How Power Corrupts III

I have already touched on the issue of the meaning of Lord Acton’s dictum, that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I have invoked J.R.R. Tolkien’s treatment of the pernicious influence of power on those who once wield it even once they relinquish it, and discussed Mikhail Bulgakov’s claim that “all power is violence done to people.” Boris Schumatsky’s article on the lies of Vladimir Putin, of which I posted a translation yesterday, gives me an occasion to continue on this topic, because it suggests an additional way in which “power corrupts” that was missing from my earlier posts ― that power is inextricably linked with deceit. (I should specify that in this post,  I am referring only to misrepresentations of existing facts, not to broken promises, the subject of an op-ed by Andrew Coyne this morning. Mr. Coyne makes an impassioned plea for treating them as lies and finding ways for eliminating them, but while some of his arguments are quite compelling, I think the issue of promises is both different from that of misrepresentations of fact and perhaps more complicated than Mr. Coyne allows.)

Of course this is not a very original idea. Its best-known literary treatment is surely George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Still, since I’ve taken upon myself to catalogue the corrupting effects of power, it deserves to be reiterated here. Besides, Mr. Schumatsky hints at a reason to think that, as Kurt Vonnegut would have said, Nineteen Eighty-Four isn’t enough anymore. The regime’s lies in Nineteen Eighty-Four had to be backed up by an elaborate and brutal apparatus that eliminated any idea, whether in print or in anyone’s mind, that was contrary to them. As Mr. Schumatsky shows, that’s not actually necessary. Truth need not be wholly suppressed. It can simply be swamped by lies, made into one of many competing narratives, until people give up trying to figure out where the truth is. That is why, Mr. Schumatsky says,

[t]he Kremlin doesn’t really aim at people believing its lies. Putin wins when other heads of government let the lies stand uncontradicted. Putin surely knows that at least some politicians see through him. But: they don’t call a con a con, nor an invasion an invasion, nor a hybrid war a war. … When the truth is absent, the lie wins.

The result looks a great deal more benign than Ingsoc, but it is still very effective at getting the liars into power and keeping them there. And importantly, it is not only Mr. Putin who resorts to this tactic. Politicians in the West who mislead or lie to voters about crime, climate change, immigration, or globalization might not care if people don’t quite believe them (though they’re surely happy if they do). It is enough for them to create the impression of competing, equally plausible narratives, to justify acting, or not acting, as if the one they prefer is true.

The desire to gain or to keep power, so eloquently described by Tolkien, creates the temptation to lie. So does the fear of losing power, described by Bulgakov. But Orwell illustrates, and Mr. Schumatsky explains, a further point: power gives one the means to lie effectively. In Mr. Schumatsky’s words, when “[e]ach player has his own truth, or even truths, which he freely adjusts according to need … only one thing matters: who is strong enough, to impose his truth on his opponent?” This too is something that politicians in the West are well aware of, as they show whenever they exploit the power of the incumbency and the resources of the state to support and impose their own “narratives,” regardless of their relationship to truth.

The other link between power and lies, to which Mr. Schumatsky points with his concluding quotation of Solzhenitsyn, has to do with violence. If, as Bulgakov suggested, power is violence and if, as Solzhenitsyn claimed, violence and lies are inseparable, then power too is necessarily concealed and upheld by lies. And indeed, we know these lies very well, from the attempts to deify the rulers or the claims that their authority has a divine blessing, to the mythologies of nationalism, to the claims of a supposedly universally acceptable social contract. Lord Acton again, in his Lectures on the French Revolution, made this point with his usual eloquence:

The strong man with the dagger is followed by the weaker man with the sponge. First, the criminal who slays; then the sophist who defends the slayer.

Political power might be ineradicable; or, at any rate, it is at least possible that we are much better off with it than without it. But that doesn’t change the sad fact that those who seek it, those who wield it, and those who justify it will all be tempted to lie, and that at least most of them will succumb to the temptation. This too is how power corrupts.

I want to end on a (somewhat) more optimistic note, however. As I have observed in my previous posts, democracy and the Rule of Law provide mechanisms that check, although they cannot eliminate, the corrupting effects of power. When politicians lie, their parliamentary opponents, as well as journalists, can call them out on it. In many cases, they have an incentive to do so. In some cases, courts too can serve as mechanisms and fora for “setting the record straight.” Even by simply ensuring that laws are applied according to their terms, without favour or abuse, courts limit the scope for official lies. All these mechanisms are liable to misuse and abuse. Courts can be dragged into political disputes, undermining their independence; freedom of speech serves those who want to spread lies as well as those who want to counter them. But they are the best we’ve got, and it is for us to put them to the best use we can.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

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