well known examples of power corrupts
March 9, 2013 9:56 PM   Subscribe

Help me with my ten year old sons school project ! I'd like to find people - as well known as possible - to whom the adage "power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely" . So an ideal example would be someone who started off with good intentions and then on gaining power started behaving poorly . Also ideally once they'd turned nasty their actions would not be so despicable that you wouldn't mind explaining them to a ten year old Thanks
posted by southof40 to Society & Culture (37 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
The French Revolution is sort of the archetypal version of this. YMMV about whether your ten year old is old enough to know about guillotines.
posted by Sara C. at 9:59 PM on March 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

J. Edgar Hoover
He started out amassing powers for fighting crime, but ended up using his power for political persecution and personal crusades.
posted by anonymisc at 10:46 PM on March 9, 2013

You might make an argument for Robert Mugabe. Regarded as a hero when he first took power, he's become a tyrant instead.
posted by McCoy Pauley at 10:49 PM on March 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

You could use Columbus, since to a 10-year-old he'll be such a familiar example with arguably good intentions before he arrives in the Western Hemisphere. But it's not hard to lay blame on him for the destruction and enslavement of Hispaniola's native population during his tenure as governor--his contemporaries did and sent him back to Spain in chains.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 11:18 PM on March 9, 2013

Lenin and Stalin.
posted by Grandysaur at 11:28 PM on March 9, 2013

Tony Blair
posted by TheRaven at 3:46 AM on March 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

To say that, for example, Blair was "absolutely corrupt" is just adolescent name-calling.

For examples of absolute power we have to go back in time to maybe the Roman emperors, Caligula perhaps? In recent times Mao does come close, and maybe Stalin and Hitler.

Actually Hitler, (have I Godwin'd this tread?)
posted by epo at 4:43 AM on March 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Caligula is a weird case. He probably had some form of mental illness, as well as suffering trauma from the loss of family members (and hanging out with the aged during his formative years can't have helped). The people of Rome initially saw him as a good emperor, but I expect he was already trouble (and troubled) by the time he became Emperor. Nero might be a better choice because he really seems to have let luxury go to his head, and Domitian became harder and more paranoid as he went along (although most if the histories of Domitian were written by his enemies, so go figure).
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:57 AM on March 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Is it cheating to use institutions rather than people? Thinking about the Roman Emperors, there aren't many (maybe any) who started off great and became horrible (the same holds true for Imperial China), but Augustus put together a fairly autocratic imperial position, then passed it on to his relatives, who were, for the most part, poor stewards. After that, there is a cycle of emperors (possibly several in a row) getting the empire back on track then the position falling into the hands of the weak, corrupt, or insane.

This may be too conceptual for your child, but i'm not sure any ruler ever gets "absolute power," but institutions get closer, as they have centuries to remove checks and balances, and systems that worked well enough with leaders with food intentions are disastrous in the hands of the corrupt. But, as I said, this idea might be beyond the remit of the assignment.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:19 AM on March 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Robert Mugabe, Enver Hoxha, Nicolae Ceausescu, the list goes on.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:20 AM on March 10, 2013

King Leopold would be an interesting example. He was institutionally constrained as monarch in Belgium (and was thought of as a reformer), but, unconstrained in the Congo, he caused the deaths of millions.

From the point of view of the essay topic, he wasn't necessarily corrupted by power. Perhaps he was always like that, but couldn't act out his baser impulses in Europe.
posted by chengjih at 5:37 AM on March 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Sigh. That should be "hanging out with the aged Tiberius" in my first comment. Tiberius would have been a very poor role model for the adolescent Caligula.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:05 AM on March 10, 2013

Just because, but somewhat on-topic because I mentioned him. A fine book review by Mary Beard of a biography of Caligula. Absolute excess.
posted by epo at 7:23 AM on March 10, 2013

I know you're just asking for confirmations here because apparently the goal of the exercise is to instill this simple-minded adage into the minds of people decidedly too immature to judge it on its merit, but the lack of great examples here should really get you thinking... Is there any evidence that power does corrupt? I see a lot of examples of powerful corrupt people, but no causal link. Are there no corrupt people who aren't powerful, or powerful people that aren't corrupt? What about George Washington or Cincinnatus as counterexamples?
posted by themel at 7:26 AM on March 10, 2013 [4 favorites]

Do these have to be real people? Real life is complex and you may not be able to find real, clear cut examples. Literature and media on the other hand is full of characters who are embodiments of such a description. Particularly if you want "ideal"(ized) examples of "someone who started off with good intentions and then on gaining power started behaving poorly."

The best example that I can imagine think of in the real world at any rate would be Lenin, but you get into complications on how you view "corruption". If you'll permit me, no serious biographer will believe that Lenin was "corrupted" by power, in the sense that he lost his good intentions. He from the start always had good intentions, but it seems like once he acquired power, characteristics of his personality contributed to a nasty situation - but I don't think this fits the definition of power corrupting him as much as just his flawed character and/or policies.

On the other hand, there's the standard Stanford Experiment which seems to show power corrupting, but there's no real sense of that beginning desire to do good.
posted by SollosQ at 7:33 AM on March 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Hmm, kind of a controversial figure, but maybe Mao Zedong?
posted by to recite so charmingly at 7:44 AM on March 10, 2013

You could make the case for Ferdinand Marcos. In the early years of his presidency, he constructed enormous quantities of roads, bridges, electrical infrastructure, schools.

The honeymoon didn't last long, though.
posted by Andrhia at 8:03 AM on March 10, 2013

Jesse Jackson Jr.?
posted by SuperSquirrel at 8:11 AM on March 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Angelo, the character from Measure for Measure.
posted by nicolin at 8:12 AM on March 10, 2013

Robert Moses.
posted by oceanjesse at 8:27 AM on March 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm a historian, and I think the adage is simplistic. Lord Acton, the author of the quotation as you have it, was a historian, but also a political liberal (in the European sense; he was English) who was concerned to limit the power of central government. During the U.S. Civil War, he supported the South, on the grounds that the Confederacy was defending states' rights against the central federal government, which had the potential to become tyrannous. After Appomattox, he wrote a sympathetic letter to Robert E. Lee, expressing his regret for the South's defeat.

In short, his aphorism reflected a belief that power corrupts, rather than a conclusion based on history. The sentence in the letter to Bishop Creighton that immediately follows the aphorism is: "Great men are almost always bad men" (my emphasis).
posted by brianogilvie at 8:33 AM on March 10, 2013 [6 favorites]

I know its fiction, but since we are talking about a 10 year old, the power of the ring in The Lord of the Rings is a really good example of this concept.
posted by NoraCharles at 9:05 AM on March 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

I would put forward Yoweri Museveni, president (-for-life?) of Uganda, as another example. I don't think he is "absolutely corrupt", but he's definitely corrupt and came to power through a coup which was supposedly to bring about democracy and end dictatorship, and yet he has taken steps over the years that have made it seem impossible to displace him from office (intimidation and arrest of opposition candidates, striking down term limits, etc.)
posted by treehorn+bunny at 9:44 AM on March 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Here is some nuance on the idea of absolute power corrupting absolutely. It might be the case that power itself is not that which corrupts, but rather that the powerful have greater ability to enforce their existing moral values...for better and for worse.

I once read a study about how, on average, in the Western corporate world, people regarded as Machiavellian did not actually get ahead. However, as one rose in rank, one's empathy for those lower in station would get worn down. I wish I could find the actual cite.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:46 AM on March 10, 2013

The Borgias, in particular Rodrigo Borgia who became Pope Alexander VI around the turn of the 16th century.

I don't know about explaining the Borgias' more corrupt and immoral activities to a 10-year old but this bit from the BBC children's series Horrible Histories took a stab at it.
posted by fuse theorem at 10:11 AM on March 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Julius Caesar's assassination is a double example. The Roman Republic had been hollowed out because of corruption at the highest levels, so Caesar moved into the vacuum of the weak central government. He was in turn assassinated by senators who feared, in part, that the ideals of the Republic had been usurped by an absolute dictator. Both sides had power, both were corrupt, and both were trying to keep the other from holding onto corrupted absolute power.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:41 AM on March 10, 2013

Oh, and throw Fidel Castro onto the Lenin/Stalin pile.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:43 AM on March 10, 2013

Jim Jones - People's Temple

I think he initially left the Methodists when they wouldn't let him integrate his church, and he was involved in the early days of racial equality efforts.
posted by 99percentfake at 10:56 AM on March 10, 2013

How about the Catholic church hierarchy in Ireland and elsewhere, in light of the various abuse scandals?
posted by alexei at 12:24 PM on March 10, 2013

This might not count as he inherited his position from his father, but Rupert Murdoch went from supporter of the Liberal Party in Australia and a young newspaper magnate to covering up his publications' crimes, such as hacking the phones of celebrities, friends and aides to the royal family, and basically stringing along the family of a murdered child in order to sell tabloids.

Not to mention the creation of Fox News, though that point is somewhat debatable, depending on your political views.

He's pretty despicable, IMO.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 12:36 PM on March 10, 2013

I'm not sure if you're limited to politicians, but celebrity is a certain kind of power and it can be as corrupting as money or might. Have you considered looking at some of the musicians, athletes and movie stars who've behaved badly in the past few years?
posted by juliaem at 12:57 PM on March 10, 2013

I think the "absolute power" thing might be a bit too difficult or unsavoury for a 10 year old so is it possible to change it to "people who meant well but went off the rails"? Recent historical examples of people who started out with laudable ambitions might include Idi Amin (who changed the face of British shopping forever as the displaced Asians moved into corner shops and put in the hours). Also Mao.
posted by epo at 1:47 PM on March 10, 2013

Response by poster: Crikey - what a lot we've got !

Thanks to everyone for their answers - I appreciate it.

For those who questioned the original premise perhaps I should say that I missed a word from my original question which changed the sense a little. I meant to write.

... to whom the adage "power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely" applies.

"Applies" being the bit I missed out. So the idea wasn't that the adage was universally true but rather whether or not the kids could find people to whom the adage could be applied.

Thanks again for your collective thoughts
posted by southof40 at 2:09 PM on March 10, 2013

I'm not sure if you're limited to politicians, but celebrity is a certain kind of power and it can be as corrupting as money or might.

Acquired Situational Narcissism!
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:16 PM on March 10, 2013

George Pullman was a train industrialist in Chicago around the turn of the century. Believing that a happy workforce was a productive workforce, Pullman built a town around his factory that provided generous amenities to his employees.

The town was privately owned and operated by Pullman. Over time he became increasingly dictatorial in his actions toward the business and the town. He reduced wages, but not the cost of goods at the town shops, meaning workers struggled to stay afloat. The workers eventually went on strike, and the U.S. military was called in to put the strike down with force.

When Pullman died, he was so concerned his disgruntled employees would dig up and desecrate his body, that he was buried in the middle of the night and had cement poured into the grave.
posted by helloimjohnnycash at 2:33 PM on March 10, 2013 [4 favorites]

According to Garry Wills, Acton was describing the Renaissance popes. Wikipedia:
According to Eamon Duffy, "the Renaissance papacy invokes images of a Hollywood spectacular, all decadence and drag. Contemporaries viewed Renaissance Rome as we now view Nixon's Washington, a city of expense-account whores and political graft, where everything and everyone had a price, where nothing and nobody could be trusted. The popes themselves seemed to set the tone." For example, Leo X was said to have remarked: "Let us enjoy the papacy, since God has given it to us." Several of these popes took mistresses and fathered children and engaged in intrigue or even murder. Alexander VI had four acknowledged children, including Cesare Borgia and Lucrezia Borgia.
My favorite illustration of the secular nature of the Renaissance popes, from The Medici, by Colonel G. F. Young:
Pope Alexander VI was succeeded by Pius III, but he died one month later, and was succeeded by Julius II (Giulano della Rovere), the celebrated fighting Pope.... A strong character, with many good points, he was fonder of war than of anything else, and was perpetually in the field, commanding his forces in person.
posted by russilwvong at 9:51 PM on March 17, 2013

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