It's become cliche to say that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. I disagree. Lord Acton's assertion that power tends to corrupt was why he thought that kings and popes shouldn't be judged differently from other men. But characterizing the effects of power as corrupting is a value judgement, rather than a statement of how having power affects people, and that prevents us from understanding or responding to it properly. After all, corruption means different things to different people.
In a recent paper discussed at ScienceBlog, Scott Wiltermuth, a USC Marshall School of Business assistant professor of management and organization, and co-author Francis Flynn of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, found that providing a sense of power to someone instills a black-and-white sense of right and wrong (especially wrong). Step into a pair of power shoes or slip on a power tie for a moment, and see for yourself.
If you're not just leading a group effort but are also part of it, your relationship to the members of your team is based, at least in part, on the shared experience of performing the work you were tasked with leading. In visceral terms, you're 'in touch' with the realities of the job. Because you're aware of, and sensitive to, the requirements levied on your own time and attention by your responsibility to your family, you are equipped to recognize the importance of those things when a member of your team cites them when juggling competing responsibilities.
But take away that sense of shared effort, and your view of things begins to change. Go up a level or two, and now you're overseeing the efforts of several teams. Instead of participating in the work, you are tasked with coordinating it. To accomplish this, you have to pay more attention to the results of the teams' efforts, and less attention to issues that are not related to the job at hand. Some of the things you might have handled yourself when part of the work team must now be delegated to someone else, and you rely on that person to resolve problems rather than raising them to 'your level'. You must also rely on others to bring you information about how things are going, and what problems lie ahead, rather than ferreting it out for yourself. In order to accomplish your job, you've had to simplify things by boiling them down to the essence.
The further you go from the people actually performing the day-to-day activities on which your success is judged, the more you have to simplify things. To take an extreme case, let's ascend even further up the ladder and say you're a business executive. Those in your social circle are now either in business, in government, or in the business of lobbying government. Money rides on your decisions, perhaps even fortunes, and people's lives are at your disposal. If you need something done, you can hire someone to do it, and fire them if you don't like how it turns out. You've got far more pressing issues to deal with than the piddling details of life. That sort of thing can be delegated to the little people. Your time is valuable, so you don't want to waste it listening to all the whys and wherefores that drive your inferiors into moral quandaries. Instead, what you need to know is the gist of it, in broad strokes. With the issues stripped bare, the choice becomes obvious, and you can immediately see the right course of action, who's in the wrong, and how to punish them.
But there's something else at work here as well. The further you've gone from participating in the labor that generates your increased wealth and power, the more your vision of right and wrong has swung towards protecting that position. Instead of identifying with your fellow workers, you now identify with the organization as a whole. You see threats to the organization as threats to yourself, and you react accordingly.
Getting back to Lord Acton, he went on to write that there is no worse heresy than believing the office sanctifies the holder of it, a heresy that Nixon and Cheney (among others) committed when they asserted that if the president does something, that means it's legal. The fact that presidential legal advisors and even the Department of Justice have provided cover for this assertion with questionable constitutional reasoning only compounds the problem, because any challenges to their assertion are supposed to be made through the courts that they oversee. It's therefore a rigged game.
But that heresy is not limited to those in power. Keep those power shoes on for a while longer. Because you have power over the lives and livelihoods of your inferiors, fear of you is what keeps them in line. That fear causes them to defer to you rather than challenge your authority over them. They might believe that speaking truth to power is the moral thing to do, but acting on that belief would put their jobs and their families at risk. In other words, inducing those you control to commit Lord Acton's heresy is what keeps your position safe.
From your position of power, you necessarily view problems more starkly than the people affected by your choices. That is, after all, how it is possible for you to make the hard choices. Characterizing this as corruption, as Lord Acton did, portrays the result of this simplification with what is essentially an empty term, because corruption just means not being faithful to some assumed ideal. But whose ideal? In the case of a representative democracy, that ideal could be that the person in power is sensitive to the needs of the citizens and acts in their best interests, rather than in his or her own. But exactly what the best interests of the people are, from such a simplified perspective, is open to question, because progressives and conservatives do not agree on what that means. Corruption, like beauty, is therefore in the eye of the beholder.
In this formulation, power simplifies, and absolute power simplifies absolutely.
So how can we use this insight to make sense of our dysfunctional government? We already know that the struggle to frame a debate is a battle over control of the narrative used to filter and explain the facts. This is done by tossing out details that reflect the nuances of reality in favor of an overly simplistic black-and-white portrayal of both sides. We're good; they're evil. We're honest public servants; they're 'corrupt' politicians. But that very need to strip the message to its bones and keep focussing on it betrays the scale of the power chasm experienced by those behind it. As Wiltermuth and Flynn discovered, those who do not feel a sense of power do not have the need to distill their world down to such stark contrasts. Powerless people have more compassion because they see those around them as complex beings, and that presents more ways to relate to them. What we're left with is a disastrous imbalance of power and understanding.
Pay close attention to the messages conveyed by politicians, their parties, and the interests they are allied with, because the amount of subtlety in them is a direct reflection of their sense of power. In gambling terms, it's a tell. Take the dispute over the national debt, for example. I've seen people strip every shred of meaning from this number -- dissociating it from the fact that it includes not only the amounts that Congress has voted to spend on everything in the budget, but also vast amounts not included in the budget, the money owed to people and organizations that hold US bonds, and the interest on money that was borrowed into existence -- and then they rail against the number simply because it is large. People using this argument then equate this mind-numbingly large number to however much your family budget comes to, and insist that the national debt should be handled the same way your household debt is, by cutting back on spending. Because it's a false equivalency, the solution offered is nonsense. But more importantly, because the argument has been stripped of all subtlety and nuance, those who propose it are either operating from a sense of power, or are carrying water for the power brokers.
It has been said that communication is only possible between equals. A declaration of war establishes a belligerent relationship between nations, not between a nation and a corporation, or between a nation and something even less substantial than that. Having a war against poverty, or drugs, or terrorism is a sham, and amounts to nothing more than dressing up a set of policies and activities in a narrative and portraying it as if the enemy were tangible and the conflict could end in victory, truce, or defeat. The same holds true for honest negotiation. That's why you're at a disadvantage when you attempt to negotiate with a professional car dealer. When negotiation is attempted between unequal parties, the powerless party seldom gets satisfaction.
What, then, can we make of the negotiations attempted between the two major political parties in US government? If we judge it based on how they portray the issues, we can see which side tends to operate from the simplified perspective of power on each issue. Where progressives might speak of the 'social safety net', a phrase that reflects a range of issues, for example, conservatives speak of 'entitlements', which discards all of the subtlety into a monolithic, emotionally loaded term. This shows that, on this issue, the conservative message is born from a sense of power over those affected by their actions. How do they compare on other issues, and how do those affiliated with other political parties compare when assessed in this way?
Bottom-up power means more than simply organizing the people who actually create the wealth of the companies they work for, although that is certainly part of it. It also has to do with maintaining a healthy relationship between the multitude and the few who are charged with representing them. For bottom-up power to retain its own essence, the people who represent it when interacting with other sorts of organizations must spend some of their time in the field, doing the work they know best, so they do not 'lose touch' with those they represent. OpEdNews is an example of this, in that any one of us can become the spokesman or woman who becomes one of the faces of the movement, perhaps by shining clarifying light on a murky issue that has dogged us for too long. Rob Kall has shown how this is done, leading by example, and being one voice among many at the site he created.
Power does not corrupt. It simplifies what should not be simplified. And that is the bait in the trap of power.