Power, Corruption, and Rectitude
Harold Lasswell has always been fascinated by the problem of power. He is a political scientist, but in much of his abundant writing has dealt with power as a dread fact of life requiring something beyond the ordinary attentions of his field. The main lesson of his writing has been that unless men who seek and wield power are subjected to the most delicate psychological analysis, democratic society will remain ignorant of what drives men into the public arena; and accordingly it will be unprepared to tame, soothe, or use them. Lasswell has two nightmares: an irrationalist right-wing movement, and the Garrison State (a concept he brilliantly defined in an article published in 1941). His ideal is a democratic welfare state, characterized by more harmony and “good adjustment” than younger liberals would perhaps care for, but decent through and through. In a series of books, the best being Power and Personality (1948), he has examined the morbidities of power and shown a Theophrastian capacity to sketch character types. He concludes that though there are several political styles, essentially the power seeker “pursues power as a means of compensation against deprivation. Power is expected to overcome low estimates of the self, by changing either the traits of the self or the environment in which it functions.” Democratic society must make the best of such a truth.
Power, Corruption, and Rectitude which Lasswell has now written with Arnold A. Rogow of Stanford, alters but unfortunately does not advance his earlier conclusions about power. It is a small, confused book, greatly indebted for its psychological theory to Lasswell’s earlier work. But the old suspiciousness toward power is now missing: indeed, Lasswell has now let his passion for the welfare state go so far, that he celebrates power in the form of a strong. Presidency and scorns the separation of powers in our national government and the general diffusion of power in our political system. In order to support his New Dealish policy recommendations, Lasswell seeks to calm our fears of power by discrediting Lord Acton’s hypnotic dictum: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
But how do you discredit a dictum that has become proverbial? Wise men know that even though most proverbs have their opposites, all proverbs are true—true in some sense, for some occasion, to some mood. They are not to be discredited, because they are not prospositions, or if meant as propositions, are not meant to be taken as such. Lasswell and Rogow, however, use the empirical method to test the validity of an assertion everybody knows to be roughly, but only roughly, true. If by some magic it could be demonstrated that in a few cases power did not tend to corrupt, then we would trust power more and work to give more of it to men in authority. And of course cases can be found in which power has indeed not tended to corrupt, but has, in fact, even ennobled. The demonstration by these authors that…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.