Does Power Corrupt or are the Corruptible Attracted to Power?

The “Crowded Bookcase” reviews Brian Klaas’s new book Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How it Changes Us. Ryan Boissonneault writes,

It’s a familiar story: A corrupt leader rises to power, is often willingly allowed to do so, and proceeds to leave a trail of destruction in his wake (it’s usually, but not always, a male). We see this time and time again throughout history and across the globe. But we never seem to learn. How can we account for this?

The conventional answer is to blame power itself, as in the proverbial saying “power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But as political scientist Brian Klaas explains in his latest book, Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us, things are not so simple. While power can indeed corrupt, more often bad people are drawn to positions of power in the first place, and pursue these positions within systems that actually encourage bad behavior. To ensure that the right people are placed in power, we have to do more than focus only on individuals; we need to fix the underlying systems that allow them to thrive. As Klaas wrote:

“What if power doesn’t make us better or worse? What if power just attracts certain kinds of people—and those are precisely the ones who shouldn’t be in charge? Maybe those who most want power are the least suited to hold it. Perhaps those who crave power are corruptible.”

Check out Boissoneault’s blog for the rest of the review of the book, and spoiler alert – sortition is mentioned as a possible remedy.

3 Responses

  1. Brian Klaas, Who Gets Power and How it Changes Us: “Some advocates of sortition argue that we should replace elections altogether and instead introduce governance by drawing lots. That proposal has many problems. It would undermine democratic choice. And some political tasks—such as negotiating a nuclear-test-ban treaty—require specific expertise cultivated over a career. But that doesn’t mean that sortition should be discarded altogether. Instead, it should be used to advise elected officials rather than to replace them.”

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  2. While there is certainly some important truth in both the “power corrupts” theory and in the “power attracts corrupt people” theory, I think both theories miss the main story of elections, and of oligarchy in general. (See my post series “Short refutations of common arguments for sortition” for refutations of arguments deriving from both of those theories.)

    Any decision making group naturally and reasonably represents its own values and interests. Thus whenever those in power have values and interests that are unaligned with those of the population at large then it is only natural and reasonable that they will promote policy that is contrary to the values and interests of the population at large. This is called corruption because there is an expectation – reasonable and just expectation – that power would be used to benefit the many and not the few. However, this is not, primarily, a matter of those in power having a certain “corrupt” character (either pre-existing or acquired) but rather simply a reflection of the distinction between those in power and the population.

    Thus, the only way to produce non-corrupt government (in a reliable and long-lasting way) is to have a government whose values and interests are aligned with those of the population, and the way to do that is through sortition.

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  3. It was a very dull review of what looked like a dull book on a very interesting topic. But that’s a quick surmise. I’ll read some more before I make up my mind.

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