Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Children of Acton

Research supports the notion that power corrupts.

Berkeley students [bold added]
monitored vehicle etiquette at road junctions, kept notes on models and makes. They observed who allowed pedestrians their right of way at street crossings; who pretended not to see them and roared straight past. The results couldn’t have been clearer. Mercedes drivers were a quarter as likely to stop at a crossing and four times more likely to cut in front of another car than drivers of beaten-up Ford Pintos and Dodge Colts. The more luxurious the vehicle, the more entitled its owner felt to violate the laws of the highway.
"Prisoner" and "guard" from the Stanford
Prisoner Experiment (SF Gate, 1971)
The Berkeley traffic study continues a long line of research that confirmed the results of 1971's Stanford Prison Experiment, in which "normal" middle-class males began to behave abusively if they were assigned the role of a prison guard over other subjects who were assigned the role of prisoners. Abuse of power results from the power position itself and is less a character defect of the powerful. Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner:
“Here is what power does to just about every human being. It’s going to make you not pay attention to people as well as you used to pay attention to them. You may find yourself swearing at a colleague or telling them that their work is horseshit [blogger's note: this is a situation where it would be helpful to hear the speaker's tone to tell whether he's speaking with self-awareness]. You will be a little less careful in the language you use. You will be a little less thoughtful about how things look from their perspective. So just practise a little gratitude. Listen empathetically. It shouldn’t be that difficult.”
A few more thoughts:

1) Studies that show contradictory findings---that the wealthy are more charitable, for example---run against the prevailing wisdom and don't get published; similarly, hypotheses that the overwhelming left-wing political leanings of academia bias the results are ignored. In other words the social-science gatekeepers themselves are using their power to quash dissent.

2) If we accept that power corrupts, why does it necessarily follow that a larger State will reduce abuses? Encountering jerks in positions of authority is a fact of life, but it's been my experience that it's much more difficult to get rid of those who are in the public sector, who are often protected by higher-ups and even the law, rather than those who are in the private sector and ultimately vulnerable to market forces.

3) Leaders who head most charitable organizations are always asking, wheedling, cajoling, and thanking---but never telling--their volunteers and donors. (Mega-charities with large payrolls have traditional power relationships.) One also sees these non-authoritative leadership styles in organizations where the talent could easily go elsewhere (e.g., big data analytics, professional basketball, neurosurgery).

Said Publius (James Madison) in Federalist 47: "The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny."

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