Why Does Power Corrupt?

Lord Acton famously said that “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Have you ever wondered why?

Like most things, it’s a problem with the feedback. Someone with absolute power faces few consequences for their actions.

We are all self-interested. Adam Smith wrote about this over two hundred years ago in his book, The Wealth of Nations.  Self-interest is not greed, it’s human nature. We need to eat, have a place to sleep and stay warm. We all have our own preferences, needs, wants, luxuries and so forth. Our self-interest keeps us alive.

For most of us, our own self-interest also encourages us to be on our best behavior. If we don’t behave, we face negative consequences. If you insult a friend, they might give you the cold shoulder for a few days. For kids, time out is an effective consequence to teach right from wrong.

I know many people think they are good to others out of the kindness of their hearts. Maybe that’s true. I’d certainly like to believe that. But, more often than you may believe, self-interest keeps us from treating others poorly.

Have you ever gritted your teeth when a boss was mean to you? You did so out of self-interest. You didn’t want to risk losing your job.

Have you ever accidentally cut in line? Those you cut in front of quickly let you know about your infraction and you likely said, “I’m sorry, my mistake,” and then you moved to the back of the line to avoid making a scene or worse. Again, you were guided by self-interest.

Now, think about what happens if you remove those consequences. We’ve all experienced this to some degree.

What happens? For many of us it may have been surprising how quickly things went to our heads.

Maybe we aced a test, so we study less for the next one on the mistaken belief that we are smarter than we thought we were.

Or maybe your favorite sports team beat the pants off of a high-ranked opponent and you brag to your friends about how good they are.

That’s called hubris.

For most of us, it’s short-lived because we end up barely passing that next exam. Or, our sports team disappoints in the next game, because they too over assessed their abilities, discounted the fact that the highly ranked team had an off game, and then went into the next game with too much confidence.

Our friends and family will quickly let us know that we got “too big for our britches”. Those consequences deflates our hubris quickly.

Now, consider some others that had limited consequences to their actions like superstars from the entertainment world. When people achieve super stardom, many of the natural feedback mechanisms weaken.

Laws seem to become a bit more lenient for you. People around you don’t want to jeopardize missing out on getting a piece of your fame and fortune by telling you the truth.

We all want to believe that we’d be a benevolent king or queen. But, think about how quickly hubris affected our behaviors when we aced the test or when our favorite sports team beat the higher ranked opponent. You didn’t go all the way to absolute corruption, but once you came back to earth, you may have even surprised yourself with how quickly you lost your bearings.

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4 thoughts on “Why Does Power Corrupt?

  1. Pingback: George Will « Our Dinner Table

  2. Pingback: Why Does Power Corrupt? Update | Our Dinner Table

  3. Do politicians/bureaucrats stumble into hubris because they lack adequate feedback, or does the very nature of politics attract arrogant people who believe themselves capable and worthy of ordering others around (and to whom feedback wouldn’t matter much anyway)? Probably a combination of the two, but I’m inclined to think that the latter plays the stronger role. From a 2011 post of mine:

    Politicians, after all, are characterized by the narcissistic belief that they are capable of running other people’s lives. Indeed, in his latest book, PJ O’Rourke points out that, by the standards of the American Psychiatric Association, most politicians deserve to be formally diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. The symptoms:

    * Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)

    *Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
    *Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)

    *Requires excessive admiration

    *Has a very strong sense of entitlement, e.g., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations

    *Is exploitative of others, e.g., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends

    *Lacks empathy, e.g., is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others

    *Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her

    *Regularly shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes

    http://www.idiotscollective.com/2011/01/libertarian-politican-oxymoron.html

    • Good point, Aaron.

      But, narcissism is also a feedback problem. Narcissists don’t recognize the connection between their actions and consequences. Many wind up in jail or with broken lives – as a consequence of their actions. For feedback to be effective, it would need to be received and processed.

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