Power a corrupting force?


“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

This age-old dogma, coined by Sir John Dalberg-Acton, seems to affirm itself staunchly in today’s ethically-conscious world.

One would be hard-pressed to find a drought of examples in both the local and national media: Embezzlement schemes plague the free-market landscape, governments commit acts of unwarranted spying and steal information, and people abuse their authority to pilfer money.

And even in our modest corner of the world, scandals such as these seem to be ubiquitous.

Close to home

One does not have to look far to find examples of embezzlement committed by seemingly innocuous people in positions of power.  In our very own backyard, there was the embezzlement of over $50,000 of Glen Rock Shooting Stars funds.  The former treasurer of the program was previously regarded by his peers as someone who would not commit this crime.

This April, another embezzlement case was uncovered in our area. A Ridgewood YMCA bookkeeper was found guilty of theft, stealing over $40,000 from the organization. The 54 year old woman from Mahwah with no prior arrest records was caught after her superiors complained to police of discrepancies and possible theft. After a brief investigation, she was fired and arrested. The woman did not attempt to use any evasive techniques and had transferred the sum directly to her own account.

Another such instance is the financial scandal surrounding a former Glen Rock High School Economics teacher. He admitted to embezzling nearly $70,000 from Knowlton School in Delaware, NJ, where he was the Business Administrator of the Board of Education. He allegedly used his business experience and the power of his position to overpay himself and write fraudulent checks made payable to himself, which were entered into the school records as sent to the district heating oil supplier.

This last incident’s proximity to Glen Rock and its students evokes an important question: does authority corrupt those who possess it, or are those who abuse authority already corrupt?

Prison power experiment

Regardless, there can be a large amount of truth in Dalberg-Acton’s statement: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

The extortion of power in positions of leverage has been studied extensively in clinical settings, most notably, the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, conducted in the autumn of 1971. The psychological experiment placed young men in a vacant prison, with half of the subjects being assigned the role of prisoners and the other half as prison guards.

What the researchers found surprised them. The manipulation of power was so profound that several of the psychologists observing the experiment eventually became engrossed in the experiment and were unable to recognize unscrupulous behavior from the “prison guards.”

The guards wielded absolute, tyrannical power.  They assigned prisoners numbers to dehumanize them, enacted prolonged exercise periods to exhaust them, and embarrassed them by forcing the prisoners to defecate into a bucket that they were not allowed to empty.

Were these “prison guards” intrinsically bad, or were they tainted by the experiment?

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

— Sir John Dalberg-Acton

Still undecided

Yet while the results of the Stanford experiment seem to suggest that power itself is what corrupts, the results are not conclusively linked to other situations of authority.

Ultimately, it may be impossible for anyone to know whether individuals in power were already corrupted or if the power itself is the corrupting force.