Political Column — How Power Corrupts
I have spent many hours over the last couple of decades contemplating Lord Acton’s observation in a letter to a bishop that, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I have read, studied, and observed the idea. Combining that with holding office gives me an interesting perspective to answer the complex question of, “How?”
Government is a mass negotiation through indirect means to incompatible ends. There are times when the government is synonymous with a person. When that occurs, it’s easier to see that corruption in the government comes from a corruption of the person. In a more complex society, such as ours, that same truth is harder to see.
The most obvious problem leading to corruption in power is self-selection bias. Those that want power are not the people you want to have power. And those you want to have power, don’t want it, and don’t try to get it. Thus, the game is usually lost before it is played. Often there is no good candidate vying for the position. The hope is that the history of the people as contained in the culture and written in the laws is strong enough to sustain itself through such times until another good person comes along and answers the call to service. The American system has much of that goodness in it.
Those that want power because they want power are successful far too often. They then use their power for personal advantage in granting favors to friends, enhancing their own wealth through fraudulent means, or by carrying out vendettas against those that they have personal disagreements with. Greed and revenge, those two great drivers of people in all times. Everyone realizes that this is bad, and yet it occurs over and over again.
Others do not take up the call because they don’t want the hassle, they don’t want to disturb their lives, they are afraid of the responsibility and the burden of duty, and standing out from the crowd, and being noticed and scrutinized, they lack the courage of revealing and confronting their own vulnerability, and they lack the long and wide view of value that seeks to help not just themselves, not just their family, not just their friends, but all of society, and not for a day, or a month, or a year, but for generations. These are all heavy and burdensome things to face. To take on such a position you must believe that you can succeed in what would reasonably present itself as an impossible situation. So the reasonable people tend to avoid the task and the challenge.
Large change in self-selection would seem to be an answer, and that’s often how political movements happen, but it’s not so simple. For in a mass movement there is bad removed, but good as well. And with the incoming good, there is also bad. So that change is always change, but it is much more difficult for change to be good, for change to be progress.
All of that is just the problem of self-selection bias. Once power is attained it has a tendency to corrupt as well. Even for the person that has not sought the position for greed and revenge, those temptations still exist. Resentment fueling feuds is encountered every day in complaints to the township, county, and state by neighbors trying to take revenge on each other through the power of the government. The successful overcoming of temptation is such a great and rare human achievement that Jesus’s encounter with Satan and Buddha’s encounter with Mara helped to lay the foundations for two of the world’s great religions. For to overcome human moral frailty is divine.
If the person has the courage and sense of duty to pursue power not for corrupt reasons but for good reasons, and is also able to overcome temptation, there are still more obstacles on the narrow path.
A major part of holding office is taking complaints. They roll in every day, about all sorts of things. Things that are serious, things that are not, things that have to do with the township, things that do not, things that can be changed, things that cannot. Anything that’s different will get pushback by someone. In Dalton Township there are almost 10,000 people. It’s impossible that we will all agree on anything. So, no matter what occurs, someone disagrees, and complains. This gives politicians the motivation to do nothing. Not always a bad thing, but of course people would complain about that as well. The complaints are a constant: death, taxes, and complaints.
This is just a part of the broken feedback mechanism. The people that are satisfied don’t contact an organization that they see as something to stay away from, which is how reasonable people generally see the government, and I find that reasonable as well. So the feedback is highly distorted to favor people that want the government to do something, and is almost non-existent for the people that want the government to not take action. Those people that think some things can be handled without government involvement, don’t contact the government. And when they do they don’t want to get heavily involved for the few years, at least, that it actually takes to change something. So it’s the people that like government that contact the government and get involved in government.
So if you can overcome self-selection bias, and temptation, and the broken feedback mechanisms, with an immense amount of effort over a long period you may be able to achieve a small amount of progress in a positive direction. A small amount because of resistance and because large changes destabilize society and thus are not desirable. And a large amount of effort over a long period because things are complex and the system is meant to be clunky, which is a good feature and not a defect of the system. Those are issues to dive into at another time. You can see with these kinds of prospects why it seems like corruption is always with us; because it is.
Yet there is hope. The most important and most necessary thing needed for positive change is the goodness of the individual. A good society cannot be built from a mound of corrupt souls. Individuals make society, individuals break society, and individuals rebuild society, starting within themselves.