Power Corrupts AND Attracts the Corruptible
By David Henderson
I’m traveling this morning from Pennsylvania to Newark Airport to Toronto and so I’ll be brief.
A friend on Facebook recently cited this quote from Frank Herbert. I had not heard it before:
All governments suffer a recurring problem: Power attracts pathological personalities. It is not that power corrupts but that it is magnetic to the corruptable. Such people have a tendency to become drunk on violence, a condition to which they are quickly addicted.
I do think power corrupts also–these are not mutually exclusive–but Herbert makes a good point. Friedrich Hayek makes a similar point in his chapter “Why the Worst Get on Top” in The Road to Serfdom. Hayek quotes Frank Knight. Hayek writes:
Neither the Gestapo nor the administration of a concentration camp, neither the Ministry of Propaganda nor the S.A. or S.S. (or their Italian or Russian counterparts), are suitable places for the exercise of humanitarian feelings. Yet it is through positions like these that the road to the highest positions in the totalitarian state leads. It is only too true when a distinguished American economist concludes from a similar brief enumeration of the duties of a collectivist state that “they would have to do these things whether they wanted to or not: and the probability of the people in power being individuals who would dislike the possession and exercise of power is on a level with the probability that an extremely tender-hearted person would get the job of whipping-master in a slave plantation.”
I’ve sometimes heard public choice economists say, in justifying their use of a self-interest model to explain the behavior of politicians and bureaucrats, “Politicians and bureaucrats are just like the rest of us.” No they’re not; not on average.