Does power really corrupt?

posted in: Economics, How to human | 0

The Economist ran an interesting article about the ancient question of power corrupting people.

Are the kinds of people who seek power predisposed to evil*? Or does power corrupt?

*notice the implicit moral judgment of power as bad by definition, and the assumption about its distribution being inherently unfair. I wonder if that could be because the authors of those theories are usually self-righteous, and desperately powerless academics.

The common explanations are:

  1. Everybody is an asshole waiting for a chance, and it’s only outside pressure that keeps us “nice”. Power and money just show real character. (A grim view of human nature, though at least partly merited.)
  2. Only assholes can get, and even seek, power and riches. (There is an obvious compensatory motivation to this claim, closely related to “Girls only like idiots”. )
  3. It’s probably one of those aggravatingly diffuse “Weeeell there are certain inclinations that everybody has to different degrees that can be triggered under certain circumstances” affairs.

Do I know the answer to one of humanity’s perennial questions? If I know, I don’t know that I know. That would be a lot like me.

However, what I definitely know is that I have some hints and suggestions to make the research more meaningful and interesting. Like:

The researchers found that the people assigned the role of “bosses” ate more cookies from a communal stash. Hm.

Proposal: bring in a bunch of middle aged CEOs, and watch if they eat more too. College kids might be different from the general population (i.e. half the test group can barely afford food, the other half is high and has munchies, all are adolescents ipso facto preoccupied with winning social status. Plus, this was Berkeley, where the communist kids were probably acting out what they imagine rich people behave like.)

The Stanford prison experiment, the cookies at Berkeley. These don’t look to me like studies of the effects of power per se. They look like studies of the effects of sudden acquisition of power on people who previously had none.

The researchers concluded power makes people behave like assholes. A less generalized reading of the data is that powerless people suddenly thrust into power behave like assholes.

As the waiting staff in any good restaurant will tell you, the average lottery-winning proletarian will, due to the power of compensation and a lifetime of pent-up resentment, start to behave like a comic-book supervillain when thrust into power and money.

Which is kind of confirmed by the experience of every “workers’ revolution” in history.

This is an incredibly important point. The Stanford prison experiment, the cookies at Berkeley, the cultural revolution under Mao, Bolshevik Russia, the French reign of terror, all of that stuff isn’t about power, but about the rapid acquisition of power.

(By a highly unrepresentative and unprepared group of people.)

There’s also the thing about the “bosses” in that scenario probably being more stressed than the “managed” while working on the given task, and conceivably eating as a displacement activity and “something to do with the hands” while ten people stare at you, that has nothing to do with trying to exploit the proletariat. When you’re stressed or thinking hard, that kind of thing happens all the time. It’s one of the leading causes of my workplace alcoholism. Other people may smoke or fidget with pens, or absent-mindedly twirl their hair. I know that when food is nearby, I stuff my face without even realizing. And the more nervous you are, the more you do it. It’s classic first semester psychology.

Perhaps people also notice bad behavior more in people higher up the totem pole, and with natural ankle-kicking instincts, condemn rich/famous/powerful people for stuff they’d let their neighbor (much less themselves) off the hook for with a wave of the hand. It’s the social competitive instinct.

We are absolutely brilliant at excusing or selectively forgetting our own shitty behavior, absolute masters of double standards. I have vast experience with people who will complain about politicians and then do ethically identical things (though at a smaller scale).

Here’s a conversation I had recently:

“I would never steal from the government.”
“I understand you and agree. Here’s the payment for your services. Issue the invoice to my company.”
“Nonono, no invoice, I don’t want to pay taxes.”

I suspect a lot of the complaints about the unethical behavior of the rich and powerful are precisely because everybody is doing it, but the rich and famous are more visible, so doing it more.

Everybody’s an asshole according to their means. I have no doubt that the lord-of-the-flies campus activists banning speakers for having a different opinion would be the first to send people to labor camps when given the chance.

For ongoing research, I’d like to suggest these follow up, more interesting, questions to qualify the results of the first one (which was whether power corrupts people):

1) What are the differences between first and fifteenth generation rich and/or powerful people? In other words, is there a marked behavioral and ethical difference between nouveau riche and old money? Going with the article’s graphic example of a black Mercedes not giving right of way where due, I have a qualified hunch that the Third Archduke Von und Zu Magret d’Canard will probably drive differently than a hedge fund douchebag with cocaine up his sinuses.

2) The role of culture. The differences observed by American and German researchers (aside from political bias) might well be because they did their observing in the USA and Germany respectively.

German rich guy: “I am model citizen, must follov rules, must be respektable”
American rich guy: “Yeeeeehaaaaawww bitches!”
(Russian rich guy: “Lol mow down peasants”)

So, does power reveal character, which is just inherently damaged in some people, or does it corrupt?

My experience is that some people are just predisposed to be cunts (whether by nature or nurture), and the only thing that will stop them is massive external pressure. Then there are people who will be saints under any circumstances.

But it takes heroic self-reflection, and it is rare, to remain a good person when you don’t really have to. The sort of ethical enlightenment where morality is divorced from fear of repercussion, and you’re ethical because it’s the right thing to do, is rare, as it is a product of considerable emotional and psychological maturity.

Most people are various degrees in the middle, where opportunity makes the thief (and power makes opportunities), and they need to experience environmental cues, peer pressure and incentives to be nice. Not the politically correct, virtue-signaling faux-nice that is really a rarefied form of being horrible, but actually good people. Most of all, they need to not experience environmental cues, peer pressure and incentives to be not nice.

You need to design your entire society around this, and sow the seeds of trust, honesty and civil goodwill.

There’s a whole article coming up about that.

If you’re a good person, buy me a drink. If you found that manipulative, buy me two.