The 19th century British historian Lord Acton famously declared that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
The phrase has become a truism and is often repeated in conversations about politicians allegedly abusing their power. (Even Star Trek used the phrase in a discussion of “Earthmen” mores.)
Lord Acton made the statement in a letter to Archbishop Mandell Creighton. Creighton, also a historian, argued that scholars were judging the popes and monarchs of the past too harshly. Acton replied that the ruling classes should always be held to a high standard of morality. He said, in part,
I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way against holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility [that is, the later judgment of historians] has to make up for the want of legal responsibility [that is, legal consequences during the rulers’ lifetimes]. Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. That is the point at which . . . the end learns to justify the means. You would hang a man of no position, . . . but if what one hears is true, then Elizabeth asked the gaoler to murder Mary, and William III ordered his Scots minister to extirpate a clan. Here are the greater names coupled with the greater crimes. You would spare these criminals, for some mysterious reason. I would hang them, higher than Haman, for reasons of quite obvious justice; still more, still higher, for the sake of historical science….
Today, scientists say that power causes a chemical reaction in the brain which may lead to a surge in mood and a disconnection from reality. Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California, told PBS that:
When we feel powerful, we have these surges of dopamine going through our brain. We feel like we could accomplish just about anything. That’s where the power paradox begins, which is that very sense of ourselves when feeling powerful leads to our demise, leads to the abuse of power.
At the same time, some psychologists say that Lord Acton actually had it wrong. Power doesn’t corrupt – it just gives people a chance to show their true selves. Some studies suggest people with a strong internal moral code will, in fact, act more benevolent when they are given more power. The same studies show that people with little moral identity will behave more selfishly when given more power.
As the Washington Post put it, “power is like an amplifier. Whoever we were before just gets louder.” The Post added that in fact, “power didn’t corrupt ordinary people. It corrupted people who already leaned toward corruption.”