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Corrupt Power Uses Deception: Could this be its Weakness?

Warren Kinston 9. March 2014 10:00

How could we ever do anything without power? Power empowers: yet we know power is a problem. Social interaction is the human condition—and it cannot possibly be improved without exercising power.

The problem is that it is now a universally recognised truism that power corrupts. Why? Read on for a taxonomic answer! But first let's explore some issues.

Recent academic research suggests that power heightens pre-existing ethical tendencies. But this sort of study actually avoids the power issue. It confuses «having power» with «exerting power».  Power in the political or social sense is not just being powerful or having authority, but using it on others. More specifically: “using it to get someone to do what they otherwise would not do”— the late Prof Robert Dahl’s definition as taught to recent generations of political scientists.

So the issue is not how people use positions of authority: they may be compassionate, generous, helpful, thoughtful and all the rest and everyone will admire them. But what happens on that day when someone disagrees with them. How do they use their “ability to get that person to do what they otherwise would not do”?

Those in positions of power are not there by accident, but because they actively seek power. Some climbed the greasy pole precisely in order to be able to dominate, push people about, tell them what to do, decide what is best for all, and punish those who rebel. Doug Casey views most politicians as inherently sociopathic with little compunction about abusing their position. If that is so, then we are no better, as we are all complicit in tolerating this state of affairs.

Most of us desire to be left alone to get on with our lives. But, as Moreell observes: what politician tries to “«do good» for the people by just leaving them alone?”  Few of us are out-and-out libertarians, so we accept coercion is needed. But you might well agree that coercion should be focused on others and designed to make our own lives easier. By and large we want to coerce government to serve our interests. Power has corrupted all of us: not just politicians. We just prefer to let government do the coercion on our behalf. But, fortunately or unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. In society, we are largely innocent of societal power: only the big boys—banks, multinationals, unions—can get government to do their bidding.

The taxonomic perspective is interesting. Looking at the THEE framework of endeavour, Dahl's definition of power above shows it operating unambiguously on the two highest transcendental levels: willingness-L7 and purpose-L6. When a person does not want to do something and has to, then their willingness is being overridden. And, of course, whatever they want to do is their purpose, and so their purpose is also being overridden.

However, there is a third transcendental level intrinsic to power: communication-L5. Those wielding power give this much attention. After all, in order to coerce effectively, others must listen and support or comply. The power-driven person insists on being right, often explaining persuasively with the aid of lies, or claims to secret or esoteric intelligence. They may tap into fears of the listener, use cynical promises, censor alternative views, distort and discredit others or all of the above.

Recent taxonomic research on this website suggests that our willingness relates to a biological «instinct for transcendence», and our purpose relates to a biological «instinct for goodness».  So the exertion of power involves trampling on transcendence and goodness. Not perhaps. Not good guys excepted. But in each and every case for all of us as a matter of course.

And that may be why power corrupts.  

Every time you trample on someone else’s better self, you trample on your own. As your own better self gets damaged, your integrity slips. Done repeatedly, you slowly move from the category of a person with human frailties to a corrupt power-monger.

Eliezer Yudkowsky proposes that when well-intentioned revolutionaries obtain power, they find that it is sweet, and then, under biological imperatives, they go on to become just like the evil tyrants that they replaced. This may well have a genetic basis but, as he explains, it is not a biological imperative, just a biological tendency. What we might call a temptation. When George Washington refused to continue being President, the political leaders of the so-called civilized world looked aghast. How could a political leader willingly give up power?  

Actually, it’s easy, with a little bit of self-awareness added to a modicum of a wish to create a better world. This set of frameworks seems to indicate that Abraham Lincoln was right when he said: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

In casting about for a solution, I wondered if my recent speculations about reality and truth might point the way. We use our power when we act autonomously to achieve something for ourselves or others. In doing this we all naturally define reality in a way that serves our own ends. Those with power necessarily do exactly this. Remember the famous reality-distortion field attributed to Steve Jobs!

In the case of politicians, what they say is not necessarily in the service of the public good. Lenin explained that politicians need only repeat their lies continuously for them to become truth, and Hitler helpfully advised that the big lie is most effective. We need compassion: their temptation is so great.

Do you think that if we could grasp the use of propaganda by those in power, we might become stronger? If we could see the necessity for and yet relativity of our own personal truth, we might become humbler? If we could see the conformist tendencies in society in which everyone herds around a conventional truth, we might become more independent? And if we could see that power-mongers manipulate us using deceptions, we might be able to stand up to them?

I notice just one difficulty. This approach doesn't deal with the success of a political leader's appeals to our baser instincts. That touches on our own tendencies to self-deception. 

So there must be a two-step solution to corrupt power. Step 1: deal with the deceptions, distortions and manipulations of those in power and get some personal balance. Then, not too long afterwards, Step 2: apply what has been learned to ourselves and reduce our own illusions and self-deceptions.

Is there any other way?

WK


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Warren Kinston is the creator of the THEE-Online website as an open forum for the further discovery and development of THEE. He writes this blog as an escape valve for the excitement and frustrations of the work. More info here.

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