Politics Tends to Corrupt, Be on Guard!

by Tom Ender

(I wrote this essay during my last term as a representative on the Libertarian Party of Wisconsin's Executive Committee for that organization's newsletter. With the coming of the political "silly season" I offer it again here, to perhaps a wider audience, in the hopes that it might encourage civility among people who purport to work toward common goals.)

I began thinking about this topic several months ago, in June 2003, and had planned on giving a talk at a small Libertarian Party function, but that didn’t happen. I kept my notes and recently was asked to write an article for this newsletter. Those notes were used as the basis for this essay.

I begin with the familiar: “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” (This statement was made by Lord Acton, a British historian and champion of liberty of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.) Often Acton’s power maxim is simplified to “power corrupts” but that isn’t what he said. Absolute power is what corrupts, absolutely. However, like power itself, the pursuit of power – often a required step to obtaining power – can also be a corrupting influence. That probably doesn’t seem like a tremendous stretch from Acton’s maxim, until one considers that politics is the pursuit of power. Simplifying: politics tends to corrupt.

This is a tendency and tendencies can be held at bay if one is on guard against them. Libertarians are people and not immune to weaknesses in human nature, such as that identified by Acton’s maxim and “my” extension. Each of us has the most control over our own actions and that is where our guards should begin. There are habits we each can acquire to strengthen our resistance to political corruption. I will attempt to outline some of them in this commentary.

Politics attracts people who wish to wield political power. Even if they mean to reduce the role of politics, they hope to “grab the reins of power” to do so. Many people in political circles have interests outside of their circle which help to balance their political ambition. Outside interests are a good thing for the person involved in political pursuits. Those who have fewer outside interests are more prone to be consumed by their political passions since they occupy a much larger percentage of their time. My first piece of advice to avoid the corruption of politics is: cultivate interests outside your immediate political arena. Doing so will help to balance the political ambitions you might have.

Although actual political power resides in government, pursuing ambition within a political party is usually a required step to achieving actual government power. Like pursuing power in government, pursuing influence within a party poses many of the same corrupting tendencies. Also like governmental politics, party politics is contentious. When contending with others in the party, consider that while they may disagree with you, they will remain good people. Avoid losing sight of this possibility.

When disagreements happen, and they will in politics and in political parties, people use words and argument to advance their positions. The art of rhetoric is very useful to motivate others. However, one should temper rhetoric with the discipline of logic. Using logical fallacies in the presentation of ideas weakens those ideas. Avoid logical fallacies, particularly ad hominem (attacking the person) and the false dilemma; these are two of the most prevalent fallacies used in politics. It is easy to forget and slip into these errors.

Although we have the most control over ourselves, these maxims can also be turned outward: be wary of those appearing to be caught up in their issues to the exclusion of most other things; look out for those who publicly demonize others; guard against demagoguery and the use of fallacious reasoning. If Libertarians are to be successful, we must not waste our energy on internal turmoil. These habits may help.

First published in the 2004 winter issue of Wisconsin Liberty
published at Endervidualism on April 8, 2006

Tom Ender edits and publishes this web site — Endervidualism.com. He hopes you enjoy it and return to visit often.