How Power Corrupts IV

Thoughts on Bryan Caplan and David Henderson’s discussion of power’s corrupting effects

Longtime readers may recall my posts trying to catalogue the various ways in which political “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I have written about power’s subtle but corrosive effects on those who wield it, even once they no longer do; about the violence that those who exercise power inflict on others; and about power’s inextricable connection with lies. I have occasion to return to this topic, thanks to a discussion between Bryan Caplan and David Henderson over at EconLog.

Prof. Caplan argues that “politicians are, by and large, evil people.” They might be well-intentioned, but good intentions are not enough:

virtuous people can’t just conform to the expectations of their society. Everyone has at least a modest moral obligation to … investigate whether their society’s expectations are immoral.

Moreover, this obligation weighs more heavily on people exercising political power:

[i]f you’re in a position to pass or enforce laws, lives and freedom are in your hands. Common decency requires you to act with extreme moral trepidation at all times.

But politicians never do that, since “[t]hey’re too busy passing laws and giving orders to face the possibility that they’re wielding power illegitimately.” Indeed, they have no incentive to exercise this moral “due diligence,” because “[p]olitical systems reward them for seeming good by conventional standards.” At best, they will “do what most people consider good.” At worst, they will just pretend.

Prof. Caplan’s point about incentives is particularly important for the inquiry into the corrupting effects of power. Even if aspiring politicians start out agreeing with prof. Caplan about the importance of questioning prevailing moral standards, they will soon abandon such questions, which are only likely to land them in electoral trouble. The quest for power and the struggle to retain it do not just allow a person’s bad sides to shine; they also mar the good ones.

(Prof. Caplan also has a follow-up post in which he discusses politicians’ propensity to lie, and ties to his argument about their being evil. It’s worth a look, but since I have already dealt with that particular topic in a prior post, I will say no more of it here.)

Prof. Henderson responds that, though well put, prof. Caplan’s case is not “compelling,” in the sense that nothing much follows from it. For one thing, “politicians aren’t equally evil. In fact, a few seem to be quite good.” And for another, prof. Henderson reminds us of the inconvenient truth that, to achieve our goals ― he speaks of liberty, but of course it is no different if you believe in “justice,” or “equality,” or anything else ― we probably have to “deal[] with politicians.” And if we want to do that, we might as well treat them respectfully, even if suspect them of actually being evil.

Turning, as I did in my first post on this topic, to The Lord of the Rings, we might call this the Gondor problem. The ring of power might be dangerous, says Boromir, but we’ve got a country to save, and we’d be silly not to use it. And note that, in a very real way, Tolkien lets himself out of this problem a little easily. His characters, other than Boromir (and the more obvious “bad guys”) forswear the use of the One Ring, to be sure, but many of them are quite comfortable with wielding the more conventional instruments of power ― notably military force ― as well as the Three Elvish rings. While we are consistently told that these instruments cannot stop Sauron, especially if he get hold of the One Ring, they are nonetheless necessary tools to allow the One to be destroyed, as well as for solving the more minor problems characters face (such as the occupation of the Shire).

The most significant exception to this trend is, tellingly, Frodo, who pointedly refuses to take up arms during “the scouring of the Shire.” Frodo is clearly engaging in something like prof. Caplan’s moral due diligence, asking himself and others whether it is permissible to engage in violence to get rid of the “ruffians” who are occupying and exploiting the Shire. But his conclusion that violence is to be avoided to the greatest extent possible, and there is to be no killing of hobbits, does not make him very popular at all. He is, we are told, more or less sidelined during the events, and is not acknowledged as “the famousest of hobbits” in their aftermath. This is, of course, in keeping with what prof. Caplan says about politicians ― and, tellingly too, Frodo never seeks public office in the Shire, unlike all of his less morally diligent (or at least more morally conventional) companions.

But while Frodo does the right thing, is he right? It is painfully clear that that his attempts to operate by persuasion alone are not enough. If the hobbits want to live in their libertarian quasi-paradise instead of the semi-socialist dystopia, they have to fight for it. The conventional morality of Merry and Pippin  leads them to what seems to be the only right conclusion, even though they fail to engage in right thought process. Perhaps this is accidental; Frodo just happened to be wrong, and his companions, right. Maybe Tolkien should have written a different book if he really wanted to be consistent in his message about the corrupting effects of power. But I’m not sure that this alternative book would have spoken to us in the way The Lord of the Rings does; that its dilemmas would have been as recognizable and as gripping.

One way in which power corrupts those who exercise it and even those who merely seek to do so is by giving them incentives to blind themselves to the possible immorality of their actions. Yet it is not obvious that there is a way to renounce the use of power completely. As in my prior posts, I conclude, therefore, with a reminder of the importance of the instruments we have developed to limit both the scope and the duration of the power any one person as able to wield. Of particular importance to this post is constitutionalism enforced by independent courts. An entrenched constitution provides a set of (partly) moral constraints on the exercise of power, which if effectively enforced ought to limit the damage that morally negligent or even wilfully blind politicians are able to inflict on those whom they govern. Like other power-constraining instruments, this one is far from being perfect, but it is better ― a good deal better, sometimes ― than nothing.

Bad Poetry

“A statute is written to entrap meaning, a poem to escape it.” So writes Hillary Mantel in Bring Up the Bodies. That’s true ― normally. But some statutes are in fact written to escape meaning rather than to capture it. They are usually bad statutes, and often bad poetry. What was first mooted as the Charter of Secularism, then became the Charter of Québec Values, and has now become Bill no. 60: Charter affirming the values of State secularism and religious neutrality and equality between women and men, and providing a framework for accommodation requests ― which, following André Pratte, I will from now on refer to, for brevity and clarity’s sake, as the Charter of Shame ― is a case in point.

I have criticized the Charter of Shame repeatedly (my posts on its various versions are collected here), arguing that it was unjust, illiberal, discriminatory, and indeed reminiscent of some (early) Nazi laws. All of these criticisms remain in force. The bill that Bernard Drainville finally presented yesterday differs only in minor ways from the proposals made public a couple of months ago. But having the text of the bill (a pdf document is available here) makes it possible to examine not only the substance but the form which the PQ’s xenophobia has taken.

The bill’s very first clause is a muddle:

In the pursuit of its mission, a public body must remain neutral in religious matters and reflect the secular nature of the State, while making allowance, if applicable, for the emblematic and toponymic elements of Québec’s cultural heritage that testify to its history.

But the real question, all long, has been what it means to “remain neutral in religious matters.” Does it, for instance, mean not having town council meetings open with prayers? What if the prayer, as the Québec Court of Appeal has held, is not really a religious exercise but an element of Québec’s cultural heritage? Can a prayer really be that? The bill does nothing to answer these questions ― it is not meant to.

Consider next the Charter of Shame’s most discussed and most controversial provision, the ban on public employees wearing religious symbols. Mr. Drainville used little drawings to explain that it is meant to apply to the Muslim veil or the yarmulke, as well to large crosses,  but not to  small crosses, or crescent or star of David pendants. But a bill cannot use pitcograms ― it has to find a verbal formula to convey meaning. They say that an image is worth a thousand words, but clause 5 of the Charter of Shame makes do with just 33:

In the exercise of their functions, personnel members of public bodies must not wear objects such as headgear, clothing, jewelry or other adornments which, by their conspicuous nature, overtly indicate a religious affiliation.

What meaning does it convey though? Does a hijab have a “conspicuous nature”? Perhaps to Mr. Drainville it does. To those less fearful of people who look differently from themselves, it might not. To an Islamist fanatic, it is not the hijab but an uncovered head that is conspicuous. A court called upon to interpret this provision will not adopt a fanatic’s viewpoint ― but must it adopt Mr. Drainville’s? Conversely, a small cross of the sort that many Christians surely “overtly indicates a religious affiliation,” and ― depending on just how it is worn ― it can easily be visible. Who says it is not conspicuous?

Another well-publicized requirement of the Charter of Shame is the ban on full face veils that applies both to public employees and to those receiving public services. But does it? Clause 7 provides that “[p]ersons must ordinarily have their face uncovered when receiving services from personnel members of public bodies” (emphasis mine), and its second paragraph specifically contemplates the possibility of “accommodation.” Presumably, Mr. Drainville is not quite heartless enough to throw niqab-wearing women out of emergency rooms, but reading this bill, we can hardly tell.

And so it goes on, from fudge to equivocation to understatement. Will the obligations imposed by the Charter of Shame apply to those in the private sector who do business with the government? If the government so decides if “warranted by the circumstances” (clause 10). What will happen to employees who refuse to take off a religious symbol? They’ll get a talking to (clause 14). And what then? Will they be fired? Silence.

It is a staple of formal accounts of the Rule of Law that making law public is likely to make it, if not substantively better, then at least less bad, because legislators do not like to make their bad intentions clear. Yet we know that this is not always so; openly iniquitous laws are sometimes enacted. But it is true often enough. And so with the Charter of Shame: it is iniquitous enough, and yet in many ways it dares not proclaim the discrimination it works openly.

It is indeed a statute written to escape its own meaning. It is poetry, poetry of the worst kind, poetry that gives the Vogons’ a run for its money. It must not become law.

Hornblower and the Oath

I have just come across an excellent illustration of the complex ― I am tempted to say schizophrenic ― relationship between our constitutional law and the monarchy, which is at the heart of the litigation about the constitutionality of the reference to thee Queen in the Canadian citizenship oath. On the one hand, as Justice Morgan explains in his decision in McAteer v. Canada (Attorney General), 2013 ONSC 5895 holding the oath constitutional (which I summarized here), and as Philippe Lagassé further explains, the Queen symbolizes the institution of the monarchy, which, in turn, symbolizes Canada’s constitution ― including its values of freedom, equality, and the Rule of Law. On the other hand, for the applicants in McAteer, and for many other Canadians, the Queen is primarily the kindly old lady whose portraits the federal government is obsessed with hanging all over the place; and this, naturally, raises questions about why exactly this particular old lady, kindly though she is, should be so important to our citizenship and our constitution.

So here is the wonderful illustration of this dichotomy that I wanted to share with you. It comes from, of all places, C.S. Forester’s Hornblower and the Atropos (for those who do not know, one of a long series of novels about a naval officer, Horatio Hornblower, set during the Napoleonic wars). After having been presented to His Majesty George III, Captain Hornblower reflects on the difference between his own feelings about this kindly old gentleman on a throne, and those of his wife:

Hornblower himself fought for his country; it might be better said that he fought for the ideals of liberty and decency against the unprincipled tyrant who ruled across the Channel; the hackneyed phrase “for King and Country” hardly expressed his feelings at all. If he was ready to lay down his life for his King that really had no reference to the kindly pop-eyed old gentleman with whom he had been speaking this morning; it meant that he was ready to die for the system of liberty and order that the old gentleman represented. But to Maria the King was representative of something other than liberty and order; he had received the blessing of the Church; he was somebody to be spoken about with awe.

Now, I doubt that Stephen Harper and the members of his government, much less other Canadians, and least of all the applicants in McAteer, attach a great significance to the monarch’s anointment. However, what they share with Maria Hornblower is that they think of her first and foremost as an actual human being ― not as a legal entity or a constitutional symbol.

This conception, Justice Morgan and prof. Lagassé tell us, is not legally correct. It is, in my view, not correct as a matter of political values ― my own monarchism is like Hornblower’s. But as I have argued in my comment on the McAteer decision, the real issue in considering the constitutionality of the citizenship oath is whether it should matter at all which legal and political conception of the Queen is correct ― whether it is reasonable or fair “to expect laypersons to understand the subtleties of Crown law which, as prof. Lagassé notes, seem beyond the understanding even of some judges.”

What the Hornblower passage tells us is that the views of applicants in McAteer are not just a product of a few hypertrophied consciences, as Justice Morgan seems to suggest. They belong to a very old current of thought, albeit now inflected by very different values than those which originally shaped it. (These egalitarian values, indeed, are closer to those of the rather anachronistic Hornblower than of his wife.) And, judging by its portrait fixation, the current government is ill-positioned to argue that these views are not entitled to concern and respect.

How Power Corrupts II

In my last post, I used The Lord of the Rings to explore the meaning of Lord Acton’s dictum ― “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  There is another novel, similar in many ways, though perhaps not superficially, to The Lord of the Rings, from which we might also learn something about the corrupting effects of power. It is Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. 

For those who have not read it, The Master and Margarita is a double narrative. The main story is that of the devil’s visit to Moscow one spring week in the early 1930s, and that of two lovers whose paths he crosses, the Master and Margarita of the title. But within the main story there is a second one, ostensibly a novel that the Master has written, about Pontius Pilate and Yeshua Ha-Nozri, Jesus, which takes place one spring week 19 centuries earlier.

The crucial sentence about power is uttered by Yeshua as he is being interrogated by Pilate:

All power is violence done to people. There will come a time when there will be no power, neither that of the Caesars nor any other. Man will pass into a kingdom of truth and justice, where there will be no need for power.*

These are the words which earn Yeshua his death sentence. By the time he uttered them, Pilate, though initially hostile, was becoming convinced of his innocence and inclined to let him go. No longer. Pilate is now much too afraid that any leniency towards what might ― and, in the paranoid climate of the reign of Tiberius, inevitably will ― be interpreted as treason and lèse-majesté. Pilate thunders “[t]here has never been, there is not, and there never will be a power greater or better for men than the power of emperor Tiberius!” ― and goes on to sign Yeshua’s death warrant.

Pilate’s behaviour illustrates one corrupting effect of power ― the fear it breeds, in both those who wield and are afraid of losing it, and in those who are subject to and are afraid of being crushed by it. Pilate represents power, and power always worries about it challengers. Pilate is also subject to the absolute, unforgiving, vicious power of the emperor. And, though fearless in battle (as indeed he makes a point of telling us), he is scared out of his wits, and condemns a man whom he knows to be innocent, only to go on and say, desperately, that “cowardice is the worst of all the vices.”

But Yeshua’s words point to another form of corruption that power works. Power, he says, is violence. And violence corrupts the person who engages in it. It is often said that the death penalty demeans not only the person being killed, but also, albeit in a somewhat different way, the executioner (just by way of example, see the famous words of Justice Blackmun, in Callins v. Collins, 510 U.S. 1141 (dissenting from denial of certiorari): “The path the Court has chosen lessens us all.”) And the death penalty is, of course, only the most extreme form of the violence that the state can inflict on a human being, and that it will inevitably inflict on human beings. The exercise of power is, inevitably, the exercise of coercion, which stains or takes something (innocence? kindness? the capacity for empathy?) from the person engaged in it.

And it will not do to argue that some exercises of power at least are legitimate, say because they conform to some theory of justice that reasonable people ought to accept. Never mind that reasonable people disagree about what such a theory of justice might look like, to the point that, as Jeremy Waldron once put in during a seminar, “we have theories of justice coming out of our ears.” Suppose there were such a theory. But the fact that reasonable people ought to accept it doesn’t change the fact that some people are not reasonable, and the best and most just power will still be doing violence to them. This is not to say that we can or ought to get rid of power altogether. The kingdom of truth and justice which Yeshua expected has not come, and so far as we can tell is not about to. But the fact that the exercise of power is necessary does not negate its corrupting effects.

That said, it is also true that these effects can be reduced and checked. Limiting the time during which one is able to exercise power is one way of doing so. Limiting the scope of power any one person is able to exercise is another. Subjecting power to law is a third. As some Rule of Law theorists, especially prof. Waldron, argue, the subjection of power to law makes it more respectful of human dignity ― less brutal, less violent. Good law, no more than good intentions or a good heart, does not fully protect against the corruption that power works. But it just might make the evils we must put up with tolerable.

* The translation is my own; the word Bulgakov uses, власть, can mean either “power” or “government.” It is also the word which is used to render Lord Acton’s dictum in Russian.

UPDATE: I have just come across a sentence by David Post, in this article, which very nicely captures what I have been trying to say about power and violence:

“Collective action,” … is another way to denote the use of coercive force to bind some portion of the polity to act in ways that others think necessary for the common good. (1458)

How Power Corrupts

Over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, Bas van der Vossen has a post asking what is it exactly that we mean when we say, with Lord Acton, that “[p]ower corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” As he shows, the meaning of Lord Acton’s dictum is not quite clear. Prof. van der Vossen suggests three possibilities ― each of them, in his view, unsatisfactory.

One is that “to say that power corrupts is to say that power makes people worse persons.” But does it? People might lose their idealism in power, and might act badly while wielding power ― but “[t]he corrupting effects of power seem to disappear once the power goes as well.” They seem not to become permanently worse individuals. Another possibility is that power only gives people an opportunity to act on their bad impulses and desires ― whether we all have those or power actually attracts those who have more than their fair share. But if so, then power doesn’t actually corrupt ― it only reveals pre-existing rot. Finally, it might be that power “invokes and amplifies various psychological biases and heuristics in ways that are dangerous.” It neither makes people worse nor merely reveals their bad sides ― it “strengthen[s] the worst in us.” But this seems to be a “limited” sort of corruption, and it’s not clear what “absolute power corrupts absolutely” might mean in this context.

Yet, as prof. van der Vossen says, “[m]ost people think [Lord] Acton touched upon something of real importance.” Why? To help us understand, we could do worse than to turn to The Lord of the Rings, which is, in no small part, a meditation on the corrupting effects of power ― and which, probably not coincidentally, also happens to have mass appeal. And to understand The Lord of the Rings, and Tolkien’s thinking on the ill-effects of power, we could do worse than to turn to Tom Shippey’s book J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. (Seriously, it is a fantastic book. If you like Tolkien, read it.)

Prof. Shippey notes that Tolkien’s critics have argued that, although the Ring of Power is said  to “turn[] everything to evil, including its wearers, [so that] no one … can be trusted to use it” (114), some characters ― Frodo, of course, but also Bilbo and Sam ― do in fact use it, without apparent ill-effect. This point is similar to prof. van der Vossen’s objection to the “power makes you a worse person” interpretation of Lord Acton’s dictum.

Prof. Shippey’s response to it is to say

that the use of the Ring is addictive. One use need not be disastrous on its own, but each use tends to strengthen the urge for another. The addiction can be shaken off in early stages (which explains Bilbo and Sam), but once it has taken hold, it cannot be broken by will-power alone.

As with the Ring, so with other forms of power, including political power. Politicians, in democracies, do not wield that much of it ― they are restrained by the law, by public opinion, by interest groups, and so on.  And then, more often than not, they are forced to leave office, whether by term limits, by the voters, or by rebels in their own parties. So, like the Hobbits who only use the Ring a few times, they do not really become addicted; addiction might start (as it does in Sam, when, having put on the Ring, he briefly fantasizes about being “Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age”), but it can be stopped in its tracks when the politician leaves office.

Another point that is relevant here is that, as Tolkien and prof. Shippey make clear, it matters how one gets and uses the Ring. Gollum gets it by violence, and he is unquestionably “corrupted”, terminally so as it turns out, though even he, when weaned off of  his addiction, shows signs of becoming a somewhat better person. Bilbo, by contrast, starts his ownership of the Ring by taking pity on Gollum, which Frodo later does too. The suggestion is that pity and kindness make a person more resistant to the corruption of the Ring, though not impervious. Note that it is not good intentions that matter. Gandalf and Galadriel tell Frodo that their good intentions would be of no avail against the Ring’s ill-effects, and Boromir demonstrates it. What matters is actual kindness “in the moment.” (Bilbo surely, and Frodo almost certainly, had no far-reaching intentions at all when they each took pity on Gollum.)

This too, I think, is relevant to politics. It seems plausible that those politicians who are fundamentally decent and kind people ― not those, mind you, who are full of intentions so good that the end justifies the means! ― are less subject to the corrupting effects of power ― but that does not mean that they escape them altogether.

For a further point to be made here is that it is not the case that, as some critics whom prof. Shippey discusses have contended, the “good guys” emerge unscathed from the War of the Ring. And, in particular, we know that all those who have worn and used the Ring are in need of healing. Bilbo and Frodo go to the Undying Lands, and Frodo tells Sam that his “time will come” too. Frodo, to be sure, was hurt in a physical sense, during the fight on Weathertop, and also by Gollum. But Bilbo and Sam weren’t, yet they also must go. They are not corrupt if we take corrupt to mean “evil,” but they are if we take it to mean “broken” ― which, indeed is what the etymological meaning of the word ‘corrupt’ is (according to the OED, it ultimately derives from the from the Latin cor– “altogether” and rumpere “break”). Yet note that Sam doesn’t realized that something is wrong with Frodo ― he is shocked when Frodo tells him he is about to leave. And he certainly doesn’t think that there is anything wrong with himself.

And similarly, it is not all that clear that politicians are not corrupted by their exercise of power. Of course, as prof. van der Vossen says, a politician who authorized espionage programmes will not, in retirement, go about snooping on his neighbours. But that does not mean that “the corrupting effect of power … disappear once power goes.” They are more subtle than that. A retired politician might not be particularly nosy, but how many of them are anywhere near as idealistic as they were when they took office (not all are, of course, even then, but many are). How many of them are not somewhere on the way to accepting that the end justifies the means? Decency, humility, and limits on the power one gets to wield limit the corruption, but they probably do not eliminate it.

In Memoriam, Boris Strugatsky

Boris Strugatsky died on Monday in Saint-Petersburg, aged 79. The Guardian has an obituary which conveys something of his and his brother Arkady’s importance to Russian culture. The Strugatsky brothers are―are, since the books remain―among my favourite writers. I want to say something about them here. I have sometimes mentioned science-fiction on this blog, especially here and here, though not always seriously. But the Strugatskys were masters of philosophical science-fiction, who did some very serious thinking on political (and also moral) philosophy, so as you will see, I am not straying off-topic and writing about them.

Though they wrote about many things, from satires on bureaucracy such as The Tale of the Troika to meditations on life, the universe, and everything such as Definitely Maybe (the Russian title of which translates as A Billion Years before the End of the World) and Roadside Picnic, perhaps their most famous novel (and the only one that seems easily accessible on Amazon, including on Kindle), which was made into the movie Stalker by Tarkovsky. But one of their recurrent themes was intervention by one civilization into the affairs of another. This, obviously, is political philosophy, and very topical too, given the events of the last couple of years in Libya, Syria, and elsewhere (and so many other places before).

One virtue of the Strugatskys’ oeuvre is that they look at intervention, and ask the question of its permissibility, from many different angles. They look at representatives of an advanced, benevolent civilization (the Earth’s, as they dream it in some not very distant future) thrust by choice or accident in the midst of repression and despair of a dictatorship, in Hard to Be a God and Prisoners of Power (the Russian title translates as The Inhabited Island). They look at a representative of a civilization apparently mired in misery and war who is brought to the advanced and benevolent―and to him, incomprehensible and hostile―Earth, in The Kid from Hell. And then they look at the representatives of the Earth’s advanced and benevolent civilization, used to hurrying progress of those less fortunate than their own, confronting first the possibility and then the certitude of an even more advanced civilization apparently trying to hurry the progress of their own, in Beetle in the Anthill and The Time Wanderers (the Russian title translates as The Waves Extinguish the Wind).

Another virtue of the Strugatskys’ reflection on this topic is that they leave the reader free to work out answers for him- or herself. Their books are ambiguous―frustratingly so sometimes, but it is good frustration. If there is one thing about which they had no doubts, it is the importance of thinking for oneself. They were content to ask questions―brutally difficult questions―and did not seek to impose answers.

Their books are good reads―sometimes haunting, sometimes vivid, full of appreciation for the mystery of the universe. Sometimes hilarious, though the humour is often sardonic. If you prefer getting your philosophy in the shape of good literature rather than dry disquisitions, do try to read them. As Goethe’s Mephistopheles pointed out, Grau, teurer Freund, ist alle Theorie/Und Grün des Lebens gold’ner Baum―all theory, my friend, is grey, and green the golden tree of life.

Life will be a little more grey though, without the Strugatskys.