Opinions on the corrupting vs. caring nature of power go back for centuries, far beyond Machiavelli’s The Prince (his conclusion: power corrupts). And it seems that these days, most of us are (healthily?) skeptical of those in positions of power as well, whether they be an overbearingly bureaucratic politician or an blindedly market-driven businessman (or woman, but for the purposes of corruption, it’s still mostly men). It seems like the practice of corruption follows the acquisition of power like the proverbial night following the proverbial day.
“Psychologists refer to this as the paradox of power,” notes Jonah Lehrer in his recent Wired.com article. “The very traits that helped leaders accumulate control in the first place all but disappear once they rise to power. Instead of being polite, honest and outgoing, they become impulsive, reckless and rude.”
Which, while not entirely surprising, is a bit troubling when we consider that it is the powerful who largely define our shared social reality.
“According to psychologists, one of the main problems with authority is that it makes us less sympathetic to the concerns and emotions of others,” continues Lehrer. “For instance, several studies have found that people in positions of authority are more likely to rely on stereotypes and generalizations when judging other people.”
This is bad news for a country (ours, for example) whose (aptly titled) ruling body is increasingly made up of wealthier and wealthier (and so, one would assume, out of touch people, though with respect to the last quote, we will be careful not to generalize) “servants” of the people.
“About half of the members of Congress are millionaires,” Elizabeth Macdonald reports for FoxBusiness.com, “versus an estimated … 5% of US households.”
(Furthermore, cash register ca-ginging, corporate tax evading General Electric and Bank of America lead the market with the most congressional investors. No doubt, just a coincidence.)
And as a slew of colorful graphs and charts at MotherJones.com shows, the bipartisan crew comprising of the 10 wealthiest members of Congress collaboratively hold nearly $3 billion just by themselves (and also, again completely coincidentally, voted to extend the Bush Tax Cuts to our wealthiest citizens).
“The larger lesson is that Foucault had a point,” observes Lehrer. “The dynamics of power can profoundly influence how we think. When we climb the ladder of status [or just inherit the keys to the kingdom], our inner arguments get warped and our natural sympathy for others is vanquished. Instead of fretting about the effects of our actions, we go ahead and act. We deserve what we want.”