History has shown that the taming of power is behind every good government. When powers are unfettered, governments become abusive. When they are too restrained, governments become timid. And when powers are poorly assigned, governments tend to be ineffective.

Power and governments

Four Laws of Power:

Power can be said to have four laws. First, as expressed by Lord Acton, ‘power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. Second, power consolidates when it is more than essential. Third, power dissipates when it is less than sufficient. And fourth, power cooperates only when it can be encroached. If the powers are properly assigned, government serves the people; otherwise, it becomes useless, or worse, it becomes their master.

About how power corrupts, it turns out that Lord Acton was right, but not because, as he said, ‘great men are almost always bad men.’ Power corrupts only when the system allows it. In a column entitled ‘The Psychology of Power’ in The Economist, two university researchers recently concluded that ‘power corrupts, but it corrupts only those who think they deserve it.’ The researchers were investigating whether power corrupts, or whether it merely attracts the corruptible. They discovered that not only do people with power tend to think they can get away with it, but also ‘they feel at some intuitive level that they are entitled to take what they want’. In other words, people in high office are not innately corrupt; they become so because the system gives them an elevated sense of their worth, and an opportunity. It is therefore not the politicians, but the system that is to blame.

The other three laws of power were first confirmed by James Madison, the Father of the US Constitution. He had undertaken an exhaustive analysis of confederacies that existed in the three thousand years preceding. ‘It is a melancholy reflection’, he had noted at the end of his study, ‘that liberty should be equally exposed to danger whether the government have too much or too little power.’ What Madison had found was that governments failed to serve not only when they were too powerful, but also when they were too weak. A strong government was as necessary as a non-oppressive government. And the trick was to balance the powers just so.

As for the fourth law, which states that two powers cooperate only when each can encroach upon the other, there were two further conditions. One, the encroachment must be limited. In other words, a power must not be able to completely overwhelm the other. And two, the limits of infringement must be precisely defined. When Madison and his colleagues began to think about their system of government, they concluded that simply separating or unifying their government’s departments was not going to work. Madison declared that ‘unless these departments be so far connected and blended as to give to each a constitutional control over the others, the degree of separation…essential to a free government, can never in practice be duly maintained’. In short, separation of powers in government works only when its departments are also given powers to infringe.

Methodically, the American Constitution makers addressed all four power-related problems. To deal with power’s tendency to corrupt, they separated powers. As Jefferson declared, ‘the way to have a good and safe government is not to trust it all to one, but to divide it among the many’. For the basic problem that their national government was too weak, they did the opposite. They bolstered its powers. Then, to
ensure that it didn’t become too strong and tyrannical, they set up a system of powerful state governments. Each government, national and state, was assigned only limited and essential powers. And finally, to solve the problem of cooperation, they created a system of ‘coordinated’ departments through checks and balances. This gave each department certain constitutional rights over the others. …

When it came to prescribing powers, the Indian system got almost everything wrong. It concentrated powers at the Centre, farthest away from the people. It centralized them in one institution, Parliament, giving it supremacy. Since power consolidates when more than essential, this created an oligarchy. On the other hand, the Indian system diminished the powers of state governments, the organ closest to the people. Here, since power dissipates when it is less than sufficient, governance on the ground suffered. What made matters worse was that the parliamentary system’s design was ill suited to separate powers to begin with, because it didn’t have separate institutions. With no separation of institutions, the question of giving one power of encroachment over any other, in order to check or balance it, had no meaning.

[Excerpt from Why India Needs the Presidential System by Bhanu Dhamija (HarperCollins, 2015)]


[Update June 3, 2016]

The Economist recently published another survey of experiments in psychology of power: Does Power Really Corrupt?  It finds that the question “Whether powerful people behave better or worse than others?” continues to shake the world of experimental psychology.  Over and over again, experiments conclude that people in positions of power are not bad people, but that “too much power is bad for individuals, bad for society, bad for commerce.” In short, if a system allows too much power, it turns good people and good societies into bad.