Movie-only fans wouldn’t know this, but young Albus Dumbledore, the seemingly perfect, almost God-like figure in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, was obsessed with power. He and his childhood friend, Gellert Grindelwald, who later became one of the greatest dark wizards of all time, wanted to achieve power so that they could help people and make the world a better place.
In fact, their slogan was “for the greater good.” “We seize control for the greater good,” Grindelwald said. They wanted to enslave the muggles (the non-magic folk) “for their own good.”
This reflects the real-world idea, a common but dangerous notion, that those in power know what’s best for individuals better than individuals know what’s best for themselves.
Luckily, Dumbledore eventually recognized his fault, his obsession with power, and realized he would always have to turn his back on it. He refused to be Minister for Magic, even as his fellow wizards begged him to step up to the plate, and instead became a humble professor at Hogwarts.
At the end of the series, Harry destroys the Elder Wand, the most powerful wand in the wizarding world. We, as human beings, have a tendency to go, “No Harry! Why would you do that? Think of all the good you could have done with that wand!”
But the thing is, Harry Potter was right.
Throughout The Lord of the Rings series, the characters are tempted by the Ring of Power. They see visions of themselves becoming heroes, striking down the Dark Lord Sauron and saving all of Middle Earth. Even sweet Samwise Gamgee is tempted, and Sam never has anything but good intentions. Saruman tries to convince Gandalf to join him.
“Much we could still accomplish together, to heal the disorders of the world,” Saruman says to Gandalf. “Let us understand one another, and dismiss from thought these lesser folk. Let them wait on our decisions. For the common good…”
Gandalf, knowing power can corrupt anyone, refuses to even touch the thing. If any of them – even the good guys, even Sam or Gandalf – were to take it, like Gollum did, instead of tossing it into the fires of Mount Doom, its power could eventually be used to destroy them.
Government is the Ring of Power.
If you ever find yourself terrified of a single person being in a position of power, whether it’s Barack Obama or Donald Trump, maybe that’s a hint we’ve screwed up a purposefully simple system that was intended to diffuse that power. Power works out fine when the guy in charge is on your side, but what happens when the tides change? What happens when it’s no longer you who gets to decide what’s right and wrong?
There’s a common libertarian phrase, and it’s right on target: “If you don’t like Trump’s power, blame Obama. If you don’t like Obama’s power, blame Bush.” That game can be played over and over again. You can trace that expansion of power back to virtually every president since the founding of the United States, with the exception of a simple few, like George Washington.
Washington, like Gandalf and Dumbledore, was offered all the power in the world and yet still refused it. Washington, like his fictional counterparts, knew that power had the capability to corrupt even him. And even if it didn’t corrupt him, he would one fall, and whoever took his place might abuse it after him.
History is replete with tyrants who rose to power by convincing enough people that if only they were in charge, if only they had the power, then the world would finally be a good and fair place. If only they controlled the government and centralized all its power, then they could fix all your problems, instead of refusing power over your life and allowing you the freedom to fix it yourself.
Tyrants throughout history have eroded away at liberty in the name of the greater good. And if you believe you are different, if you believe you are the exception to this age-old, unbroken rule, then you are exactly the kind of person we should bar from ever having any kind of power at all. If you believe that cunning lie the Dark Lord fed you, then you are exactly the kind of person Albus Dumbledore, Gandalf the Grey, and George Washington wanted to protect us from.