Archives for posts with tag: Lord Acton

“All power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely” Lord Acton.

“If the benevolent ruler stays in power long enough, he eventually concludes that power and wisdom are the same thing. And as he possesses power, he must also possess wisdom. He becomes converted to the seductive thesis that election to public office endows the official with both power and wisdom. At this point, he begins to lose his ability to distinguish between what is morally right and what is politically expedient.”

Ben Moreell, Power Corrupts, 2010

“All governments suffer a recurring problem: Power attracts pathological personalities. It is not that power corrupts but that it is magnetic to the corruptible.”

Frank Herbert, Chapterhouse: Dune

According to Lord Acton, given enough time, even the most benevolent ruler will, if his opinions go unchallenged, ‘loose his bearings’.
According to Herbert, we’re in an even worse situation. Chances are very slim for a benevolent ruler to even become powerful enough to make a difference… before being overwhelmed by corruption…

Then how come we survived for so long? For so much time?

First of all, until recently, no ruler – regardless of how corrupt/inept or even how powerful, had no means to inflict more than a passing wound to ‘humanhood’. During the last five centuries, things have changed a bit… And no, this is not exclusively about the nuclear button. Cortez, Pizzaro, the African slave traders, Hitler, Stalin and those who had produced the 2008 financial melt down hadn’t used very sophisticated tools…
Secondly, I’m not sure there are nearly enough really bad characters to explain all the man made evil in the world.

Then how could we explain what’s going on?

“If the benevolent ruler stays in power long enough, he eventually concludes that power and wisdom are the same thing. And as he possesses power, he must also possess wisdom.”

But does this happen?
The ruler slowly convinces himself or the whole thing is a consequence of the contemporary mantra?
That being elected to office means having beaten your opponents! As if politics were a sort of generalized fighting, not a cooperative effort of the entire community…
Which would, indeed, lead any rational agent to the conclusion that the longer somebody survives in a powerful position, the more ‘right’ he must be…

Then what would be easier to change?
The rational conclusion of those who survive in powerful positions or our current misapprehension about what politics should be?


As in mob rule?

A British historian that went by the name of Lord Acton observed more than a hundred years ago that
“All power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Judging by what historians keep writing and the politicians keep ignoring this observation tends to be pertinent.
Click on the highlighted quote to see some of his arguments in Ben Morrell’s interpretation.

Somewhat unhappy with this vision, a sci fi writer, Frank Herbert, contradicted the historian:
“Power attracts pathological personalities. It is not that power corrupts but that it is magnetic to the corruptible. Such people have a tendency to become drunk on violence, a condition to which they are quickly addicted.”

In fact it’s more like a completion than a contradiction but I’ll have to leave it at that because both are dead now and way past such mundane preoccupations.

Recently, things having not been properly set yet, a team of Swiss scientists lead by John Antonakis decided to sink their teeth in the matter. They gathered a group of people, ‘measured’ all sides of their personalities – including their honesty – and then involved them in a game of ‘lets play dictator’.
“The findings showed that those who measured as less honest exhibited more corrupt behaviour, at least initially; however, over time, even those who initially scored high on honesty were not shielded from the corruptive effects of power.”

OK, so Acton was right altogether, ‘power’ does corrupt. The problem is that Antonakis never tried to verify Herbert’s hypothesis. If he was right then the honest people stand no chance at becoming powerful enough to become corrupted because the already corruptible are fighting dirty to get on top, something the more honest would not do, at least not from the very beginning. Seen this way the very competition for power selects the people who get on top based on how corruptible they are.

Luckily things are not that simple. Really smart guys, no matter how corruptible, figure it out – sooner rather than later, that by ‘stealing’ too much/misbehaving really bad  they destroy the entire structure upon which their very existence, let alone power, depends.

So how come really bad dictators do come into existence?
From Lenin to Hitler, from Ceausescu to Pol Pot and nowadays from Putin to al-Baghdadi.

Here Antonakis’ findings fit in perfectly.
Participants “were given complete control over deciding pay-outs to themselves and their followers. The leaders had the choice of making prosocial or antisocial decisions, the latter of which resulted in reduced total pay-outs to the group but increased the leader’s own earnings.”

The key concept here is ‘complete control’. In fact this ‘dictator game’ is no game at all. It’s nothing but a solitaire. It has rules, certainly, but it’s up to the ‘player’ himself to decide whether to respect them or not. If the rest of the people concerned – those who suffer the consequences of the ‘game’, have no say in what is going on then they don’t count. And are not able to help, either. The final outcome will depend exclusively on the honesty of the ‘player’. And we haven’t, as yet, made any mention about skills…

Besides the very important insight Antonakis also offers us a valuable piece of advice:
” “We think that strong governance mechanisms and strong institutions are the key to keeping leaders in check,” concludes Antonakis. “Organisations should limit how much leaders can drink from the seductive chalice of power.” “

It’s a very good starting point. Add to it a renewed insistence on initial honesty – it helps, just as the study showed, coupled with intense surveillance and continuous feed back from the stakeholders and things might improve dramatically.

After all ‘governance mechanisms’, ‘strong institutions’ and ‘organizations’ are nothing but words. Powerful and meaningful words indeed but ‘words’ cannot do anything by themselves. They have first to be pronounced by pertinent persons and then diligently put into practice.

And this would mean that ‘power’ won’t belong to anyone in particular, not even to ‘the people’.

Keep tuned for the difference between real democracy and ‘mob rule’.

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