The question of exactly what is “The Corruption of Power” has come up in conjunction with the Mandate of Heaven Courtier Rulership School for Legend of the Five Rings. A quick check on Google reveals that the term is widely used and – presumably – understood, although, like most common phrases, it is rarely defined in precise terms. It is, however, generally taken as a series of undesirable, and more or less predictable, behavioral changes which commonly occur in individuals who come into long-term positions of power.
The notion that power breeds corruption was old when Caligula ruled Rome – and, like most very old ideas, the underlying observation has some merit, although the classical interpretation may or may not. While those who are unstable, obnoxious, or severely flawed, tend to misuse power in obnoxious and eccentric ways – and rarely improve with time – quite a few apparently well-meaning, idealistic, and presumably stable individuals become more and more obnoxious over time.
Is this just a consequence of power allowing hidden flaws to manifest? This is very likely true in some cases – many people who come into power begin to misuse it immediately – but is insufficient to explain the gradual progression observed in many other cases. Furthermore, symptoms commonly continue after an individual is removed from power, although they may gradually recover. The notion of a simple triggering condition is not sufficient in more complex cases, ergo, one or more internal adaptive, feedback, or gradual-failure effects must be involved.
To locate that effect or effects, we’ll have to start with the symptoms:
There seem to be three underlying elements of The Corruption of Power:
1) Infallibility Syndrome. The belief that the your decisions and plans – however hasty, ill-considered, driven by personal desires and motivations, or influenced by extraneous factors or lack of information – are invariably the best ones possible. In really extreme cases this may become the belief that – since your decisions are “obviously-to-everyone” the best possible for everyone – opponents (however well-meaning, innocent, or rational they may appear to be) are making themselves traitors to humanity for some bizarre personal reason or insanity, and deserve nothing less than immediate execution. Any undeniable failures can only be the result of active sabotage by traitors, natural disaster, or supernatural interference – hence the proper course of action is to take measures against such interference and try the same plan again. In less extreme cases, this usually leads to a tendency to discount the human, resource, and monetary costs of executing your decisions. After all, since your plans are “obviously” the best possible for everyone, such costs will “obviously” be even higher if any other decision is made. Even in mild cases it often leads to decisions that any unafflicted individual can see are counterproductive, such as displays of conspicuous consumption in the midst of famine or economic depression to “keep everyone’s spirits up”.
2) Entitlement Syndrome. Any position of power comes with perks – whether those are financial, sexual (a study of reproductive success as a function of power-positions through history is quite revealing – and shows why men tend to be more attracted to power-positions than women: the genetic benefits for them are considerably greater), physical, legal, or social. Those in positions of power tend to arrange for themselves to be extremely well-paid (whether in monetary terms or in goods and services), to get the best of personal care, to be respected by many (and insulated from those who don’t respect them), and for the suppression of their opponents. They also tend to push constantly for the extension of those privileges, and soon come to see them as things they are personally entitled to rather than as special allowances for their position – or things that they were lucky enough to get away with. Shortly thereafter, they come to see anyone who opposes the extension of those privileges, benefits, and perks as a criminal who is attempting to “steal” those items from them – and thereby deserves severe punishment.
3) Privileged Position Syndrome: The rules don’t apply to you. In fact, you are above consequences of all kinds and may do as you please, indulge your every desire, and eliminate your enemies on a whim. The populace will bow to your will rather than forming raging mobs, assassins cannot touch you, the law does not apply, god meant for you to have this position, no one can possibly defeat you, etc, etc, etc… Mild cases may simply expect everyone to overlook minor indiscretions, such as lovers, undue pomp and ceremony, excessive personal spending, and similar behavior. In fact, mild cases are often aided and abetted by other powerful individuals and even by the population at large – after all, such minor failures are only to be expected, and who wants to tarnish the image of a great man or woman? The kids need role models.
And that stage is harmless enough. It may – for reasons discussed below – even be beneficial later on.
Things get worse when you start taking bribes, jailing opponents on trumped-up charges, having troublesome witnesses eliminated, deploying your private army of thugs to squash your opposition, kidnaping scores of adolescent girls for your harem, forcing your religious beliefs on everyone else, enslaving nations, or massacring populations – all, unfortunately, popular pastimes for powerful individuals throughout history.
So what causes these syndromes?
Well, they’re all progressive behavioral aberrations which proceed either to some limit or – in at least some cases – to the point of complete dysfunction. In behavior – and in living organisms in general – that’s a characteristic feature of an unbalanced feedback loop. So what feedback loops might lead to these outcomes?
Human beings – and, I suspect, almost all sentient lifeforms – come up with various ideas and plans and then evaluate them – comparing them with their memories of the results of previous plans. That serves to remind them of factors they tend to forget, of how often their unmodified plans are successful – and thus how much additional thought and consultation should go into them – of which advisors suggestions worked out best, and whether or not their assumptions are good ones.
People do like to hear good news though – and when you’re in a position of power, you can reward those who bring you good news. Bad news is never welcome. Competent subordinates tend to take it as a part of their jobs to compensate for, and correct, weaknesses in their bosses plans. Incompetent ones quietly cover up failures for fear of losing their jobs or otherwise being punished – or lay the blame for failures on external forces. The normal tendency for individuals in positions of power is to hear that their plans – no matter how ill-conceived – were either great successes or were foiled by external interference or “acts of god”. As the “success” tally builds, it becomes – quite rationally in many ways – more and more natural for them to assume that their unconsidered plans and ideas are inerrant and without flaw.
So why doesn’t every long-term ruler succumb to a full-blown case of Infallibility Syndrome? Well, there are several possible compensating factors. Some have a long record of personal failure and self-doubt – making them far more welcoming of negative feedback and possibly even wanting and expecting it. Others are simply so introspective that they constantly find flaws in their own ideas and plans and remember doing so – leading them to evaluate their ideas on the grounds that “the last fifteen plans I came up with were no good, so chances are that this one is no good too – even if I can’t see why just yet”. Still others take great pains to employ temporary foreign advisors – who are less impressed with their positions and have little stake in attempting to cover up their own errors and none at all in extending their jobs. Feedback from old friends, spiritual leaders, and other advisors may work if the powerful individual can avoid the collection of sycophants. Finally, the simple tendency to admit errors and change your mind when you get new information is helpful. It makes it easier for what negative feedback does get through to have an effect.
There are aggravating circumstances as well. Anyone who’s inclined to reason from “principles” or ideology, already believes that they have some sort of “mission”, is inclined to justify “temporary difficulties” in pursuit of the “greater good”, or any similar tendency has already begun detaching their evaluation of plans from their results in favor of conformance to a set of preconceived ideas. In such individuals it doesn’t take much more in the way of unwarranted reports of “success” to achieve complete detachment from reality – and a full-blown case of Infallibility Syndrome.
Secondarily, anyone who prides themselves on decisiveness, dependability, or not changing their mind, is at higher risk: they are already irrationally attached to their first ideas – and it will not take much to convince them that their first idea was another success.
The loop that leads to Entitlement Syndrome is more fundamental. It’s roots lie in elementary biology and early childhood. Elementary biology tells us that living organisms tend to try to secure more and more of the available resources – whatever their nature – for themselves and their progeny. Any species that didn’t was crowded into extinction long ago by the species that did. That basic tendency may be modified by the virtues of cooperation, by intelligent consideration of consequences, and by simple physical limitations – such as only being able to eat so much – but the basic drive to “grab everything you can and hang onto it” still lurks at the instinctual core of every human being. Such a tendency is reinforced in humans – one of the reasons why they’ve pushed themselves into every human-survivable environment on earth (no matter how uncomfortable) and into near-total dominance over the planet – by their extended childhoods. Human children face many years of learning, of pushing their way past parental limitations, of driving to improve their strength and skills, of competition with other children and adolescents, and growth before they can begin their adult lives – and to survive and reproduce they must hang onto their gains and try to match any gains that other children manage. Humans are pretty fiercely competitive and possessive.
You can easily see the loop in small children. Put them to bed at eight, and they are soon agitating for nine. Let them have nine for a few weeks – perhaps as a reward for good behavior or a special privilege – and it becomes a right, switching back to eight becomes a punishment to be resisted as desperately as possible – and the campaign for ten has already been opened.
Under normal circumstances, the restraining factor on this particular loop is simple and obvious: other organisms fight back when you try to shove them aside and take their stuff. No single tactic or individual has the advantage under all circumstances – so things tend to stabilize at some point. Things tend to get a bit out of control when a particular individual wields a great deal of personal or organizational power however. At that point you have to fall back on secondary restraints.
Some people are simply aware enough of their instincts and drives to recognize “enough” – at least at some point (often well past the point when it was actually “enough”) or have trusted advisors who are so blessed to help restrain them. Rather more control themselves intellectually – either by recognizing that pushing everyone else into rebellion will imperil their current privileges or, quite commonly, by modeling their behavior on the reported behavior of some successful figure from the past that they admire – attempting to emulate their success through similar behaviors and restraints. This is why – as noted earlier – the tendency to quietly sweep the flaws of powerful figures under the rug and out of sight may be a net social benefit later on. Still others manage to compensate by embracing the concept of an extended kinship group – consciously or unconsciously extending their drive to optimize conditions and opportunities for their offspring and close genetic relatives to larger groups defined by a common faith, nationality, or – in very rare cases – even species.
Privileged Position Syndrome is really the simplest loop of all: every creature – whether by genetic programming developed over the eons or by conscious awareness – regulates its behavior and tests its limits by going on until it’s satisfied (almost never for most organisms), hits a practical limit, or it becomes painful, exhausting, or otherwise more trouble than it’s worth. Lifting weights? You lift them until you get tired, bored, or start to feel the strain. Determining your drinking capacity? You drink until you’re either too sick to go on or you suddenly wake up with a headache, count the empties, and subtract one. Hiking? When you start getting too tired or your legs or feet hurt more than it’s worth to go on, it’s time to stop. Driving at 60 and doing fine? That speedometer will start to creep towards 70 unless the pain in your wallet overcomes the desire for speed. Angry at your spouse? Small assaults will become full-fledged abuse soon enough unless something is done about them.
If the escalation goes on unchecked, eventually you’ll pull a muscle, ruin your liver, develop blisters, get an expensive speeding ticket/have a serious accident, or get yourself arrested – unless your spotter, Alcoholics Anonymous, orthopedic specialist, old car engine, or marriage counselor intervenes first.
Power, like wealth, has a tendency to insulate the possessor from the consequences of many of their actions. There may be bodyguards to keep upset people from hitting you, spare cash to pay people or fines, lawyers to fend off lawsuits, a staff to clean up after you, or a corps of assassins ready to eliminate accusers. The wealthy and powerful find – like celebrities – that they have close friends that they’ve never met ready and willing to help them out.
Restraining factors here are equally simple: some people are simply clever – and thoughtful – enough to recognize the limits of the protection their power or wealth offers and refrain from passing them. Others place their trust in less privileged advisors, model their behavior – and its limitations – on some successful past example, or adhere to a set of principles which they believe will lead to lifelong success.
Unfortunately, you never quite know whether any of those limits apply – or at what point they’re going to kick in – until someone actually obtains a major position of power, by which time it’s far too late for second-guessing if they happen to be inclined to go in for indulging their appetites, whims, or aggression without restraint.
As might be expected, those who reason from evidence and observation, focusing on expediency rather than principles, tend to be more vulnerable to this particular feedback loop than those who base their decisions on more abstract principles.
What’s the point of all this analysis? Well, it’s an interesting topic – and, in terms of this blog, it’s a useful set of considerations when you’re creating a background for your game setting. Is the local ruler relying on foreign advisors? Do they have agendas of their own? What is restraining the local overlord? How will he or she react to a group of adventurers who defy him or her?
When you’ve got a set of principles to work with, you can usually get along with a few notes – or even improvise credibly on the fly.
Could I have missed something or be entirely wrong? Of course I could! I am in no way infallible – although I suspect that I am considerably more inclined to detailed analysis than most. That belief could, obviously, be a symptom of my own Intellectual Arrogance – another feedback driven syndrome related to the Corruption of Power, but one often held in check if the victim is willing to debate and defend his or her views (especially in writing, where they can be picked apart at leisure). Personally, if you see something I’ve missed – or feel that one of my arguments or deductions is seriously in error – go ahead and leave a comment. Who knows? I may have to revise this entire essay.