of course it does -- and always has.

Why does it matter whether that power is in private (corporate) hands or public hands? Power is power.

The difference -- at least one difference -- is that public power is democratically accountable to the extent that citizens insist on holding their leaders accountable.

Private power is accountable to a much smaller constituency of shareholders.

Dave Tufte writes:

In my classes I point out that government/politics/bureaucracy attracts people with control issues.

You can make a lot of headway with this argument if you ask students to ask about the people they know in student government.

Even better, ask them to think about their acquaintances with control issues ... and then ask them to raise their hands if any of those people are involved in more "activities" than they are.

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