Why Does Power Corrupt?



Followup toEvolutionary Psychology

"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Great men are almost always bad men."
        —Lord Acton

Call it a just-so story if you must, but as soon as I was introduced to the notion of evolutionary psychology (~1995), it seemed obvious to me why human beings are corrupted by power.  I didn't then know that hunter-gatherer bands tend to be more egalitarian than agricultural tribes—much less likely to have a central tribal-chief boss-figure—and so I thought of it this way:

Humans (particularly human males) have evolved to exploit power and status when they obtain it, for the obvious reason:  If you use your power to take many wives and favor your children with a larger share of the meat, then you will leave more offspring, ceteris paribus.  But you're not going to have much luck becoming tribal chief if you just go around saying, "Put me in charge so that I can take more wives and favor my children."  You could lie about your reasons, but human beings are not perfect deceivers.

So one strategy that an evolution could follow, would be to create a vehicle that reliably tended to start believing that the old power-structure was corrupt, and that the good of the whole tribe required their overthrow...

The young revolutionary's belief is honest.  There will be no betraying catch in his throat, as he explains why the tribe is doomed at the hands of the old and corrupt, unless he is given power to set things right.  Not even subconsciously does he think, "And then, once I obtain power, I will strangely begin to resemble that old corrupt guard, abusing my power to increase my inclusive genetic fitness."

People often think as if "purpose" is an inherent property of things; and so many interpret the message of ev-psych as saying, "You have a subconscious, hidden goal to maximize your fitness."  But individual organisms are adaptation-executers, not fitness-maximizers.  The purpose that the revolutionary should obtain power and abuse it, is not a plan anywhere in his brain; it belongs to evolution, which can just barely be said to have purposes.  It is a fact about many past revolutionaries having successfully taken power, having abused it, and having left many descendants.

When the revolutionary obtains power, he will find that it is sweet, and he will try to hold on to it—perhaps still thinking that this is for the good of the tribe.  He will find that it seems right to take many wives (surely he deserves some reward for his labor) and to help his children (who are more deserving of help than others).  But the young revolutionary has no foreknowledge of this in the beginning, when he sets out to overthrow the awful people who currently rule the tribe—evil mutants whose intentions are obviously much less good than his own.

The circuitry that will respond to power by finding it pleasurable, is already wired into our young revolutionary's brain; but he does not know this.  (It would not help him evolutionarily if he did know it, because then he would not be able to honestly proclaim his good intentions—though it is scarcely necessary for evolution to prevent hunter-gatherers from knowing about evolution, which is one reason we are able to know about it now.)

And so we have the awful cycle of "meet the new boss, same as the old boss".  Youthful idealism rails against their elders' corruption, but oddly enough, the new generation—when it finally succeeds to power—doesn't seem to be all that morally purer.  The original Communist Revolutionaries, I would guess probably a majority of them, really were in it to help the workers; but once they were a ruling Party in charge...

All sorts of random disclaimers can be applied to this thesis:  For example, you could suggest that maybe Stalin's intentions weren't all that good to begin with, and that some politicians do intend to abuse power and really are just lying.  A much more important objection is the need to redescribe this scenario in terms of power structures that actually exist in hunter-gatherer bands, which, as I understand it, have egalitarian pressures (among adult males) to keep any one person from getting too far above others.

But human beings do find power over others sweet, and it's not as if this emotion could have materialized from thin air, without an evolutionary explanation in terms of hunter-gatherer conditions.  If you don't think this is why human beings are corrupted by power—then what's your evolutionary explanation?  On the whole, to me at least, the evolutionary explanation for this phenomenon has the problem of not even seeming profound, because what it explains seems so normal.

The moral of this story, and the reason for going into the evolutionary explanation, is that you shouldn't reason as if people who are corrupted by power are evil mutants, whose mutations you do not share.

Evolution is not an infinitely powerful deceiving demon, and our ancestors evolved under conditions of not knowing about evolutionary psychology.  The tendency to be corrupted by power can be beaten, I think.  The "warp" doesn't seem on the same level of deeply woven insidiousness as, say, confirmation bias.

There was once an occasion where a reporter wrote about me, and did a hatchet job.  It was my first time being reported on, and I was completely blindsided by it.  I'd known that reporters sometimes wrote hatchet jobs, but I'd thought that it would require malice—I hadn't begun to imagine that someone might write a hatchet job just because it was a cliche, an easy way to generate a few column inches.  So I drew upon my own powers of narration, and wrote an autobiographical story on what it felt like to be reported on for the first time—that horrible feeling of violation.  I've never sent that story off anywhere, though it's a fine and short piece of writing as I judge it.

For it occurred to me, while I was writing, that journalism is an example of unchecked power—the reporter gets to present only one side of the story, any way they like, and there's nothing that the reported-on can do about it.  (If you've never been reported on, then take it from me, that's how it is.)  And here I was writing my own story, potentially for publication as traditional journalism, not in an academic forum.  I remember realizing that the standards were tremendously lower than in science.  That you could get away with damn near anything, so long as it made a good story—that this was the standard in journalism.  (If you, having never been reported on yourself, don't believe me that this is the case, then you're as naive as I once was.)

Just that thought—not even the intention, not even wondering whether to do it, but just the thought—that I could present only my side of the story and deliberately make the offending reporter look bad, and that no one would call me on it.  Just that thought triggered this huge surge of positive reinforcement.  This tremendous high, comparable to the high of discovery or the high of altruism.

And I knew right away what I was dealing with.  So I sat there, motionless, fighting down that surge of positive reinforcement.  It didn't go away just because I wanted it to go away.  But it went away after a few minutes.

If I'd had no label to slap on that huge surge of positive reinforcement—if I'd been a less reflective fellow, flowing more with my passions—then that might have been that.  People who are corrupted by power are not evil mutants.

I wouldn't call it a close call.  I did know immediately what was happening.  I fought it down without much trouble, and could have fought much harder if necessary.  So far as I can tell, the temptation of unchecked power is not anywhere near as insidious as the labyrinthine algorithms of self-deception.  Evolution is not an infinitely powerful deceiving demon.  George Washington refused the temptation of the crown, and he didn't even know about evolutionary psychology.  Perhaps it was enough for him to know a little history, and think of the temptation as a sin.

But it was still a scary thing to experience—this circuit that suddenly woke up and dumped a huge dose of unwanted positive reinforcement into my mental workspace, not when I planned to wield unchecked power, but just when my brain visualized the possibility.

To the extent you manage to fight off this temptation, you do not say:  "Ah, now that I've beaten the temptation of power, I can safely make myself the wise tyrant who wields unchecked power benevolently, for the good of all."  Having successfully fought off the temptation of power, you search for strategies that avoid seizing power.  George Washington's triumph was not how well he ruled, but that he refused the crown—despite all temptation to be horrified at who else might then obtain power.

I am willing to admit of the theoretical possibility that someone could beat the temptation of power and then end up with no ethical choice left, except to grab the crown.  But there would be a large burden of skepticism to overcome.


Part of the sequence Ethical Injunctions

Next post: "Ends Don't Justify Means (Among Humans)"

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