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Home | Mises Library | Power Corrupts

Power Corrupts

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Tags Political Theory

05/14/2018Ben Moreell

When a person gains power over other persons — to do his bidding when they do not believe it right to do so — it seems inevitable that a moral weakness develops in the person who exercises that power. It may take time for this weakness to be­come visible. In fact, its full extent is frequently left to the historians to record, but we eventually learn of it. It was Lord Acton, the British historian, who said: "All power tends to corrupt;. absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Please do not misunderstand me. 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 there are not enough jobs to go around, he creates new ones. In some instances, jobs are sold to the highest bidder. The hard-earned money of those over whom he rules is loaned for question­able private endeavors or spent on grandiose pub­lic projects at home and abroad. If there is opposi­tion, an emergency is declared or created to justify these actions.

If the benevolent ruler stays in power long enough, he eventually concludes that power and wisdom are the same thing. And as he possesses power, he must also 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.

[Extracted from a speech by Admiral Ben Moreell, president of Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation, before the 1951 annual meeting of the United States Chamber of Commerce.]

Reprinted from Clipping of Note, no. 41, Foundation for Economic Education, n.d.
Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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