This image was certainly in my mind recently after reading an excellent article in the latest issue of 1843 (if, like me, you were subscribed to Intelligent Life, this is its reincarnation). Under the title “Does Power Really Corrupt?”, Radio 3 presenter Matthew Sweet explored the notion of power and its causes.
There was much I agreed with in Matthew’s column. People who feel powerful are less likely to be empathetic; they cheat more in games and are driven more by individualistic self-interest than collective-friendly attitudes.
Unsurprisingly, this is not a view that is shared by the 1%. For one it tilts the balance in favour of the poor. They are more giving and share more apparently. This means that the traditional scapegoat, those pesky, inferior working-class folk, cannot really be blamed for society’s ills. After all, they are not the ones scamming the nation of its funds.
What about acts of philanthropy, then? Do they not count for anything? Millionaires making donations to museums and arts centres or well-off politicians getting behind a worthwhile cause might turn this “power = nastiness” theory on its head.
Matthew expands on this. There have been two significant, ground-breaking experiments in social psychology and he refers to both. The first one gave substance to the notion of power as an isolationist and quasi-misanthropic phenomenon. The second one is more recent and it has met strong opposition. It postulates that in reality powerful people are bound to be more generous than those less well-off. They are more likely to donate to charity and to do voluntary work. Opposition to the latter study came mainly from people in the other camp, the one that dictates that the powerful are corrupt to the core. As usual, the presence of small “p” politics can be felt heavily throughout the debate.
|Who are you calling corrupt?|
Without having read the full results of both studies and going only by Matthew’s article, I am of the opinion that power does have a built-in corruption problem. It is almost as if it had a button which you can choose to press or not. The way to deal with this – in my view, destructive – presence is by erecting a strong wall around it. Let us call it the accountability wall. For power to triumph the institutions that hold it to account (our judiciary, the police, parliament, to mention three) must be in cahoots with it. This happens, we all know that, but my point is that it needn’t happen. Charity is not a replacement for taxation, nor should it be seen as mitigation for tax evasion. Philanthropy is an individual choice not a way to run a country’s economy.
As I wrote before, I agreed with most of what Matthew Sweet had to say. However, in my opinion, power is not necessarily always money-related. Yes, a lot of rich people behave despicably (many of them are men, so there is also a gender issue here) but so do a lot of working-class folk. The first example Matthew uses, the near-miss experience of Professor Dacher Keltner’s (the author of one of the studies) whilst commuting to work on his bicycle is a case in point. I am, sadly, exposed to the same scenario almost every day on my two-wheeler. But it is not just a black Mercedes that barrels through a right of way at an intersection and puts my life in danger, but also a white van, a Ford Fiesta or a lorry. The toff, the hedge fund manager and the plumber are indistinguishable when it comes to imposing themselves on the road.
This is one of the reasons why it is difficult to hold power to account. We tend to look at demographics and ignore individual patterns (although as I remarked earlier, those who enjoy displaying power to the max happen to be mainly men). Consciously or unconsciously, the students deployed by Professor Keltner on the traffic islands of Berkely were looking to match the drivers behaving selfishly on the road to the one behind the wheel of the Mercedes that almost killed their teacher. In so doing they might (I am speculating here) have “forgiven” slight misdemeanours committed by drivers of little, old bangers. Unfortunately, power does not work like this. Wherever you go, from the US to Russia, from Cuba to Germany, if you let absolute power grow unchallenged you will have an uphill struggle in your hands to rein that beast back in.
This is not to let rich, powerful people off the hook. The wealthier someone is, the more distant they will feel from hoi polloi. At some point our commonly shared rules of social etiquette stop applying and the individual makes up their own ones. The 1% does live in a different world to ours. The solution, in my view, is more accountability, better judiciary, a more effective police force and a corruption-free government. Perhaps the side effects will be more empathy and gratitude. Worth fighting for, I say.
Next Post: “Living in a Multilingual World”, to be published on Wednesday 15th June at 6pm (GMT)