“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. This arose as a quotation by 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."
Another English politician with no shortage of names - William Pitt, the Elder, The Earl of Chatham and British Prime Minister from 1766 to 1778, is sometimes wrongly attributed as the source. He did say 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"
The history of man is a history of rule or ambition to rule. It is not, as Marx claimed, a history of constant class struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat, even though class struggle may be derived from the fundamental division of society into 'rulers' and 'ruled.' An important part of this history is the continuous 'race to the top' among self-centered power seekers, trying to gather as large a number of subjects as possible to rule.
As is shown by Lord Acton's famous words of wisdom that 'power corrupts,' what characterize the history of man is the corrupted leaders blinded by their power and might. Throughout history, monarchs, religious and ideological leaders, as well as elected presidents go crazy. The French king Louis' XIV claim 'L'Etat, c'est moi' (I am the State) is typical to the leaders then and now.
The real kings and queens of history have truly been tyrants oppressing the people to gain personally in prestige or wealth. The ones called 'the Great' are worse than the other rulers in the subjection and killing of 'ordinary' men; winning many wars (read: killing a lot of people) does not make a man great; on the contrary, it shows his inability to use his intelligence and to reason.
With democracy, it is in everybody's theoretical reach to gain power over everybody else, indeed making society an eternal struggle between individuals and groups for power.
The ordered and organized society of history has thus weakened in favor of the power struggle in democracy. This has also unleashed the power-seekers throughout society. These people, corrupted to the very soul with their pathological quest for power, have in democracy a foundation from which to enslave their fellow men.
The part of the truth Lord Acton did not realize when stating 'power corrupts' is that the corrupted seek power. Only those who are not able to grow tall from their own efforts and achievements seek to subdue their fellow man; only people not being able to find comfort in their own mind seek to silence others; those who are unable to produce their own wealth aim to confiscate the wealth of others. Power does really corrupt, but it is as true that corrupt people seek power.
(Column by Per Bylund, posted on March 03, 2004 in Tyranny & Corruption at strike-the-root.com)
These persons who are corrupted by the process of ruling over their fellow men are not innately evil. They begin as honest men. Their motives for wanting to direct the actions of others may be purely patriotic and altruistic. Indeed, they may wish only "to do good for the people." But, apparently, the only way they can think of to do this "good" is to impose more restrictive laws.
Now, obviously, there is no point in passing a law which requires people to do something they would do anyhow; or which prevents them from doing what they are not going to do anyhow. Therefore, the possessor of the political power could very well decide to leave every person free to do as he pleases so long as he does not infringe upon the same right of every other person to do as he pleases. However, that concept appears to be utterly without reason to a person who wants to exercise political power over his fellow man, for he asks himself: "How can I 'do good' for the people if I just leave them alone?" Besides, he does not want to pass into history as a "do nothing" leader who ends up as a footnote somewhere. So he begins to pass laws that will force all other persons to conform to his ideas of what is good for them.
That is the danger point! The more restrictions and compulsions he imposes on other persons, the greater the strain on his own morality. As his appetite for using force against people increases, he tends increasingly to surround himself with advisers who also seem to derive a peculiar pleasure from forcing others to obey their decrees. He appoints friends and supporters to easy jobs of questionable necessity.
If the benevolent ruler stays in power long enough, he eventually concludes that power and wisdom is the same thing. And as he possesses power, he must possess wisdom. He becomes converted to the seductive thesis that election to public office endows the official with both power and wisdom. At this point, he begins to lose his ability to distinguish between what is morally right and what is politically expedient.
(Power Corrupts by Ben Moreell, chairman of the board of Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation, August 1997, FREEDOM DAILY at fff.org)
If you ever attain a position of power, whether it is in politics, administration or the community, keep in mind that power has the natural tendency to go to one's head.
Once you are in a position where you have control over what other people do or what happens to them, be very careful. It is easy to lose sight of the fact that they are people, just like you. They have lives, they have minds, and many have families which can be affected by your decisions. Never ever take their loyalty or their dependency for granted. People will submit to tyranny, but only for so long. They think, therefore there will be rebellion. You may use your power to attempt to squelch such rebellions, but people are smart. They will find a way to form a union of like minds and eventually a coup d’état despite all your fail safes. Granted there are tyrannies which have lasted for years, but mind you, those are exceptions. They're lucky for one, and for another most of those are in countries where education and money is very limited.
(Power Corrupts by Allana Calhoun, Jul 22, 2011 at associatedcontent.com)
The news abounds with stories of powerful men behaving badly. It’s a depressing yet predictable spectacle — those in positions of power can’t help but help themselves to the help. They scream at underlings and have sex with the secretaries; they assault hotel maids (or at least are accused of such) and sleep with the nanny. The question, of course, is what motivates this awful behavior? Why does power corrupt?
Psychologists refer to this as the paradox of power. The very traits that helped leaders accumulate control in the first place all but disappear once they rise to power. Instead of being polite, honest and outgoing, they become impulsive, reckless and rude. According to psychologists, one of the main problems with authority is that it makes us less sympathetic to the concerns and emotions of others. For instance, several studies have found that people in positions of authority are more likely to rely on stereotypes and generalizations when judging other people. They also spend much less time making eye contact, at least when a person without power is talking.
Although people almost always know the right thing to do — cheating is wrong — their sense of power makes it easier to rationalize away the ethical lapse. For instance, when psychologists asked subjects (in both low- and high-power conditions) how they would judge an individual who drove too fast when late for an appointment, people in the high-power group consistently said it was worse when others committed those crimes than when they did themselves. In other words, the feeling of eminence led people to conclude that they had a good reason for speeding — they’re important people, with important things to do — but that everyone else should follow the posted signs.
The dynamics of power can profoundly influence how we think. When we climb the ladder of status, our inner arguments get warped and our natural sympathy for others is vanquished. Instead of fretting about the effects of our actions, we just go ahead and act. We deserve what we want. And how dare they resist. Don’t they know who we are?
(How Power Corrupts by By Jonah Lehrer, May 18, 2011, THE FRONTAL CORTEX at.wired.com
Walking a mile in another person's shoes may be the best way to understand the emotions, perceptions, and motivations of an individual; however, in a study that appeared in the December 2006 issue of Psychological Science, it is reported that those in power are often unable to take such a journey.
In the article, "Power and Perspectives Not Taken," Adam Galinsky of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, Joe Magee of the Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University, and Stanford University's M. Ena Inesi and Deborah H. Gruenfeld found that possessing power itself serves as an impediment to understanding the perspectives of others. Through four experiments and a correlational study, the researchers assessed the effect of power on "perspective taking," adjusting to another's perspective, and interpreting the emotions of others.
Galinsky and colleagues also found that power leads individuals to anchor too heavily on their own vantage point, thus leaving them unable to adjust to another person's perspective and decreasing their ability to correctly interpret the emotions of others. Galinsky says that this research has "wide-ranging implications, from business to politics."
(Power Corrupts? Absolutely at usnews.com)