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Power vis-à-vis character

Huzaima Bukhari

Power does not corrupt men; fools, however, if they get into a position of power, corrupt power”–George Bernard Shaw

What is exactly meant by corruption? Transparency International provides a very simple definition: “We define corruption as the abuse of entrusted power for private gain” but on its webpage, one can find a detailed narrative regarding its various characteristics. The consequences of corruption has been mentioned as erosion of trust, weakening of democracy, hampering of economic development that eventually culminate in inequality, poverty, social divisions and environmental crisis. Together with majority of its public sector enterprises (PSEs) and state institutions, not of course ignoring the private sector, Pakistan’s present state of affairs leave no doubts that this beautiful country has been exposed to rampant corrupt practices since long and by all standards, the infamous statement, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad” sits perfectly well in this context. Although these words of wisdom are attributed to Lord John Edward Acton (1834-1902) but William Pitt, prime minister of England (1766-1778) is considered to be the originator of this thought when he said in the Parliament: “Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it.”

If the general impression of power is so bleak, then no sane person, especially one with a clear conscience and altruistic intentions, would ever want to be in such a position but then the counter argument would also not hold ground, where some amazing leaders in power had and still are competently steering the ships of their businesses and countries through murky waters of evil. This implies that power is apparently not the source of trouble as is considered by many. The real problem lies elsewhere that perhaps, Abraham Lincoln rightly pointed out: “Any man can withstand adversity; if you want to test his character, give him power.” So, main culprit of corruption is not power but character of the person wielding power. Placing the entire blame on ‘power’ and absolving the wrongdoers of their depraved activities without holding them accountable and subsequently punishable is like finding a scapegoat to acquit these miscreants.

The moment people get the feeling of being god, meaning thereby that they find themselves in a place where their commands become wishes for others, there can be tremendous misuse of that position, infamously called ‘corruption.’ This is reflected in many acts they perform, as experienced by a vast majority of the population in their routine life. Some examples are when people need to grease the palms of the public servant raising unnecessary objections on their genuine case or annoyingly making it linger; when politicians, violating all norms of merit, show nepotism by granting expensive contracts to their relatives and friends; when large corporations indulge in nefarious activities to increase their profits at the expense of precious government revenue; when the hoarders suppress provisions of essential commodities for bigger gains; when the citizens avoid declaring true particulars of their income and wealth; when sly professionals and crooked businessmen allow their organizations to sink while they themselves swim in ill-gotten fortunes; when directors become filthy rich while their companies suffer severe depressions; when thriving state institutions are deliberately forced into losses depriving employees of their jobs and freezing operations just because ‘other’ parties want to promote their businesses.

Under these circumstances a valid argument that could be put forward, is where can one find such angelic personalities enjoying the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of the people and/or control the course of events, especially in the world that we live in today? For this question, Transparency International comes to the rescue and which has reported in 2021 names of countries that have consistently topped the list of being least corrupt. 180 countries were surveyed and score out of 100 were allotted, with 100 representing the cleanest and 0 (zero) as most corrupt. These are Denmark and New Zealand at the top (88), Finland, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland (85), Norway (84), Netherlands (82), Germany and Luxembourg (80) and obviously, normal humans and not angels exercise power here. The only difference that can be noted is the amazing strength of character displayed by those at the helm of affairs. They do not consider themselves as gods, are most humble to say the least, are compassionate towards their people and are willing to be held accountable in the face of any crisis.  

Holders of public offices, public and private employees, business people, professionals etc. all get compensated one way or the other for whatever jobs are assigned to them. They are supposed to perform their work diligently within the scope of their power. Where gifts, donations and benefits are taken shamelessly for normal execution of responsibilities, there opens up a path leading straight to destruction. From the religious point of view, among the instructions that God gives Moses, one is: “And thou shalt take no gift: for the gift blindeth the wise, and perverteth the words of the righteous” (Exodus 23:8).

Bad character corrupts but a depraved character corrupts absolutely.


The writer, lawyer and author, is an Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), member Advisory Board and Senior Visiting Fellow of Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE).

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