Why power seems to corrupt

Lord Acton is best known for this quote:

Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.

Lord Acton

I don’t believe power corrupts. I believe corrupt people seek power. That is why the powerful are also bad. Power appears to corrupt because powerful people feel safe to show what they really are. That being said there is a built-in bias in the human animal towards using power to make people miserable instead of happy.

It was a mystery to me why powerful dictators treat their own people so badly and they almost always do. Powerful people are not after the physical pleasures. Too much time spent on the physical pleasures is dissipating. It makes it harder to maintain power. Powerful people become powerful so they can have the emotional pleasure of status.

Lord Acton lived before scientists learned about human nature by studying animal nature. We know now how important status is to animals. Status means feeding and breeding. Breeding is the animal equivalent of eternal life, no breeding is animal hell. For humans, status does not equal eternal life. Our giant, rational, human brains tell us that. Status is not heaven. However, we are still tied to our dopaminergic system. Status feels good, very good.

Powerful people already have the status of their position. They don’t need to treat people badly to feel even better. Or do they?

Something everyone knows is that the strong person can treat the weaker person worse than the weaker is allowed to treat the stronger. It is why the weaker person in a partnership is called the ‘sidekick’. It is because the powerful person can, and often does, kick the weaker one. For this reason all of us are biased towards treating people badly as a way to increase our status.

That is why powerful people treat the people around them badly. It re-enforces their status so it feels good. If you treat someone well you are their servant. If you treat them badly they are your servant. A person of high position who devotes himself to the betterment of people below them doesn’t get to feel like a person of high position. They feel like the servant, a person of low position.

That is why dictators impoverish their countries building armies. It is not just so they can increase their status by conquering other countries. They all do that when they can. Even when they don’t conquer other countries the more they can get away with abusing their own people the higher their status. In his own mind, the Kim who is ruling North Korea has the highest status of any dictator in the world. That is why dictators treat their own people as if it have been conquered. They have been.

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