Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Power Corrupts

. Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Last week I pointed to Yglesias not understanding basic public choice theory. Apparently several other people also noticed and responded with lessons on... basic public choice theory. Yglesias didn't like that, says he understands public choice theory but doesn't understand the psychology of corrupt politicians, and then says this:

If some weird situation somehow resulted in me becoming a United States Senator, I would spend six years making trouble, having fun, and trying to do the right thing. Probably I’d lose a primary or something since I wasn’t bothering to raise money or campaign. Then I’d right a book about it.

I think it’d be a blast. And I think that’d also be the totally intuitive way to handle the situation. Obviously that’s also why I never will be a powerful politician. Instead, we’re fated to be ruled by the sort of people who are really desperate to cling to power. But it still strikes me as a very odd mentality.


Why is it odd, or hard to understand? Power is a form of status, just like money, fame, reputation, consumption, intelligence, etc. People go to extreme lengths and sacrifice much to gain those things, so why shouldn't they also do it for power? Indeed, as the infamous Stanford prison experiment showed, power is something that transforms many people, not just a rare few, and not just the ones who actively seek it. And one way of signaling power is flaunt it, or even abuse it with impunity.

Of course many people are not primarily motivated by power and instead pursue the quiet life, or lots of time with family, or an easy schedule, or high income, or privacy, or flexibility, or ethics, or whatever else. But there's no reason to think that if they suddenly got a bunch of power through some "weird situation" they wouldn't abuse it or try to keep it. In short, I think Yglesias is giving himself too much credit here: if he actually did become a senator, he might very well find himself raising money and campaigning for a second term, and eventually find himself compromising much more than he now thinks he would. (I think Lord Acton wrote something about this once...)

This effect is magnified by self-selection: almost every senator is not granted his seat by "weird situation," but rather by extreme effort and intention. Many of them have oriented their entire lives to reaching that pinnacle, have compromised much along the way, and will sacrifice almost anything to stay there. In short, what motivates corrupt senators is the same thing that motivates doping athletes.

Wilkinson picked up on some of this too, and took Yglesias' logic to its end:

So I agree with Matt that politicians are probably odd, and in a bad way. But then I wonder what Matt takes the general lesson of that to be. Maybe if I thought about it longer, I could imagine a story in which this doesn’t tend to imply skepticism about the efficiency and justice of a system in which politicians are given a great deal of discretion to shape individual and public life, but I can’t think of one right now. So I’m curious what Matt takes to be the broader implications of the idea that “we’re fated to be ruled by the sort of people who are really desperate to cling to power.”


Where else could you go with it? The only alternative that I can see is that you believe that other elites in society are even more corrupt, so you'd prefer the corruption of the politician to the corruption of the corporation.

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Power Corrupts
 
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