Over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, Bas van der Vossen has a post asking what is it exactly that we mean when we say, with Lord Acton, that “[p]ower corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” As he shows, the meaning of Lord Acton’s dictum is not quite clear. Prof. van der Vossen suggests three possibilities ― each of them, in his view, unsatisfactory.
One is that “to say that power corrupts is to say that power makes people worse persons.” But does it? People might lose their idealism in power, and might act badly while wielding power ― but “[t]he corrupting effects of power seem to disappear once the power goes as well.” They seem not to become permanently worse individuals. Another possibility is that power only gives people an opportunity to act on their bad impulses and desires ― whether we all have those or power actually attracts those who have more than their fair share. But if so, then power doesn’t actually corrupt ― it only reveals pre-existing rot. Finally, it might be that power “invokes and amplifies various psychological biases and heuristics in ways that are dangerous.” It neither makes people worse nor merely reveals their bad sides ― it “strengthen[s] the worst in us.” But this seems to be a “limited” sort of corruption, and it’s not clear what “absolute power corrupts absolutely” might mean in this context.
Yet, as prof. van der Vossen says, “[m]ost people think [Lord] Acton touched upon something of real importance.” Why? To help us understand, we could do worse than to turn to The Lord of the Rings, which is, in no small part, a meditation on the corrupting effects of power ― and which, probably not coincidentally, also happens to have mass appeal. And to understand The Lord of the Rings, and Tolkien’s thinking on the ill-effects of power, we could do worse than to turn to Tom Shippey’s book J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. (Seriously, it is a fantastic book. If you like Tolkien, read it.)
Prof. Shippey notes that Tolkien’s critics have argued that, although the Ring of Power is said to “turn everything to evil, including its wearers, [so that] no one … can be trusted to use it” (114), some characters ― Frodo, of course, but also Bilbo and Sam ― do in fact use it, without apparent ill-effect. This point is similar to prof. van der Vossen’s objection to the “power makes you a worse person” interpretation of Lord Acton’s dictum.
Prof. Shippey’s response to it is to say
that the use of the Ring is addictive. One use need not be disastrous on its own, but each use tends to strengthen the urge for another. The addiction can be shaken off in early stages (which explains Bilbo and Sam), but once it has taken hold, it cannot be broken by will-power alone.
As with the Ring, so with other forms of power, including political power. Politicians, in democracies, do not wield that much of it ― they are restrained by the law, by public opinion, by interest groups, and so on. And then, more often than not, they are forced to leave office, whether by term limits, by the voters, or by rebels in their own parties. So, like the Hobbits who only use the Ring a few times, they do not really become addicted; addiction might start (as it does in Sam, when, having put on the Ring, he briefly fantasizes about being “Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age”), but it can be stopped in its tracks when the politician leaves office.
Another point that is relevant here is that, as Tolkien and prof. Shippey make clear, it matters how one gets and uses the Ring. Gollum gets it by violence, and he is unquestionably “corrupted”, terminally so as it turns out, though even he, when weaned off of his addiction, shows signs of becoming a somewhat better person. Bilbo, by contrast, starts his ownership of the Ring by taking pity on Gollum, which Frodo later does too. The suggestion is that pity and kindness make a person more resistant to the corruption of the Ring, though not impervious. Note that it is not good intentions that matter. Gandalf and Galadriel tell Frodo that their good intentions would be of no avail against the Ring’s ill-effects, and Boromir demonstrates it. What matters is actual kindness “in the moment.” (Bilbo surely, and Frodo almost certainly, had no far-reaching intentions at all when they each took pity on Gollum.)
This too, I think, is relevant to politics. It seems plausible that those politicians who are fundamentally decent and kind people ― not those, mind you, who are full of intentions so good that the end justifies the means! ― are less subject to the corrupting effects of power ― but that does not mean that they escape them altogether.
For a further point to be made here is that it is not the case that, as some critics whom prof. Shippey discusses have contended, the “good guys” emerge unscathed from the War of the Ring. And, in particular, we know that all those who have worn and used the Ring are in need of healing. Bilbo and Frodo go to the Undying Lands, and Frodo tells Sam that his “time will come” too. Frodo, to be sure, was hurt in a physical sense, during the fight on Weathertop, and also by Gollum. But Bilbo and Sam weren’t, yet they also must go. They are not corrupt if we take corrupt to mean “evil,” but they are if we take it to mean “broken” ― which, indeed is what the etymological meaning of the word ‘corrupt’ is (according to the OED, it ultimately derives from the from the Latin cor– “altogether” and rumpere “break”). Yet note that Sam doesn’t realized that something is wrong with Frodo ― he is shocked when Frodo tells him he is about to leave. And he certainly doesn’t think that there is anything wrong with himself.
And similarly, it is not all that clear that politicians are not corrupted by their exercise of power. Of course, as prof. van der Vossen says, a politician who authorized espionage programmes will not, in retirement, go about snooping on his neighbours. But that does not mean that “the corrupting effect of power … disappear once power goes.” They are more subtle than that. A retired politician might not be particularly nosy, but how many of them are anywhere near as idealistic as they were when they took office (not all are, of course, even then, but many are). How many of them are not somewhere on the way to accepting that the end justifies the means? Decency, humility, and limits on the power one gets to wield limit the corruption, but they probably do not eliminate it.