An understanding of power helpfully informs laments about economic inequality, including those on Ethical Musings (cf. Capitalism and inequality and Economic inequality). The nineteenth century British politician Lord Acton was perhaps the first to comment that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” He aimed his comment at the abuse of power by politicians. His observation, however, applies equally to other arenas of life.
Power, according to Henry Kissinger, is the “ultimate aphrodisiac.” Even if power is not absolute, power or the lust for power may still corrode healthy relationships with self, others, creation, and God. Abraham Lincoln insightfully recognized the exercise of power as the true test of a person’s character: “Nearly all men [sic] can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power.”
Illustratively, absolute (or near absolute) economic power corrupts persons who hold that power. Late nineteenth century US business trusts such as Standard Oil, US Steel, and Hormel meatpackers exemplify the corruption of absolute or near absolute economic power. Working conditions tended to be exceptionally hazardous, products were often unsafe as well as overpriced, market positions were maintained by eliminating competition, and politicians were bought to prevent change. Businessmen, and they were all men, contended that the federal government existed not to promote the common good but to protect their property rights and to defend the nation against foreign enemies.
During the twentieth century, new laws enforced by new federal agencies ended many of those abuses, e.g., the Interstate Commerce Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, anti-trust laws, Social Security, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the Federal Election Commission. The federal and state governments began to actively promote the common good.
In the early twenty-first century, new forms of abuse by monopolies or near monopolies have emerged. The diminishing power of unions has allowed large corporations to exercise more power over their workforces, as reflected in the dramatically widening gap between CEO pay and the median compensation of a corporation’s workforce. Privacy has diminished with corporations collecting ever increasing amounts of information about individuals. A push for deregulation that began during the Reagan administration and accelerated under Trump has both shifted power from individuals to corporations and frequently sanctioned environmental harm. The large sums that corporations and the extremely wealthy contribute to increasingly expensive electoral campaigns represent a new form of purchasing politicians. The argument that political contributions purchase access and not influence today rings hollow. Most citizens lack direct access to their elected officials. Well-funded special interest groups publicize the voting records of elected officials, endorsing those who consistently vote in line with the wishes of the special interest and condemning officials who deviate from those wishes.
The former Archbishop of Scotland, the Most Rev. Richard Holloway, correctly observed that power always seeks to justify itself. Oft repeated justifications for unlimited government expansiveness are to protect the common good, safeguard the well-being of all, and to prevent every potential fraud, waste, or abuse of government power or resources. Consequently, the usually well-intentioned but continuously expanding reach of government into personal and business affairs in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries has too often favored large corporations and government at the expense of diminishing individual rights and responsibility.
Typically, government tries to achieve zero-defects in most if not all of its laws, policies, and programs. Abuses of any type of government power frequently trigger a media feeding frenzy, reinforcing the commitment of politicians and government officials to zero-defect laws, policies, and programs. Occasionally, a zero-defect standard is important, e.g., in aviation safety. However, most efforts to achieve zero-defects are unnecessary and eventually alienated the majority of citizens and corporations who perceive these efforts as governmental overreach, excessively wasteful and complex, and unnecessarily intrusive.
For example, when I, as an active duty chaplain, wrote the Navy’s first instruction governing the use of and accounting for religious offerings, a frustratingly large number of stakeholders pushed for the instruction to eliminate all possible fraud, waste, or abuse with respect to funds. No number of safeguards can foresee much less prevent all future fraud, waste, and abuse. I insisted that the cost of safeguards should not exceed the cost of potential losses. Unsurprisingly, the first revision of the instruction, prepared after I had moved to a new assignment, incorporated additional safeguards, most of them not cost effective. In spite of good intentions, the complex procedures requiring the involvement of more people that supplanted the original easily implemented, standard accounting protocols failed to decrease the number of thefts or embezzlements.
More generally, well-intentioned but counterproductive government overreach results in needlessly repetitive layers of bureaucracy, excessively detailed procedures and rules, and widespread reluctance to accept responsibility for a decision. All of this is eerily reminiscent of the well-intentioned but ultimately discarded Pharisaical attempts to avoid violating the 613 commandments of the Torah by fencing the Torah with additional rules designed to keep an observant Jew from unintentionally violating the Torah. Similarly, the inherent weakness of any rule-based ethical system is that no set of rules, no matter how comprehensive, can foresee every situation that may arise.
Deceased rock star Jimi Hendrix articulated the basic remedy to the wrongful accumulation and misuse of power: “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.”
In practical terms, distributing and using power to build healthy relationships and promote life abundant entails imposing limits on persons, organizations, and communities that in one or more arenas exercises absolute or near-absolute power. In personal relationships, breaking another’s power over one’s self begins by reclaiming one’s dignity and self-worth and may ultimately require ending the relationship. In the case of a monopoly, this may involve anti-trust cases and legislation. In the case of the US government, actions to limit power may include rebalancing the distribution of power between the three branches (Trump, from this perspective, may be good news if Congress and the Courts reclaim their Constitutional powers), changing laws, and working to elect and then to lobby politicians willing to accept an imperfect and limited government while holding steadfastly to sound values. Finally, each individual must audit their motives to ensure that s/he pursues the power of love instead of the love of power..