How Power Corrupts V

What science has to say about the corrupting effects of power

A recent article by Jerry Useem in the Atlantic, “Power Causes Brain Damage”, provides me an opportunity to return to my series of posts on the corrupting effects of power. My previous musings ― on character as a partial antidote to these effects and the dangers of addiction, on the connections between power, fear, and violence, and those between power and lies, and the perverse incentives that power imposes on those who seek and wield it ― mainly drew on literature, with a bit of political analysis and economics thrown in for good measure. Mr. Useem’s article describes a couple of very different sources for this inquiry: neuroscience and experimental psychology.

Mr. Useem reviews a number of scientific studies that have found some of the same effects that writers and philosophers who have concerned themselves with power have described. One psychologist found that experimental

[s]ubjects under the influence of power … acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury—becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view.

The inability of people in power to relate to others is observable both when looking at their brain processes directly, as a neuroscientist’s work suggests, and at their behaviour, whether in experiments or in real life situations that seem to echo them.

It seems likely that the inability of the powerful to empathize with others and their impulsiveness both help explain why power is inevitably violent and deceitful. It is easier to manipulate or to crush people if you do not ask yourself how they might feel about that ― and the individuals or institutions that wield power don’t. Besides, as another psychologist to whose work Mr. Useem refers points out, “power lessens the need for a nuanced read of people, since it gives us command of resources we once had to cajole from others”. In other words, why would you bother being nice to people when you can coerce them? This is a point about power’s perverse incentives, albeit a different one from that which I discussed in a post linked to above.

Now, the psychologists’ experiments’ subjects were not actual politicians or corporate executives ― “[t]hey were”, Mr. Useem explains, “college students who had been ‘primed’ to feel potent by recounting an experience in which they had been in charge.” Mr. Useem speculates that the effects the experiments shows

would presumably wear off when the feeling did—their brains weren’t structurally damaged after an afternoon in the lab. But if the effect had been long-lasting … they may have what in medicine is known as “functional” changes to the brain.

In fact, some experimental findings suggest that this is likely to be so. This is unsurprising, since both the guess that “an afternoon in the lab” is unlikely to have a long-lasting effect, and the possibility that long-term exposure to power does not wear off so easily, are quite consistent with the role of addiction in power’s corrupting effects.

Mr. Useem recounts studies that suggest that people in a position of power can try to resist addiction to it by reminding themselves, or having someone remind them, either of the limits on their power or of its corrupting influence on them and those around them. Although Mr. Useem does not mention it, the old-fashioned memento mori is the best-known implementation of this idea. Gandalf’s repeated insistence that Frodo not use the Ring, and his pointed injunction, when Frodo wears it on Amon Hen and is in danger of being discovered by Sauron’s Eye ― “Fool, take it off! Take off the Ring!” ― is an obvious literary example. But from what we know about power ― from the Lord of the Rings and other sources ― these are no more than temporary fixes. Sooner or later, addiction will take hold.

In exploring the damaging effects of power, Mr. Useem seems mostly interested in business leaders, and in ways in which they can remain effective despite power’s corrosive influence on them. My focus in this series of posts is somewhat different: it is on political power, and what can be done to control it. That politicians might become less effective over time does not particularly bother me. If anything, the possibility that “[o]nce we have power, we lose some of the capacities we needed to gain it in the first place” seems reassuring ― provided that the ineffective politicians can be dispensed with.

I once again conclude, then, with a reminder of the importance of constitutional mechanisms to limit the amount of harm a brain-damaged politician can inflict on us. Separation of powers, federalism, and protections for individual rights limit the amount of power a politician can wield to begin with ― and perhaps even limit the amount of damage his or her brain will come  to sustain. The Rule of Law provides further restraints on the manner in which power, even when it exists, can be exercised. And democracy provides the essential mechanism by which the politician who has overstayed his welcome ― for example because his or her brain has turned to power-corrupted mush ― can be thrown out of office.

To be sure, no constitutional device is fool- or Caesar-proof. For the ultimate, democratic safeguard against the corrupting effects of power to work, voters must be willing to invoke it ― and we should probably harbour no great illusions on that score. But constitutional and democratic safeguards are all we have ― and they are, after all, better than nothing.

How Power Corrupts III

I have already touched on the issue of the meaning of Lord Acton’s dictum, that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I have invoked J.R.R. Tolkien’s treatment of the pernicious influence of power on those who once wield it even once they relinquish it, and discussed Mikhail Bulgakov’s claim that “all power is violence done to people.” Boris Schumatsky’s article on the lies of Vladimir Putin, of which I posted a translation yesterday, gives me an occasion to continue on this topic, because it suggests an additional way in which “power corrupts” that was missing from my earlier posts ― that power is inextricably linked with deceit. (I should specify that in this post,  I am referring only to misrepresentations of existing facts, not to broken promises, the subject of an op-ed by Andrew Coyne this morning. Mr. Coyne makes an impassioned plea for treating them as lies and finding ways for eliminating them, but while some of his arguments are quite compelling, I think the issue of promises is both different from that of misrepresentations of fact and perhaps more complicated than Mr. Coyne allows.)

Of course this is not a very original idea. Its best-known literary treatment is surely George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Still, since I’ve taken upon myself to catalogue the corrupting effects of power, it deserves to be reiterated here. Besides, Mr. Schumatsky hints at a reason to think that, as Kurt Vonnegut would have said, Nineteen Eighty-Four isn’t enough anymore. The regime’s lies in Nineteen Eighty-Four had to be backed up by an elaborate and brutal apparatus that eliminated any idea, whether in print or in anyone’s mind, that was contrary to them. As Mr. Schumatsky shows, that’s not actually necessary. Truth need not be wholly suppressed. It can simply be swamped by lies, made into one of many competing narratives, until people give up trying to figure out where the truth is. That is why, Mr. Schumatsky says,

[t]he Kremlin doesn’t really aim at people believing its lies. Putin wins when other heads of government let the lies stand uncontradicted. Putin surely knows that at least some politicians see through him. But: they don’t call a con a con, nor an invasion an invasion, nor a hybrid war a war. … When the truth is absent, the lie wins.

The result looks a great deal more benign than Ingsoc, but it is still very effective at getting the liars into power and keeping them there. And importantly, it is not only Mr. Putin who resorts to this tactic. Politicians in the West who mislead or lie to voters about crime, climate change, immigration, or globalization might not care if people don’t quite believe them (though they’re surely happy if they do). It is enough for them to create the impression of competing, equally plausible narratives, to justify acting, or not acting, as if the one they prefer is true.

The desire to gain or to keep power, so eloquently described by Tolkien, creates the temptation to lie. So does the fear of losing power, described by Bulgakov. But Orwell illustrates, and Mr. Schumatsky explains, a further point: power gives one the means to lie effectively. In Mr. Schumatsky’s words, when “[e]ach player has his own truth, or even truths, which he freely adjusts according to need … only one thing matters: who is strong enough, to impose his truth on his opponent?” This too is something that politicians in the West are well aware of, as they show whenever they exploit the power of the incumbency and the resources of the state to support and impose their own “narratives,” regardless of their relationship to truth.

The other link between power and lies, to which Mr. Schumatsky points with his concluding quotation of Solzhenitsyn, has to do with violence. If, as Bulgakov suggested, power is violence and if, as Solzhenitsyn claimed, violence and lies are inseparable, then power too is necessarily concealed and upheld by lies. And indeed, we know these lies very well, from the attempts to deify the rulers or the claims that their authority has a divine blessing, to the mythologies of nationalism, to the claims of a supposedly universally acceptable social contract. Lord Acton again, in his Lectures on the French Revolution, made this point with his usual eloquence:

The strong man with the dagger is followed by the weaker man with the sponge. First, the criminal who slays; then the sophist who defends the slayer.

Political power might be ineradicable; or, at any rate, it is at least possible that we are much better off with it than without it. But that doesn’t change the sad fact that those who seek it, those who wield it, and those who justify it will all be tempted to lie, and that at least most of them will succumb to the temptation. This too is how power corrupts.

I want to end on a (somewhat) more optimistic note, however. As I have observed in my previous posts, democracy and the Rule of Law provide mechanisms that check, although they cannot eliminate, the corrupting effects of power. When politicians lie, their parliamentary opponents, as well as journalists, can call them out on it. In many cases, they have an incentive to do so. In some cases, courts too can serve as mechanisms and fora for “setting the record straight.” Even by simply ensuring that laws are applied according to their terms, without favour or abuse, courts limit the scope for official lies. All these mechanisms are liable to misuse and abuse. Courts can be dragged into political disputes, undermining their independence; freedom of speech serves those who want to spread lies as well as those who want to counter them. But they are the best we’ve got, and it is for us to put them to the best use we can.

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.