How and Why Power Corrupts, and Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely

by TessaSchlesinger

by Tessa Schlesinger. Everybody knows the saying about how power corrupts, but few people have actually examined why this happens.

There are two types of human power. The one is personal power, and the other is the power of office. Developing personal power, rather than pursuing the power of office, or before one pursues the power of office is a good thing to do. It is not necessary to have the one in order to have the other, and it is interesting that, mostly, when people have a lot of personal power, the desire for the power of office subsides. Examples of personal power would include those with personal physical power (martial arts experts), those with personal mental power (heavyweight intellectuals), and those with the strength of character to do the right thing in spite of enormous obstacles. Examples of those that hold the power of office would include the president and other political offices, CEOs and those who have senior positions in gigantic corporations, policemen who have authority over the general public, and men who wield power over their wives. People who tend to pursue personal power tend to be introverts because it’s an inner power and people who tend to pursue the office of power tend to be extraverts because it’s an outer things.

How Does Power Corrupt?

The Motivation for Corruption

When people who hold power want something, and they are not able to get it using the normal channels that everybody else does, some will use their power of office or their personal power to obtain it. This is corruption. The people who tend to be the most immune to corruption are those who have strength of character. Strength of character means the ability not to be corrupted despite temptation, doing the right thing despite the threat of death if one does so, and speaking the truth despite it consequent unpopularity, and/or loss of job or relationship.

Bullies Abuse Others to Feel Good About Themselves

Abuse of Personal Power

Bullies and thugs are people who have allowed their personal physical power to destroy and harm others. As these people tend to use physical force when they can’t get what they want through normal channels, they abuse their personal power. This is corruption of the character.

Verbal and Intellectual Abuse of Power

The Power of Manipulation and Threats

Intellectual bullies are rampant these days. They have learnt how to use silver tongues to manipulate people to get what they want. They provide partial information so that others make a decision in their favor. They speak louder so that one’s own response is drowned. They speak all the time so that nobody can get a word in edgeways. They use big words to people who don’t understand them. All of these tactics are those of a verbal or intellectual bully. They also are a corruption of personal power – using a way that is not socially acceptable to get what they want.

Books About Corruption
Corruption: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

Corruption is one of the biggest global issues, ahead of extreme poverty, unemployment, the rising cost of food and energy, climate change, and terrorism. It is thought to be on...

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Against Corruption: A book of essays

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Corruption and Government: Causes, Consequences, and Reform

The second edition of Corruption and Government updates Susan Rose-Ackerman's 1999 book to address emerging issues and to rethink old questions in light of new data. The book an...

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Corruption (Blu-ray/DVD Combo)

Grindhouse Releasing is proud to present the FIRST-EVER U.S. home video release of the wildest, sickest and sleaziest swinging-sixties British horror thriller -CORRUPTION. The l...

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Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security

Winner of the 2015 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Current Interest. "I can’t imagine a more important book for our time." ―Sebastian JungerThe world is blowing up. Every day a...

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The Power of Office

Positions of Power Offer the Opportunity to Get Away with Criminal and Unethical Acts

Most people relate corruption toe  the power of office, generally because the degree of suffering caused by that kind of corruption is much greater than that caused by the corruption of personal power. The saying that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely is a piece of folk wisdom that has come into the common lexicon as a result of observation. There are several steps that are taken on the road from no power to some power to absolute power, and it is during that journey that it becomes apparent whether someone has strength of character or not.

The Path of Corruption

How People Become Corrupt

As this person moves up through the ranks, he attains each rank through cheating in some way. It may be insider trading on the stock market; it may be paying off somebody not to tell what he saw, or it may giving a kickback payment to a government buyer to purchase one’s products. All of it gets the corrupt person what he wants. More to the point, the more power s/he gets, the more opportunities he has for corruption, and as s/he obtains greater and greater positions of power, the more corrupt that person becomes. And so it is that eventually, when someone attains absolute power, they are in a state of absolute corruption.

Why Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely

Power Corrupts, and Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely

Generally ambitious people desire power. Money and goods are a symbol that permits power over others. The reason they desire power is so that they can tell other people what to do. Telling other people what to do enables them to get more of what they want.

If people do not have strength of character (which is rapidly becoming the norm today because status, money, and possessions are more highly prized than a good character), then they are open to taking the easy path to getting what they want. This is what corruption is – doing things which are harmful to others in order to benefit oneself.

Once one has chosen to take the first small step to doing something that enables one to get something in a ‘wrongful’ way, and one gets away with it, it sets the path for a life of power and corruption. So, let’s say, someone cheats at school in order to get into college and then cheats at university in order to graduate magna cum laude. The pattern of corruption is already set. All these goals have been achieved through getting something they wanted by doing things in a way that is not acceptable to others because it harms them in some way. Yes, cheating does harm others, because it means the person who should have come first doesn’t, and therefore loses a rightfully earned reward.

Reason corruption is increasing in the world

Corruption is the Result of Low Standards and High Expectations

Its a result of a huge population on earth, it is very unlikely that there is a rarity of skills. For instance, there are masses of speech writers, people with leadership quality, people who dance sufficiently well to be entertaining, people who can do math, etc. As a result of this, it’s extremely difficult to reach any sort of elevated position unless one is truly brilliant at what happens.

When someone wants to reach that position, and there is a lot of competition, and they aren’t particularly the most likely to succeed, that’s when the corruption (another name is office politics) begins. It is no accident that the more successful people are, the more likely they are to be sociopaths, unethical, and corrupt.

How to Recognise if Someone is Corrupt

Corrupt People are Evasive, Tell Lies, and Avoid Confrontation.

People who are corrupt tend to lie, evade giving a detailed answer, tend to be secretive about their dealings, and seem to have lots of money without anyone being quite able to figure out how they did it. They might say something like, “Oh, I’m in silver.” What they won’t tell you is that they made a bunch of money on silver stock because they received an insider tip. Generally, when people are vague, it’s a warning sign. They will also contradict themselves, and the degree to which they contradict themselves is often an indication of how open to corruption they are.

Documentaries about Corruption
Deliver Us from Evil

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Zeitgeist: The Movie

Zeitgeist: The Movie, by Peter Joseph. Originally released in 2007 as a non-commercial performance work - only later to evolve into an unprecedented internet sensation - Zeitgei...

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Narrated by Academy Award nominee Joaquin Phoenix (WALK THE LINE, GLADIATOR), EARTHLINGS is a feature-length documentary about humankind's absolute economic dependence on animal...

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The Cartel

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Development of Strength of Character

Personal Power Develops When One is Young

Strength of character and integrity is the result of always saying no to doing things the wrong way. It develops as one suffers difficulties as a result of doing the right thing. There is no easy way to develop strength of character. When someone has it, they developed it because they went through difficult times for a long time, and despite being tempted many times, they always did the right thing - in spite of it being easier to do the wrong thing. The process starts early – in young childhood. Pretty much by the time one enters adolescence, one is set for life. It is extremely difficult to develop personal power (strength of character) when one is older.

Religion: The forgiveness of corruption

Religion and Corruption

For some, religion brings a change. When corrupt people give up the rewards they attained through corruption, then it the beginning of a true development of strength of character. When it is simply turning to religion as a result of deep inner guilt, then these people will retain the money and possessions which they obtained through corruption. They still do not have personal strength of character because they aren’t really repentant. True repentance means giving up the profits brought by 'sin.'

5 Scientific Reasons Powerful People Will Always Suck |
Science says being in charge not only attracts terrifying douche bags but creates them as well. And with that, here's the scariest article you'll read this month.

Upper class people more likely to behave unethically
New studies reveal something the well off may not want to hear. Individuals who are relatively high in social class are more likely to engage in a variety of unethical behaviors.

Corruption In America
In the United States today, it is not just the economy that is crumbling. The entire fabric of society is coming apart as well. Literally almost wherever you look you can find rampant corruption in America.

Judicial Watch Announces List of Washington’s “Ten Most Wanted Corrupt Politicians” for 2011 | Judic
Judicial Watch, the public interest group that investigates and prosecutes government corruption, today released its 2011 list of Washington’s “Ten Most Wanted Corrupt Politicians.

Hugh Hefner's daughter betrayed by her husband as he bought and sold Playboy stock for years without
Christie Hefner served as CEO of her father's company from 1988 until 2009, and during that time her husband disobeyed her specific instructions not to buy or trade any Playboy stock for fear of a conflict of interest.

Can one develop strength of character?

Avoiding Corruption

The more corrupt one has become, the less likely it is that one will ever attain strength of character. Essentially, the further one has traveled on the downward path, the more difficult it is to turn around and begin the upward path. Very, very few attempt it, and even fewer manage to make the change. That said, if you're interesting in developing strength of character, read the wiki link. the only solution to avoiding corruption when the opportunity for corruption presents itself is the strenth of will to say no.

Updated: 03/24/2013, TessaSchlesinger
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


TessaSchlesinger on 01/25/2013

Hi Angel,

For the past twenty or thirty years, it's been virtually impossible to rise in the business world without being unethical. Sad, but true. A few who already have substantial resources can manage but without those resources, it's not possible.

The result of all this is an extremely corrupt business world which has set out, unsurprisingly, to buy congress. And they have succeeded. We now have wars driven by the need for profit and the high number of per capita prisoners in the world - all for profit. No ethics.

I dropped out of the business world in about 1995 initially, was two and fro for about another five years, and then knew, without doubt, that I could never work there again. The only people left in that world are people who are ruthless liars (socipaths) and people who are willing to compromise their own integrity in order to earn sufficient money to live.

Of course, there are still a few jobs that can be found where that doesn't happen but they are so few and far between that they're non existent fo rthe most part.

So the likes of you and me starve...

Angel on 01/25/2013

Tess - I loved your article. I left my last job because of the unethical character of my direct supervisor. I have thought about going back into the corporate world again because I did make a lot more money than I am now. I am just not sure I can deal with all the power struggles, back stabbing, lies, a#s kissing, and drama associated with it. I get so annoyed and bothered by people like my ex boss that I feel the need to make them aware of it and try to do things to help them. I can't help but tell people what I think. Of course not many want to admit they have these issues and I have gotten in trouble many times at work for calling out my superiors when they are wrong. So I just assume that it is me that has an issue and stay away from it....for the time being anyway... much less stress with it that way.

TessaSchlesinger on 01/24/2013

Thank you, Mira.

Mira on 01/24/2013

Great article, Tess. You made some wonderful points.

HollieT on 01/23/2013

I do to too, Tess. But, it's like there's two of me; the conformist which wants an easy life, and the very vocal trouble maker, the idealist. In terms of the inner conflict, the idealist always wins and the conformist always has to take the back seat. The conformist in me has always had the potential to make a lot of money and do well, the idealist, on the other hand, has messed up any chances of wealth and prosperity. So she has started to write in an honest way about society as she sees it. She wont earn that much, but she'll probably make some waves. :)

TessaSchlesinger on 01/23/2013

Hollie, we are definitely made of the same stuff. That is exactly why I'm in the position that I am in. I refuse to compromise on my ethical stance.

HollieT on 01/23/2013

I'm pretty sure I'm not one of the above after leaving a well paid position because I wouldn't bend and compromise to "fit in" It has however cost me dearly. Sometimes I get so angry at myself for not "going along" but my conscience would not allow me to.

TessaSchlesinger on 01/23/2013

JoHarrington, that makes sense. Allaine De Botton says that many of these people have insecure egos and it's the only way that they can believe that they're worth anything - when the world is bending to their will.

JoHarrington on 01/23/2013

My cousin and I were just talking about this in the car. We came to the conclusion that some people can only feel like they've achieved something, if someone else is bending under their will. Those people are the most insecure of all.

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