AdamSmithWorks Teaching Resources
Adam Smith and the Tempation of Power
"Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority." -Lord Acton
“It is said that power corrupts, but actually it's more true that power attracts the corruptible. The sane are usually attracted by other things than power.” -David Brin
What questions should we debate about the quest for power by politicians, and the effect on elected officials who wield power even in democratic government systems?
Is there a natural tendency for citizens to revere elected officials, leaders and persons of rank? How might a free and responsible citizenry encourage such undesirable and potentially destructive behavior by political figures? Adam Smith described our “obsequiousness to superiors” in this disturbing way:
The strongest motives, the most furious passions, fear, hatred, and resentment, are scarce sufficient to balance this natural disposition to respect them: and their conduct must, either justly or unjustly, have excited the highest degree of all those passions, before the bulk of the people can be brought to oppose them with violence, or to desire to see them either punished or deposed. Even when the people have been brought this length, they are apt to relent every moment, and easily relapse into their habitual state of deference to those whom they have been accustomed to look upon as their natural superiors. They cannot stand the mortification of their monarch. Compassion soon takes the place of resentment, they forget all past provocations, their old principles of loyalty revive, and they run to re-establish the ruined authority of their old masters, with the same violence with which they had opposed it. The death of Charles I. brought about the Restoration of the royal family. Compassion for James II. when he was seized by the populace in making his escape on ship-board, had almost prevented the Revolution, and made it go on more heavily than before.
What drives politicians’ lust for power? What differentiates the hunger for power of a politician from the greed of a business person? To what degree do you believe our reverence for Kings, Queens, Presidents, Prime Ministers, Governors and other “individuals of rank” contributes to a lust for power?
Your team at AdamSmithWorks would love to hear from you about class discussions that might ensue, use of any of the resources provided and of course, how the texts of Adam Smith might inform your conversation about power and the politician.
The AdamSmithWorks Team