Why Does Absolute Power Corrupt Absolutely?
This is one of those things everybody knows. Why is that guy such a horrible leader? Well, he’s got power, and everybody knows that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Most high school kids have to write essays showing why this is true. Or showing examples of why this is true.
This is so common, it goes without saying. But why, exactly, is this true? Why does power corrupt? In this article, we will learn exactly why from a biological-instinctive level. What you do with that information is up to you.
The Gold Standard And The Green Paper Standard
One of the best examples of giving somebody power and watching that power corrupt their thinking is Alan Greenspan. In case you don’t know who this is, he was chairman if the Federal Reserve from 1987 to 2006. What the heck does the Federal Reserve have to do with anything? The Federal Reserve issues the money in the United States. And the United States currency is the world reserve currency.
Before He Got Power
Before Greenspan was given power, he was a big proponent of the gold standard. (Don’t worry, we aren’t going to go off on conspiracy theories). What is the gold standard? It’s basically a way of keeping the money supply fixed. Or at least it makes it difficult to keep the money supply from expanding. What’s wrong with expanding the money supply?
Before he became chairman of the Fed, Greenspan argued that a gold standard kept governments from spending too much. With the money supply fixed, the government could only spend what they could collect in taxes. This would be like you or me ONLY living on our debit card. We make a certain amount of money each month, and that’s the amount of money we’ve got.
With only a debit card (and not a credit card) we would be FORCED to stick to a budget every month. Similarly restricting the government to a specific budget (which would happen under a strict gold standard) would require serious national conversations about how they money is spent. It would be impossible for governments to spend too much over their budget.
But once Greenspan became Fed chairman, he was like a totally different person. Hypnotized by power, he flipped on the money printing machine. This is something governments LOVE. Why? The more money governments have to spend, the more powerful they are. The easer it is to promise things in exchange for votes. But it also creates the idea that if we want something, the government can just print more money, buy it, and give it to us.
Compared to an individual, this would be like having a credit card with no limit and not minimum payment every month. Who wouldn’t want one of those?
Post Fed Argument
But after Greenspan was no longer Fed Chairman, he seemingly came to his senses. Now he’s talking about how horrible government spending is. How the government debt is going to kill us all. He’s saying more or less the same stuff he said BEFORE he was Fed chairman. However you feel about the gold standard or the national debt isn’t really important. What IS important (at least to this example) is Greenspan had two diametrically OPPOSITE economic philosophies. One when he didn’t have any power, and one when he DID have power.
You’ll never find two more opposite economic viewpoints than the gold-standard vs. fiat currency arguments. This is the equivalent of the paleo diet vs. the all fruit and grain diet. As opposite as you can be. Yet Greenspan held both of them, in the same brain. The only difference was one was when he had power, and he conveniently believed the idea that would give him (and his banker friends) MORE power. Once he had no more power, he went back to his original thinking.
The equivalent would like somebody who goes on and on about how bad credit cards are, until they get a bunch in the mail and quickly run up a ton of debt. Then he declares bankruptcy and goes back to talking about how bad credit cards are (while keeping all his stuff!)
Why Does This Happen?
The fundamental reason is that we humans have a ton of instincts. But these instincts were calibrated during the very long period when we were hunter-gathers. (Read more here). Food is the easiest to understand. Back in the caveman days, it paid to always be very hungry. Getting food was tough and dangerous. Only those that were always starving would be motivated to go hunting every day.
Hunger As Survival Trait
Imagine a tribe of people who didn’t get that hungry. They would only go hunting if it easy. Maybe if they came across a heard of water buffalo they might kill one or two. But otherwise, they were content to lay around in the shade. These humans wouldn’t have survived. If food was more than a day away, they wouldn’t know it until they were too weak to move.
In the ancient caveman days, being more hungry than the food available was a good thing. It not only kept them motivated to go hunting whenever possible, but to eat as much as they could whenever food was present. Think of hunger as like a switch. As soon as you taste food in your mouth, this switches on the “eat all you can” instinct. People with this “eat all you can” switch tended to last longer than those who only ate a couple bites every couple days.
But today? That “eat all you can” switch is responsible for our inability to eat only one potato chip, or one small bowl of ice cream. Because of this “eat all you can” switch, we gorge ourselves when we eat, and forty percent of people in developed countries are obese.
What About Power?
An interesting thing was discovered when they studied chimps for a long time. The higher a chimp’s social status, the more sex he had and the more food he got. Think about that. Chimps that were capable of climbing the social ladder got more sex, which means they had more kids.
Generational Social Status Contests
You can see each generation of chimps as a contest to see who can get the most social status. And since the winner has the majority of the kids of the next generation, this desire to increase social status keeps growing.
Whenever they stick a bunch of humans in a room, and give them an unexpected problem to solve, we always arrange ourselves in hierarchies. It happens quickly and unconsciously. Let’s see if we can put two and two together. Humans split off from chimps six million years ago. Humans always self-organize into hierarchies.
What About Monogamy?
We don’t know much about our mating strategies before the invention of agriculture. But if history is any guide, whenever one male could get a monopoly on the females, he did. In fact, many evolutionary psychologists tell us that the main benefit of getting power is access to females. If you were an ancient king, you could have your men round up all the cute young pre-pubescent girls and keep them separate (and pure) until they were old enough to have babies. Those that were capable of doing that did that.
People that could get power, ended up collecting all the virgins for themselves. For example, 1 out of every 200 men alive today are direct descendants of Genghis Khan. Stated simply, the more power men get, the more girls they get to bang.
You might even say that the prime directive of humans (on a deeply instinctive level) is to get as much social status as we can. Below a certain level, we’ve got to spend a lot of effort to make money and to get sex. But above a certain level of social status, both money and sex are a natural outcome.
But I Don’t Want Power!
Many of us can honestly claim we don’t want any power. We aren’t knocking on doors and asking for votes, or we aren’t busily scheming of ways to take over the boss’ job. But consider that desire for power is like our hunger switch. We all have the experience of “not being hungry” until we see food. Then we eat like it’s our last meal. What if power is like that? We don’t think we want any power, until it lands in our lap. Once it does, it’s all we want.
Power – Hunger
Think of a time when you didn’t think you were hungry. Then you took a bite and suddenly realized how hungry you were. Then you just kept eating and eating. Eventually you will reach a real and biological limit. You will lose your desire to eat. You’ll be full and uncomfortable. Then you may vow to never eat again. But then a couple days go by, and you’ve purposely eaten less food, but the same cycle happens.
How We Feel About Food Fluctuates As We Eat Food
When you are hungry, eating will make you hungrier, until you are too full to move. Then a few hours or a day will pass, and you’ll be hungry again. The instinct to make us eat as much as we can works by making is more hungry whenever food is present. But that only works when we only have food every few days. Today it’s not so helpful. But what about power?
Power Has No Biological Limits
Our desire for power is designed (calibrated back in the days of hunter-gatherers) to be expressed in a tight hierarchy. People we spend our entire lives around. And for those ancient cavemen lucky enough to get to the top of the heap (the alpha men) they couldn’t get any more power. Once you were in charge of a tribe of a few hundred people, that was it.
No Limit To Modern Power
Even in the very early days of agriculture, this presented a huge opportunity for those who were capable of seeking power. Having power over a few hundred people probably felt pretty good. King of your own world. But having power over a few thousand had to have felt fantastic. So fantastic that ancient rulers were considered gods, not people.
Modern Power Unstable
In a tightly controlled hierarchy (like ancient humans and modern chimps) once you’re the alpha, that’s it. There aren’t coups every other week. In an ancient society, everybody had to live with everybody. But once the sizes of society got bigger and bigger, the idea of overthrowing the ruler became real. The power was so enormous (much more than our ancestors ever had) it created a lot of competition.
Power Creates Anxiety
An alpha of an ancient tribe was accepted and respected. Even in chimps, there’s only a little bit of turmoil as the alpha begins to age and weaken. Coups in chimps only happen as the alpha gets old and weak, not while he’s young and powerful. But after the invention of agriculture and large cities, power was never stable. There was always somebody with their eye on the thrown. Powerful chimps and ancient humans didn’t have that anxiety.
No End To Power
Once a chimp or an ancient human was head of the tribe, that was that. It was just a matter of leading his people consistently. But along with large cities came other large cities. Ancient rulers of tribes only had to worry about finding and hunting animals. But once large cities were invented, they were everywhere. This meant that any ruler of any city had the idea that there was always more to conquer. It would be like being hungry, eating, and never being satisfied. The more you eat, the more you want, and you never, ever get full.
Inner Turmoil and Outer Ambition
Once large cities began to pop up, the ruler had to deal with two issues that weren’t present in hunter gather societies, and therefore situations our power instincts don’t know how to deal with. There were always people close to him that he feared would want to kill him and take over. And there were other cities “out there” that he could potentially take over to increase his power.
In our modern world, no level of power is ever secure, and no level of power is ever enough. That ancient ego that says, “get as much hierarchical status as you can” is never satisfied. At the same time, it is always being prompted to seek more power. Like hunger (which only works up to its biological limits) the more power you get, the more power you want.
This is another aspect that is difficult to think about. We humans are very good at deceiving ourselves. This is thought to have been one of the micro-evolutions that popped up after the agricultural revolution. Back in the days of hunter-gatherers, everybody knew everybody. Lying to somebody would never be considered.
Free Loader Problem
But once large societies popped up, people started to deal with strangers. This was the first time people had the opportunity to lie to one another. This is when some believe an “evolutionary arms race” kicked into high gear. First, liars could con people. Sell them a bag of potatoes that was half dirt. The people evolved the ability to spot liars. This wasn’t necessary in hunter gatherer times.
Invention of Self Deception
But the liars out-evolved the lie-detectors. They developed the ability to lie to themselves, so they would believe the lie. Since they believed the lie they were telling (either consciously or unconsciously) the people they were lying to believed it as well.
Do Politicians Know They Are Lying?
Consider that in our modern society, you have to make a lot of promises to a lot of people, over a long period of time, to get any amount of real power. It’s not out of the question that many of our political leaders are either sociopaths, or they have the capacity to believe anything, so long as it gets them more power. You don’t have to look very far to find any modern politicians who flip flops on issues every time the wind changes directions. Do they know they are flip flopping, or do they think they are telling the truth each time?
Different Levels Of Power Require Different Strategies Of Behavior
If you were to be elected mayor of a small town, you’d need a certain collection of skills. If you went up a level and became a mayor of a large city, you’d need another collection of skills. The further up you went, the more skills you’d need. You’d be dealing with other people on a higher level, all of which were in the same situation as you. You have power, you want more power, and you are surrounded by people that have and want more power.
Lower Level Values Are Forgotten
Let’s assume a local politician who starts out in his thirties as mayor of a small town. He is known locally. When he gives speeches, he recognized familiar faces in the audience. He speaks to real people about real problems. But as he rises higher in the power structure level, his strategies to get more power are always shifting. The higher he goes, the more vicious and deadly the “power games” become.
Definition Of Corruption
What is corruption? A change from one’s original state, to become debased. Fraudulent conduct. A lower level politician may start out as honest, but due to the deep instinctive desire for more power, the more power he gets the more power he wants. Higher levels of power mean dealing with similar people who have and want power. The competition among them becomes more and more vicious.
Spectrum Of Power And Reason
Imagine our hypothetical small town politician. As mayor of a small town of a few thousand people, he may have an eighty percent concern for actually helping his constituents, and a twenty percent concern for enjoying and increasing his power. The higher up the power structure he goes, the less he’s concerned with the actual people he has power over, and the more he concerns himself for having power for it’s owns sake.
The Power Tipping Point
Beyond a certain tipping point (we can imagine 50% concern for constituents and 50% for more power) he starts to crave power above all else. Soon his duty to his constituents shifts from his main duty to something he only needs to pretend to do. Soon he has so much power the needs of his constituents are distant memory.
The Point Of Societal Destruction
Consider that for some leaders, in some societies, the drive for power becomes so great the power holder is willing to gain power at the expense of his constituents. When this happens, the destruction of society is not far behind. It’s like a parasite that has grown so large it is going to kill the host.
Record Of Modern Society
Ever since the invention of agriculture, humans have created all kinds of different societies, based on all kinds of different philosophies, governing principles and organizational styles. Every single one of them has failed. Given our understanding of how power corrupts to the point of gaining power at the expense of those over whom the power is held, this seems like an unavoidable outcome.
Not A Happy Ending
Unfortunately, this understanding of modern power, and modern power corruption does not have a happy ending. It seems that due to our mismatch in instincts, this is inevitable for every large human society. Societies are formed, they rise, and due to the corruption of those in power, they fall.
What To Do?
The best response as an individual to this idea is to take as much personal responsibility for your own livelihood and health as you can. While it is very tempting to believe in the promises of those in power, consider that they are false promises, given only to increase their power. Be willing to step back from the hive mind, and take responsibility for as much as you can.
It’s a sad fact that many today feel left behind. They feel they’ve been lied to by those in power, and as result, they are slowly killing themselves by alcohol or drug abuse. Accept the harsh truth that our leaders have lied to us. Accept that no matter what are leaders tell us, they are only telling us those things in an attempt to increase their power.
Hope For The Best – Plan For The Worst
Assume they will fail on all of their promises. Assume it is completely and absolutely up to you to keep yourself and your family healthy and safe.
Mind Persuasion has many courses and books designed to help you maximize your potential and remove yourself from any hive-mind dependency on the false promises of those whose power is corrupted beyond repair.