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Is Lord Acton Right? Rethinking Corruption, Democracy, and Political Power

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This article examines Lord Acton’s famous assertion, “power tends to corrupt and absolute power, to corrupt absolutely,” including the suggestion that democratization reduces corruption. This assertion requires us to look at the meaning of political power, corruption, and democracy. By making a distinction between primary and secondary corruption (essentially, controllable and uncontrollable corruption) and between liberal democracy (emphasizing competitive politics) and classical democracy (emphasizing consensus-building politics), together with introducing Political Elasticity (PE) theory, a number of difficult questions are raised: 1. What is political power (with Hobbes and Russia, in mind)? 2. What is the linkage between political power and corruption? 3. Why is it that corruption does not necessarily prevent economic development (with China in mind)? At the conclusion the autocracy-corruption linkage is examined, as exemplified by a comparison of Singapore and Jamaica, indicating: (1) that political power, if persuasive, is not necessarily corruptive; (2) liberal or partisan democracy tends to corrupt and lawless democracy, to corrupt absolutely and (3) authoritarian regimes may recognize that controlling corruption is essential for their legitimacy and economic prosperity.


International Letters of Social and Humanistic Sciences (Volume 1)
H. H. Werlin, "Is Lord Acton Right? Rethinking Corruption, Democracy, and Political Power", International Letters of Social and Humanistic Sciences, Vol. 1, pp. 1-13, 2013
Online since:
September 2013
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