Wednesday, September 07, 2005

How Power corrupts

The stability of power relationships (including government) depends on the perception that the power-holders are serving the interests of the people who contribute to their power. This truth was on the minds of the framers of the American constitution, who conducted a public-relations campaign to convince the public that the Federal government would be largely immune to corruption. The basic issue is most famously presented by James Madison in The Federalist No. 51
But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In forming a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.
The United States have been relatively successful in convincing the public that it is legitimate (i.e., government interests are identical to the interests of the citizenry), though its legitimacy is often questioned by political radicals and individuals who identify with racial and ethnic groups that have suffered blatant oppression by the government. Still, overt corruption is relatively rare in the USA.

This post contains an overview of my ideas about corruption, focusing on four types: graft, self-aggrandizement, aristocratic notions, and fear of competing power. This last type of corruption is the most interesting and seems to have the most impact in the USA, so I'll elaborate on it in a future post.

Graft: This is the simplest and most blatant form of corruption. It is driven by greed, and wealthy countries have managed to suppress it. Many laws have been passed to make it difficult for public officials to take graft (transparency, campaign fundraising, whistleblower, etc.); however, there are still many opportunities for unscrupulous enrichment, particularly in the enforcement of victimless crimes, such as drug prohibition.

Self-aggrandizement: Some individuals seem to constantly need to be told how great and worthy they are, leading to extreme status-seeking. Even after they have risen above their peers, they still seek greater status, by dwelling on their historical legacy. President Clinton seemed to be this type of person, and I was rather disgusted with how some in the media patronized his obsession with his own legacy, acting as though this were healthy behavior. At first glance, it seems that there is no conflict between a power-holder seeking to leave a legacy and his seeking to serve the interests of his people. However, to leave a legacy, one must make large and lasting changes to the world, and the world doesn't always need such changes. To make it worse, the power-holder must also be able to take credit for these changes, which is in direct contrast to the Taoist maxim that "When the best rulers achieve their purpose, Their subjects claim the achievement as their own."

Aristocratic notions: Some individuals may feel that their family and social peers are "meant" to rule, due to some inherent genetic or cultural superiority over the rest of society. This was openly advocated by the monarchs and aristocrats of the old world, but could also be present in the elite old-money political families of our own country: Bush, Gore, Kennedy, Rockefeller, and others. In some ways, aristocrats have the same interests as their subjects, just as shepherds have an interest in the health of their flock; however, these interests diverge if the commoners ever insist on the right to rule themselves and the aristocrats use their power to reinforce their own position.

Fear of competing power: This is the most insidious form of corruption since it can drive a well-intentioned person to perform acts that are clearly wrong. It is the only type of corruption that is driven by power itself, rather than serious pre-existing character flaws. This is the political equivalent of "selling your soul", where a person gains immediate advantage by making a small sacrifice, but has unknowingly started down a path that forces ever greater sacrifices. The underlying mechanism is that each candidate believes that he is much better than his opponent for ideological reasons, and will compromise his integrity slightly if it will increase his chance of winning--even with this slight compromise, he is still better than his ideological opponent. The opponent makes the same decision, and consequently the difference between the two is the same as before, but both of them are more corrupt, and the cycle repeats itself.

This type of corruption is illustrated in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, as it drives the Minister of Magic to attack Dumbledore and Potter. It was also on display in the 2003 campaign for mayor in Berkeley, in which Tom Bates (who won) destroyed hundreds of copies of a student newspaper because it had endorsed his opponent. This also is apparent in how politicians implicitly collect campaign contributions in exchange for favorable treatment of the contributors once elected.

This topic is central to many of the ideas presented in this blog, and I intend to return to it in future posts.

Addendum: Michael Kinsley at Slate reviews the current round of corruption in Washington (Corrupt Intentions), looking at both "fear of competing power" and pure graft, illustrating how widespread both forms of corruption are in Washington these days.

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