Politics & Policy

Might vs. Right

Power does not corrupt.

In late August 1929, in British-run Palestine, there was an Arab riot. Mobs of Arabs stormed Jewish homes and shops. Some Arab neighbors shielded their Jewish friends, even as British police provided only lackluster protection. But most Arabs — and most of the British constables — turned a blind eye to the destruction. British police chief Raymond Cafferata did his best, however. Cafferata later testified about one incident:

On hearing screams in a room I went up a sort of tunnel passage and saw an Arab in the act of cutting off a child’s head with a sword. He had already hit him and was having another cut, but on seeing me he tried to aim the stroke at me, but missed; he was practically on the muzzle of my rifle. I shot him low in the groin. Behind him was a Jewish woman smothered in blood with a man I recognized as [an Arab] police constable named Issa Sherif from Jaffa in mufti. He was standing over the woman with a dagger in his hand. He saw me and bolted into a room close by and tried to shut me out — shouting in Arabic, “Your Honor, I am a policeman.” …I got into the room and shot him.

This episode comes from Benny Morris’s history of Israel, Righteous Victims (considered by many to be mildly “anti-Zionist” — lest you think this is all so much pro-Israel propaganda). But I really don’t want to discuss Israel too much right now. Rather, I bring this up as a small illustration of another cliché that tends to addle much of our thinking these days.


In 1887, in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton, John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton — a.k.a. Lord Acton — wrote, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

Of all the truisms to be found in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, this one may be the most revered as sheer genius on college campuses, op-ed pages, and idiot-radio. Alas, it is usually aimed at rich, white, conservative men and few others, but that certainly doesn’t diminish the passion or frequency with which it is invoked. And, as is so often the case with people who replace thinking with clichés, the people who use it are invariably wrong.

Acton was actually referring to a tendency among historians to let their judgment of Great Men be clouded in the light of their accomplishments. Acton believed historians should make moral judgments about the men they study. The “power corrupts” line first appeared in a letter responding to a request for Acton to review a history of the Popes by Creighton. Acton didn’t like Creighton’s refusal to judge harshly the Reformation-era popes (a.k.a. “the bad popes”). Acton wrote:

I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favorable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way against holder of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. The inflexible integrity of the moral code is, to me, the secret of the authority, the dignity, the utility of history. If we may debase the currency for the sake of genius, or success, or rank, or reputation, we may debase it for the sake of a man’s influence, of his religion, of his party, of the good cause which prospers by his credit and suffers by his disgrace. Then history ceases to be a science, an arbiter of controversy, a guide of the wanderer, the upholder of that moral standard which the powers of earth, and religion itself, tend constantly to depress.


Now, it’s obviously true that Acton, an eminent 19th-century liberal, had an abiding problem with powerful men who let their power go to their heads — but that’s not really what he was talking about. He was talking about the tendency of people to say, “But Hitler built the autobahn,” or “Think of all the good things Bill Clinton did,” or “Remember that Nixon created the EPA.” He wasn’t necessarily offering as a rule of thumb that as you get more powerful you get more corrupt. Rather, he was saying that as you get more powerful the standard you are held to by historians must be more, not less, exacting. I’m not sure I entirely agree with that, but that’s an argument for another day.

Today, the “power corrupts” syllogism has — like so many other things — been translated into a credo of personal morality. It insists that power makes you a bad person — i.e., self-aggrandizing, cruel, megalomaniacal, blind to all moral distinctions, and so on. And that just isn’t true. If it were, history would simply be the story of bad powerful men. And, while there most certainly were plenty of bad powerful men, there was also, for instance, George Washington. He might have become a king if he’d wanted, but he chose not to. He could have stayed president for life, but he chose not to. And, as NR’s Richard Brookhiser has chronicled, Washington remained a decent man, courteous to a fault in fact, as he grew in influence and power. Likewise, Abraham Lincoln — at whom certain libertarians love to throw the Acton quote — may have suspended habeas corpus, but the evidence seems fairly lacking that he was a corrupt man or that he grew more corrupt as he grew more powerful. Last I checked, Jimmy Carter didn’t become noticeably more praetorian for having had the arsenal of democracy at his disposal.

Obviously, power can blur judgments. But if absolute power corrupted absolutely, that would mean that all absolute monarchs and absolute rulers were equally — and absolutely — corrupt and therefore indistinguishable from one another. I’m no great student of such matters, but I can’t imagine it would be hard to disprove this. Couldn’t some kings be more corrupt than other kings even though they held roughly the same amount of power?

In fact, this clichéd notion — that “absolute power corrupts absolutely” is an iron law of history — implies almost exactly the opposite message to what Acton had in mind. He wanted historians — i.e., us, humanity, society, etc. — to distinguish between the moral choices of powerful men. He explicitly rejected the idea that all powerful men are good — or bad. Acton believed that some popes were good men, who wielded their power wisely, and that other popes were bad men deserving of the historian’s obloquy. He would have been horrified to learn that people think he meant we should simply dismiss the whole lot of popes as equally contemptible.


So what does this have to do with a British police officer shooting an Arab police officer nearly three quarters of a century ago? Well, when it comes to a wide range of political issues, we’ve come to believe that “the powerless” are honorable and decent people, while “the powerful” are dishonorable and indecent. This partly has to do with the West’s often-admirable affection for the underdog and, truth be told, to a certain Christian-influenced affinity for the weak. But it also has to do with a certain brand of intellectual-sounding buffoonery — best typified by the likes of Edward Said (or, sometimes, Al Gore) — which says that power must always be challenged because, well, power is bad (the powerful, naturally, being defined as those whom Said dislikes).

In the international sphere, this tendency manifests itself in the endless bastardization of the phrase “Might doesn’t make right.” On the floor of the U.N., for example, this generally useful truism is inverted to mean “If you have might you cannot be right, and if you lack might you must be right” — and this, of course, is idiotic. But that doesn’t stop countless hordes of “activist-intellectuals” and feel-your-pain politicians from saying it.

The problem with this thinking is simple: It’s not true, and by pretending it is we invite disaster. The truth is that there are many, many, many powerless people who are awful and terrible people. And, not surprisingly, when they do get power they do terrible things with it. Hitler and Stalin, for example, were awful people before they came into power and — predictably — they were awful people after. Power didn’t corrupt them; it was merely a means by which they could more fully express their corruption.

The reason the Bush administration has turned its back on Yasser Arafat, to give another example, isn’t because they’ve concluded that power has corrupted him; it is because they’ve — finally — concluded that he is too corrupt to wield power. Following his years of terrorism, giving him a mini-state was like giving a man a zoo because he’s proved himself so successful at torturing small animals. Similarly, there is nothing in Saddam Hussein’s history that would suggest he had been a good man but was spoiled by power. Rather, he was a thoroughly evil man from the get-go, whose will to power was fully formed long before he ever had the opportunity to pull out his enemies’ tongues.

In 1929, two police officers were given the opportunity to do right. Each had power. Each made choices. One saw fit to murder and rape and to countenance the murder and rape of others; and one saw fit to put a stop to it. Both “used force,” as we like to say today. Indeed, the British police officer had more power, in many respects, than the Arab one did. Nonetheless, the former was less corrupt than the latter. One used force for right and the other used force for wrong. One saw power as an obligation to be just; the other saw it as a means to act on bloodlust and revenge.

The lesson here is an important one. Indeed, it goes to the heart of conservatism and notions of liberal democracy alike. In a state of nature, or simply left to their own devices, many or most or even all men may in fact be infinitely corruptible by power. Americans often brag about the genius of our checks and balances, but the greatest check we have on tyranny is a culture which creates men who do not want to be tyrants in the first place. Every generation the West is invaded by barbarians, Hanna Arendt wrote, we call them children. And in America we teach our children from an early age — by using, among other things, the bastardized Acton quote — that abusing power is a great sin. This is why our businessmen, our police, and our politicians are, as a rule, less corrupt than, say, Russia’s or China’s — because they were raised that way. To believe that power will corrupt anybody and everybody equally is to believe that raising good citizens is a pointless task.

In the international realm, the lesson is similar. The nations of the General Assembly can gripe about American imperialism all they like; they can assert that we’re not right because we have might to their hearts’ content. But only a fool would believe that many of these nations would be more responsible wielders of might than the United States and the West generally. Israel, for example, has the power to wipe out the Palestinians — but it doesn’t. If Yasser Arafat had that kind of power, the Israelis would either be dead or being plucked out of the sea by American rescue boats.

Western civilization has a lot of blood on its hands, to be sure, but that blood paid for some important lessons — including how to use strength when necessary and how to determine when it is necessary. We aren’t always right, but only an ignoramus would think that the “powerless” (and therefore allegedly virtuous) nations of the world would do better with such might (imagine, say, Robert Mugabe with trillions of dollars and a first-class army). The powerless simply haven’t learned many of those lessons, and so they are, understandably, more likely to be corrupt than virtuous. To give them power without educating them about the rules of civilization would be like giving that Arab police officer a badge and a gun.


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