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Science confirms what the unterbussen already know: Power corrupts

Science Daily:

The research was conducted by Joris Lammers and Diederik A. Stapel of Tilburg University in the Netherlands, and by Adam Galinsky of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. The article will appear in a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science. ...

Through a series of five experiments, the researchers examined the impact of power on moral hypocrisy. For example, in one experiment the "powerful" participants condemned the cheating of others while cheating more themselves.

I'm shocked.

High-power participants also tended to condemn over-reporting of travel expenses. But, when given a chance to cheat on a dice game to win lottery tickets (played alone in the privacy of a cubicle), the powerful people reported winning a higher amount of lottery tickets than did low-power participants.

Three additional experiments further examined the degree to which powerful people accept their own moral transgressions versus those committed by others. In all cases, those assigned to high-power roles showed significant moral hypocrisy by more strictly judging others for speeding, dodging taxes and keeping a stolen bike, while finding it more acceptable to engage in these behaviors themselves.

Galinsky noted that moral hypocrisy has its greatest impact among people who are legitimately powerful. In contrast, a fifth experiment demonstrated that people who don't feel personally entitled to their power are actually harder on themselves than they are on others, which is a phenomenon the researchers dubbed "hypercrisy." The tendency to be harder on the self than on others also characterized the powerless in multiple studies.

"Ultimately, patterns of hypocrisy and hypercrisy perpetuate social inequality. The powerful impose rules and restraints on others while disregarding these restraints for themselves, whereas the powerless collaborate in reproducing social inequality because they don't feel the same entitlement," Galinsky concluded.

The great Yves, who linked to this article, cites to Lord Acton (1887). But surely the more appropriate reference would be to this medidation on power, by James Madison?

But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man [or woman --lambert] must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men [or women] over men [or women], the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

This policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public. We see it particularly displayed in all the subordinate distributions of power, where the constant aim is to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other -- that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights. These inventions of prudence cannot be less requisite in the distribution of the supreme powers of the State.

The federalist system of checks and balances was robust; 200 years, give or take, is a good run on the human time-scale. However, assuming there are historians in 2200, they will write that the revolutionary zeal of the Bush administration crossed the Rubicon; and that the Obama adminstration consolidate the resulting authoritarian gains.

I don't know what the historians will write next; we're living that story now. However, Madison was intimate with absolute power: from below, as a subject of an absolute ruler, the King; from above, as an absolute master, a slaveholder; and through his whole life's course, as one of the founders of a great state. The tragic and horrific story of the left in power in the 20th Century (Lenin; Stalin; Mao) shows that they did no better than King George as absolute rulers, and a good deal worse than Madison as masters and as founders of states. The left in the 21st Century, then, would do well to heed Madison's words. "We" are in the end no less human than "they," and no less subject to the corruption and rot that power must bring (cf. Matthew 16:26).

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