Does Power Corrupt?

“That kings should be philosophers, or philosophers kings is neither to be expected nor to be desired, for the possession of power inevitably corrupts reason’s free judgement.”

– Kant, Perpetual Peace

Kant is an amazing thinker, but this quote is nowhere near subtle enough to get at the truth. The truth is that someone must always wield power in this world, and to say “power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely” is just name-calling.

The consequences of distrusting the very holding of power have been fatal for us. We, as Americans, can barely say as a whole “terrorism is bad,” because that means fighting and other mean things. We incessantly ridicule the people we elect for office merely because they ran for office. Anarchism is an ideal for both those on the Left and the Right, and morals are perceived as a relic of an age where power was necessary.

So the question is this: What is it about power that looks corrupt, or is corrupt, that causes even the wisest of us to indulge in such idiotic aspersions?

One answer is that moral purity is possible in private roles: my Mother can do no wrong as my Mother, for she is accountable only to my sense of expectation, or a few others at most. This isn’t possible in public roles, because the sense of expectation is not the same for all individuals. Everyone feels differently about the same action, and you can do the right thing as a public figure, and someone else can concede its the right thing, but feel queasy.

Which brings us to the big issue: political power depends on persuasion. But in the private, the possibility of persuasion is far greater, especially in the case of the family, where one can be trained to have a certain sense of value. In the public, that complete control over one’s sense of ideals is impossible, and so we give great credit to someone like Pericles who can persuade large numbers of people all at once. The only thing is, that the persuasion is never complete. Pericles doesn’t live in my house, helping me clean the place and explaining to me all the time why Athens warring with Sparta is a good thing.

And so Kant is suffering here from a private/public conflation – the family is not the political order. These differences, which start out as quantitative, “few” versus “many,” are actually qualitative. You need a different standard with which to judge the political. You can say it is an inherently corrupt enterprise, but to say it can and should be transcended is mere gibberish, and to say that wisdom can’t rule well in some way is to deny what wisdom is.

2 Comments

  1. In an abstract sense power does corrupt. Look at what happened with lucifer. By trying to be God he was corrupted absolutely. But then again that is the same as saying God, who is absolute power, must be absolutely corrupted.

    You are right. This is abviously a knock at leadership and possibly the reason that today society does not trust people in power. This mistrust has been hardwired into the enlightenment. It is really giberish.

    Josh

  2. When power becomes your God it turns to evil. A wiseman (my grandfather) once told me that money (like power) is merely a tool, a tool to live your life with, build your hopes and dreams with, help others with. When you conduct your life so that power becomes the most important desire in your life (hence your God) then it corrupts.

    Cheers,
    Bob

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