Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Brian Klaas, Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us (Scribner, 2021)

It’s a view of human nature that we all accept. It tends to shape how we view our political affairs, our economic institutions, our business practices, and really any realm of human endeavor. It is expressed as an aphorism of only two words: “power corrupts.”

Political Scientist Brian Klaas—a Minnesotan, a contemporary of one of my daughters at a local high school, a graduate of two institutions of higher learning with which I am familiar, and now a professor at the University of London—has set out to examine this idea in light of the question, “Does power corrupt or are corrupt people drawn to power?”

The answer, it seems, is yes—both are true. While Klaas’s analysis focuses on obviously nefarious activities, he includes some aspects of corporate endeavor and business behavior along the same spectrum. His focus is on people who have wielded “enormous power,” be they “cult leaders, war criminals, despots, coup plotters, torturers, mercenaries, generals, propagandists, rebels, corrupt CEOs, [or] convicted criminals.”

His conclusion? “Too many of our current systems disproportionately attract and then sort corruptible people into power. Once there, power changes them—for the worse.” There are, of course, exceptions, but they are usually people, like the Roman patrician Cincinnatus and our own George Washington, each of whom assumed power to do what needed to be done and then quickly relinquished it. Of Cincinnatus, Klaas concludes, “Perhaps it was because he didn’t want power that he was able to wield it justly.”

So, what can we do about this? Systems—like our own government, as originally constructed to consist of three independent branches, or the laws governing the marketplace—need to be designed so as to include checks and balances that ameliorate this tendency. At bottom, “Bad systems spit out bad leaders.”

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