“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
Lord Acton’s famous statement, quoted above, brings us to one of those slogans which moderns use to comfort themselves in the timidity of their institutions. Power corrupts, certainly, but the frequency and degree of the corruption depends entirely on the man. Power corrupts, but it only corrupts certain men in certain ways and under certain conditions. Since power is unavoidable even in democracy, then it would be much wiser to learn what conditions lead to corruption, and, more importantly, what type of men are most prone to this kind of corruption. This would have better results than our pretending that we can avoid it altogether.
And what do we find when we analyze the conditions that lead to the corruption of those invested with power—those men which every society must allow to exist if it wishes to live?
First, we find that power is most likely to corrupt the man who has no training for its vicissitudes. That is to say, if two men are to be placed in a situation that makes great demands on their character, the man who has been prepared specifically for this role is more likely to be able to stand the strain than the man who, as a matter of whim or as the result of popular enthusiasm, rode to the heights of his station on a wave of electoral sentiment.
Second, the rule of St. Thomas More in his Utopia, although openly utopian, had a rationale which anyone can admit as sound: Anyone who campaigned for a public office became disqualified from holding any office at all. The obvious reasoning here is that men who seek most fervently after a public office are often of precisely that character most prone to corruption by power; that is to say, the man whose desire is strongest for wine is probably the man with whom you’d least want to drink it. A man who so passionately believes himself worthy of an office that he is willing vie for it in the shameless fashion that we see in every electoral campaign, is a man in whom the virtue of humility is only tenuously active. By allowing the holding of offices to become the prizes of popular competition, those men of moderate temper whose constitutions will not allow them to participate are automatically excluded, and in their place a category of most undesirable candidates is ushered in.
Third, even for a man somewhat prepared for the weight of power is apt to be crushed under it when its pressure is applied too rapidly. Human virtue holds up the best under natural, which is to say gradual, adjustments and transitions. From this point of view, a man groomed for statesmanship, able to observe at close range the pressures it entails from his earliest moments, would be the ideal candidate for the position—one who steps into the role as he would his natural adulthood, rather than as the result of some “victory” in popular combat after which he is thrust into the midst of conditions entirely foreign to any of his experience.
Offering a sort of summary of these points, Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn:
Even a monarch of mediocre talents and natural gifts has the advantage of having received an education for his profession. A democratic leader can only have the hasty technical training of those with a ‘late vocation’…The education which the ideal monarch can enjoy is not only intellectual, but also moral and spiritual. The democratic leader coming into power is always ‘unprepared’…corruption through power, naturally, is worse in a plebiscitarian dictatorship, where popularity combined with autocracy and lack of humility show the most devastating results…On the other hand, the continuous preparation for the exercise of power which, with a king, begins practically at the cradle, usually prevents this loss of all sense of proportion.
It seems that in all three of these cases we find that democracy would be the natural incubator of the tyrant, and that it was the hierarchical and hereditary systems of old that precluded the possibility of the Hitler.
The truth is that, if the maxim ‘power corrupts!’ is a reliable one, then we would expect the papacy to be always and everywhere the most corrupt institution in the world. But instead we find that in majority of cases—with a few glaring exceptions which rather prove the rule—the office of the pope is most often held by a man of very high intelligence, virtue, and devotion. Even if he is simply mediocre or simple or incompetent, it is quite rare that he is “corrupt,” which is the requirement we must demand if we are to give the saying any credibility.
The truth is more in line with the words of Frank Herbert, written in God Emperor of Dune:
All governments suffer a recurring problem: Power attracts pathological personalities. It is not that power corrupts but that it is magnetic to the corruptible.
Yes, the king could be a Nebuchadnezzar; but he could also be a David. And whatever else is true, he could never have been a Hitler or a Lenin. This brings us to our next point.
 Lord Acton in a letter to Mandell Creighton (5 April 1887).
 Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Liberty or Equality, pp. 151-152.
 Frank Herbert, God Emperor of Dune.