Monday 9 March 2020

Does Power Corrupt?

Mandell Creighton leading his group, ‘The Quadrilateral’, at Oxford University in 1865. (As seen in Louise Creighton’s book, The Life and Letters of Mandell Creighton.)
Posted by Keith Tidman

In 1887, the English historian, Lord John Dalberg-Acton, penned this cautionary maxim in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton: ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. He concluded his missive by sounding this provocative note: ‘Great men are almost always bad men’. Which might lead one to reflect that indeed human history does seem to have been fuller of Neros and Attilas than Buddhas and Gandhis.

Perhaps not unexpectedly, the correlation between power and corruption was amply pointed out before Lord Acton, as evidenced by this 1770 observation by William Pitt the Elder, a former prime minister of Great Britain, in the House of Lords: ‘Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it’. To which, the eighteenth-century Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke also seemed to agree:
‘The greater the power, the greater the abuse’.
History is of course replete with scoundrels and tyrants, and worse, rulers who have egregiously and enthusiastically abused power — often with malign, even cruel, brutal, and deadly, consequences. Situations where the Orwellian axiom that ‘the object of power is power’ prevails, with bad outcomes for the world. Indulgent perpetrators have ranged from heads of state like pharaohs to emperors, kings and queens, chancellors, prime ministers, presidents, chiefs, and popes. As well as people scattered throughout the rest of society, from corrupt leaders of industry to criminals to everyday citizens.

In some instances, it seems indeed that wielding great power has led susceptible people to change, in the process becoming corrupt or unkind in erstwhile uncharacteristic ways. As to the psychology of that observation, a much-cited Stanford University experiment, conducted in 1971, suggested such an effect, though its findings come with caveats. The two-week experiment was intended to show the psychological effects of prison life on behaviour, using university students as pretend prison guards and prisoners in a mock prison on campus.

However, the quickly mounting, distressing maltreatment of ‘prisoners’ in the experiment by those in the authoritative role of guards — behaviour that included confiscating the prisoners’ clothes and requiring them to sleep on concrete flooring — led to the experiment being canceled after only six days. Was that the prospect of ‘abuse’ of which Burke warned us above? Was it the prospect of the ‘perpetual and restless desire of power after power’ of which the seventeenth-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes warned us?

In many other cases, it has also been observed that there seem to be predispositions toward corruption and abuse, in which power serves to amplify rather than simply instill. This view seems favoured today. Power (the acquisition of authority) may prompt people to disregard social checks on their natural instincts and shed self-managing inhibitions. Power uncovers the real persona — those whose instinctual character is malignly predisposed.

President Abraham Lincoln seemed to subscribe to this position regarding preexisting behavioural qualities, saying,
‘Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character [true persona], give him power’.
Among people in leadership positions, in any number of social spheres, power can have two edges — good and bad. Decisions, intent, and outcomes matter. So, for example, ‘socialised power’ translates to the beneficial use of power and influence to inspire others toward the articulation and realisation of visions and missions, as well as the accomplishment of tangible goals. The idea being to benefit others: societal, political, corporate, economic, communal, spiritual. All this in a manner that, by definition, presupposes freedom as opposed to coerced implementation.

‘Personalised power’, on the other hand, reflects a focus on meeting one’s own expectations. If personalised power overshadows or excludes common goods, as sometimes seen among autocratic, self-absorbed, and unsympathetic national leaders, the exclusion is concerning as it may injure through bad policy. Yet, notably these two indices of power can be compatible — they aren’t necessarily adversarial, nor does one necessarily force the other to beat a retreat. Jointly, in fact, they’re more likely force-multiplying.

One corollary (a cautionary note, perhaps) has to do with the ‘power paradox’. As a person acquires power through thoughtfulness, respect, and empathetic behaviours, and his or her influence accordingly flourishes, the risk emerges that the person begins to behave less in those constructive ways. Power may paradoxically spark growing self-centeredness, and less self-constraint. It’s potentially seductive; it can border on Machiavellian doctrine as to control over others, whereby decisions and behaviours become decreasingly framed around laudable principles of morality and, instead, take a turn to exertion of coercive power and fear in place of inspiration.

In a turnabout, this diminution of compassionate behaviours — combined with an increase in impulsivity and self-absorption, increase in ethical shortcuts, and decrease in social intelligence — might steadily lessen the person’s power and influence. It returns to a set point. And unless they’re vigilant, leaders — in politics, business, and other venues — may focus less and less on the shareable common good.

As a matter of disputable attribution, Plato summed up the lessons that have come down through history on the matters discussed here, his purportedly saying in few words but without equivocation:
‘The measure of a man is what he does with power’.
Although he doesn’t seem to have actually ever said this as such, it certainly captures the lesson and message of his famous moral tale, about the magic ring of Gyges that confers the power of invisibility on its owner.


Louis P Solomon said...

Very well stated. It describes the relationship between power and potential corruption very well.

Keith said...

Thank you, Louis. There are many interesting aspects to the power–corruption relationship you refer to. Among them, I believe, is the ‘power paradox’ (see the essay). Not so much because some people might succumb to the paradox — a conversion in attitude and behaviour attributable, perhaps, to the instinctual vagaries of human nature. But rather because some notable people from history, despite their acquiring considerable power, didn’t succumb to the paradox — instead their displaying considerate, moral, empathetic behaviour, and doing good works, lifelong. It’s this lifelong, unconditional immunity to the paradox that seems to set such extraordinary people apart.

docmartincohen said...

There's another side to this, isn't there? Which is the tendency of power to concentrate... Take the US Constitution which started with distrust of both the British monarchy, and 'Washington' itself, and carefully divided power between representative of the states and of the people, with a final check from the courts. As I understand it, the President originally had quite modest 'powers' - and this was by intention. Yet now as Trump shows, there is almost nothing that the President cannot demand or control, with the House of Representatives sidelined and the Senate and the judiciary packed with his own supporters.

Keith said...

You’re right, Martin, as to the founding fathers’ intended balance of powers and the arguable shift away from that since the Constitution was penned. The founding fathers were acutely aware of the dangers of the avaricious pursuit of power, and thus were careful about spelling out the roles of the executive, legislature, and judiciary. There were to be checks and balances among the branches. Importantly, they were also careful about delineating which powers were the province of the federal government and which of the state governments. They assumed, based on history, that unchecked power grabs of any sort would ultimately lead to tyranny and autocracy, which they viewed as anathema to their vision of the rightful (and wrongful) role of government. President Abraham Lincoln later defining that role as ‘government of the people, for the people, and by the people’ (Gettysburg Address).

The founding fathers’ view in this aspect of the balance of power, and fear of tyranny, was encapsulated by James Madison, in Federalist 48 (1788), which said this: ‘It will not be denied that power is of an encroaching nature and that it ought to be effectually restrained from passing the limits assigned to it’. Since then, the push-pull struggle among the power centers has always been a source of top-line contention. Sometimes requiring, for example, the judiciary branch to remind everyone of the importance of its independence. (Though appointments of Supreme Court justices and judges do tend to be ideologically influenced — the ‘packing’, if you will, that you refer to.) I’d contend that one notable shift in power that has occurred over the course of several administrations is toward the executive branch. A classic example is war powers, their having been taken more and more out of the hands of Congress and into the hands of presidents, based on purported crisis response. Seldom do such migrating powers get handed back.

docmartincohen said...

"A classic example is war powers, their having been taken more and more out of the hands of Congress and into the hands of presidents"

Yes, that's certainly one example of presidential powers extending themselves in the way you rightly remind us Madison worried about: "It will not be denied that power is of an encroaching nature and that it ought to be effectually restrained from passing the limits assigned to it".

The use of military funds for THE WALL is perhaps an important breach of the division of powers... here funds were clearly witheld for presidentail project... but the president redefined the nature of his powers as 'commander in chief' to allow him to direct parts of the military budget towards it. As I understand the affair, anyway. (Other readers may know better!)

Re. the judges, I do think we have a serious problem when they can be selected by another part of the government. It seems at federal level there have been profound changes, in the interests of a new quasi-republican political sect, which in turn affect voting district boundaries, thus reinforcing the election of the sect to the other parts of government. It is like a virus that replicates and takes over the organism of government.

Keith said...

As for drawing up ‘voting district boundaries’, Martin, it’s true that the boundaries often end up bizarrely, even surreally shaped — hence the name ‘gerrymandering’. (From ‘Gov. Gerry’ and a district shaped like a ‘salamander’.)

Both the Republicans and Democrats engage in this partisan practice. The political powers-that-be, however, rarely seem embarrassed by the resulting contorted shapes of the districts drawn up. The aim is usually to preserve (or reconstitute) district demographics/electoral constituency to safeguard the congressional district for one party or the other, and by extension enable the respective political parties to pump up their numbers in the House of Representatives.

Many people — depending on whose ox is gored — believe that’s underhanded enough. However, worse, in some cases the aim may be to reprehensibly marginalise the voting leverage of minorities, such as African-Americans and Hispanics — in short, discriminatory ‘voter suppression’.

Yet, gerrymandering has doggedly remained a peculiarity of American politics since 1812 — which gets heatedly debated off and on but which, because of the invested stakes of powerbrokers, seldom gets much traction and deep reform is not foreseeable.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Prof. Christian B. Miller has been doing some interesting research in this area -- seeking to establish 'How Good Are We?' (the subtitle of his book The Character Gap).

The answer is, we are a lot worse than we think we are, and capable of far worse than we imagine. However, our character can be easily influenced for good, often in curious ways.

I think one of our faults is that we do not seriously contemplate that each individual is possessed of the potential to follow both good and evil. We are prejudiced in that way.

Keith said...

I certainly agree, Thomas, that ‘each individual is possessed of the potential to follow both good and evil’. My take is that individuals and groups (the latter seducible by in-group provincialism) are capable of a wide moral continuum. That is, I see on the one hand sharply drawn, bifurcated acts of benevolence and malignancy, but also innumerable shades of grey in-between. Perhaps the story of how one behaves traces back to that all-too-familiar, dichotomous nature-nurture paradigm. That is to say, the confluence of biology (our propensities from birth) and the lifelong cues in our environment that imprint attitudes into our malleable minds, and sometimes reshape those attitudes as cues compete. Most such behaviours, whether good or malevolent, are of course not necessarily towering — in fact, they seldom are; rather, for most of us they arguably comprise ordinary, everyday micro-level acts. Lastly, to one of your observations, I’d like to propose perhaps we are also capable of far better than we imagine — soaring kindnesses and compassion — not just, alas, ‘far worse’. History brims with examples of both.

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