“Leadership by Wimps”

18:48 Fri 22 Jan 2010
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I was loving this article from The Economist until the final paragraph, and specifically the final line.

The article reports on a series of psychological experiments which strongly support the idea that power corrupts. The interesting wrinkle is that some people are corrupted less—and these are apparently the people who don’t feel deserving of their powerful position.

To veer away from the article a little, the fact that we have fairly solid proof that power corrupts should lead to conclusions which I suspect are unlikely to be acted upon. Essentially, with scientific proof that those in positions of power have enhanced senses of entitlement and believe themselves unfettered by the petty constraints the little people should labor under, we should change our systems of governance and social organization.

The article makes it very plain that putting people into positions of power leads to abuse. Accountability and watchfulness are clear paths to mitigating this, but so is another: diminishing the gaps in power, which is to say, diminishing power itself. With less power, there’s less room for corruption and less room for that corruption to do harm.

Yes, as an anarchist I would say that, but that doesn’t stop it from being true.

The article itself points to one of the reason why we’re not that likely to see this happen merely because we have proof that it needs to: the last paragraph hypothesizes that the people who feel that they don’t deserve power (and are less hypocritical) feel this way because they’re following submissive primate behavior patterns and attempting to avoid arousing the ire of the “truly” powerful. There’s not much substantiation for this, but it’s not that important even if it were true—it’s still a behavior that’s clearly better for society as a whole to encourage in its rulers.

But The Economist, in what I think is a telling remark that displays its support for the status quo, quashes any thoughts you might be having about needing to reorganize society based on these findings:

Perhaps the lesson, then, is that corruption and hypocrisy are the price that societies pay for being led by alpha males (and, in some cases, alpha females). The alternative, though cleaner, is leadership by wimps.

And wouldn’t that be awful? They might be more moral, less hypocritical, more concerned about other people, more likely to do the right thing for society as a whole, and less corrupt—but hey, we can’t have them “ruling” us if they’re wimps!

This from The Economist, long a campaigner against what it regards as corruption, and long an advocate for the wonders of the free market if only that free market were run properly and cleanly. To be true to those drives, it should be pushing for the results of this study to be made into policy, as that would undoubtedly be a major step to cleaner government, and hence to cleaner markets. Instead, it raises the awful specter that less corrupt leaders would be “weak”. Presumably ineffectual as a result, but maybe that’s not even important.

This argument, the argument for “strong” leaders, is of course extremely familiar, and always takes more or less the same form (elided here by The Economist, because people who read the magazine are presumably well-trained enough to add this part themselves): “strong” leaders are necessary to protect us (those they rule) from “them”. “Them” here can mean either, or both, of the following: external groups (other countries, other tribes, other whatevers); internal groups (the different, the hidden, or just everyone). That’s the same old story, spun for millennia: we have to put up with the rulers because they’re protecting us from what would be much worse without them.

Which is bullshit, of course. The people we need protection from are in fact rare, very rare—and are usually the same kinds of people as the rulers themselves. For an instructive illustration of how true this is, read (again, if necessary) Rebecca Solnit’s “The Uses of Disaster”.

Let me flip it around another way: if you do find yourself in some situation where you need protection from someone threatening you, and a friend of yours is nearby and in a position to help you, you expect their help—and you expect without their extracting concessions from you, particularly concessions that would aid them at your expense. That’s what you expect from your friends—why do you expect so much less from your rulers, yet still think it’s right that they rule you?

One Response to ““Leadership by Wimps””

  1. briang Says:


    A brief summary of a meta-study on how power causes moral hypocrisy. With a link to download the actual study.

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