“Power tends to corrupt: absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
This quote is, of course, from Lord Acton. Today, Megan McArdle has laid out beautifully how it corrupts. This is my favorite McArdle post in a long time. She starts with a long quote from Dan Ellsberg about advice he gave to Henry Kissinger in 1968 when Kissinger entered government. I won’t try to summarize it; it’s worth reading. Then she discusses how when you’re president or attorney general and you have a lot of power, you tend to use it, assuring yourself all along that you’re using it for good, and you tend to want more of it.
Megan walks right up to the edge and walks back. Although she concludes that American presidents and attorneys general shouldn’t have so much power, she doesn’t conclude that power corrupts. If she had reached such a conclusion, she wouldn’t have written:
And since the president knows that he’s a good person, and the people around him are basically good people, he’s willing to trust them with power that no institution should have.
You can think something is true even if it’s not true, but by definition of knowledge, you can’t know something to be true if it’s not true. So for Megan to say that the president knows he’s a good person is to say that Megan thinks he’s a good person. I don’t. I’m not singling out Obama. I think all the presidents in my lifetime have been bad men; it’s just that the degree of evil varies. I think the most evil was the president when I was born–Harry Truman.
Megan also writes:
I mean, I used to think that Janet Reno was evil–SWAT teams and tanks in child custody disputes? Really? Then we had a succession of new Attorneys General who all seemed to err on the side of megalomaniacal overreach. At which point I decided that it probably wasn’t the person; it was the office. When you’re sitting up there in that lofty perch, hearing about all the bad things that are happening in the country, and you know that you could do a lot more to fight them if you just had a little bit more power–well, sure, maybe it’s not a good idea in abstract, but you’re not going to abuse it, you’re just trying to solve problems. Et voila, Waco.
I still think Janet Reno was, and is, evil. Here’s another Lord Acton quote:
“Great men are almost always bad men.”