Everyone knows Acton's saying about the corrupting power of power. History proves the truth of his observation by offering egregious individual examples, from Nero to Genghis Khan, from Shaka the Zulu to Pol Pot. What is remarkable is how often power in the hands of an unconstrained individual or claque leads to harm. How many examples are there of the powerful reversing the world's entropic tendencies in order to bring peace, succour and comfort to those in need of them? Woefully few.It is a curious and unhappy fact that those who strive to provide these things - aid organisations, charities, individuals hurt into action by the suffering of their fellows - tend themselves to be anything but powerful.
There are plenty of examples of harmful power in the contemporary world. Attention naturally fixes on the likes of Pinochet, Slobodan Milosovic and Robert Mugabe as cases of men resolved to get their own way no matter what. Such men possess political authority, and have command of armies and police forces; but they do not possess tolerance or respect for alternative views. Unless restrained by democratic institutions and the rule of law - exactly what Mugabe is now brushing aside in irritation at the obstacles they present; for as Lucan warned, "if a strong man does not get what he thinks is his due, he will take all he can" - they will have no reason to stop short of threatening, bullying, and finally "disappearing" their enemies.
There are other kinds of power, no less harmful if in different ways. Consider Rupert Murdoch and his influence on the future of the United Kingdom. He owns several of the country's largest-selling national newspapers and a television network, and although he is not British and does not live in Britain, he does not wish to see the United Kingdom join the single European currency. By every logic of economics and history, the United Kingdom must and will do so - the sooner the better, unless it is content to become a minor offshore banana republic on the sidelines of history. Since Mr Murdoch is no fool, it is tempting to wonder whether that is his aim.
The problem is not the existence of power, but its presence in ungoverned hands. "The first principle of a civilised state," said Walter Lippman, "is that power is legitimate only when it is under contract." The application of this principle is obvious as regards a government's power to enforce the laws it passes, and to keep order in its jurisdiction.
Democracy is a contract by which the exercise of such power is kept responsible. But there are less obvious contracts constraining other kinds of power. The power to state an opinion publicly, for example, is subject to the unwritten contract of debate; the opinion can be disagreed with, its supporting arguments challenged, the facts on which it is based checked. This contract has been hard won in the course of modern history, because it is not long since it was fatally dangerous to disagree with the opinions of those in power, whether they were Popes in the Vatican or party secretaries in the Kremlin. In some places, the danger has not yet passed: Afghanistan and China are examples.
Power's tendency to corrupt is a function of the work it does in liberating man's worst characteristics. A man feels his power over another more acutely when he breaks the other's spirit than when he wins his respect. To have power over others is to be in a position to deprive them of choices and options, to bend them to one's will, to make use of them.
Almost any sensibility can quickly decay into finding this pleasurable as well as convenient. How many SS men denied themselves the pleasure of absolute control over others when it was offered? Perhaps history never got the chance to record the heroism that such denial would truly represent.
Unquestionably, to use real power gently and for the good of others is one of the most heroic of virtues; which is why examples of it are so rare.
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