Power and its corruption

The malignant narcissism of a Saddam Hussein is at the extreme of a spectrum of power-induced pathologies.

Keith, in his brilliant post below on dictatorship and malignant narcissism, is surely right to say that no one in a republican system – not even a Nixon – can be quite as crazy as a true dictator, because there’s too much in the environment that he doesn’t control. I would emphasize here the importance of free press in keeping officials sane by confronting them with external reality; a Rick Perry Administration might be able to partially tune that out by relying on Fox News, but that would still be a far cry from a world in which nothing is published that departs from the party line.

Still, the difference is in degree, not in tendency. Acton was right that all power corrupts, though only absolute power corrupts absolutely. Karl Deutsch analyzes this problem in The Nerves of Government. I don’t have the book in front of me, but here’s a fairly close paraphrase of the key paragraph:

Learning means adjusting your ideas to fit the world. Power is the capacity to adjust the world to fit your ideas. So power means the ability not to learn from your mistakes.

Footnote The phenomenon is not new: think of Tiberias, Nero, or Caligula. (The history of European monarchy doesn’t include many such characters: neither Henry VIII nor Louis XIV developed into a Tiberias. Does a formally hereditary system breed fewer monsters? Or was it the relatively limited penetrative capacity of the early modern state, combined with the existence of aristocracies, chartered towns, the Church, and other imperfectly controllable power centers?)

To be stable, a political system needs to develop a mechanism that limits the malignant narcissism of its rulers. A party dictatorship has an advantage over an individual dictatorship in this regard: none of the individuals who constitute the Chinese Politboro has the power to rape women at random. Still, the system as a whole is still likely to be deficient in reality-checking. That’s an argument for placing a cautious bet on India in its competition with China.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

7 thoughts on “Power and its corruption”

  1. I fear that the reason that there were no caligulas in formally hereditary systems is that successors’ legitimacy was based on their predecessors. I’d tend to guess both that malignant narcissism was covered up and that Caligula’s was exaggerated.

    The key evidence is the wildly contradictory case of Augustus as described by Suetonius. When young he was ruthless and, often, sadistic. When older he was a really nice guy. Suetonius listed his sources. Mart Antony was a source on the young Augustus. The old Augustus was described by people who lived under his absolute power or risked being put to death by Tiberius for blaspheming against his godhood.

  2. On European monarchs, explanation B. Ivan the Terrible – there were few institutional constraints on Muscovite absolutism. Pedro the Cruel’s sadism was limited in reach. The Ottoman Empire was an interesting case; at the height of the Sultans’ power the office was not hereditary by primogeniture, and the heir emerged from the large pool of the previous incumbent’s harem children by a brutal sibling competition. Sultans were not allowed to marry and predetermine the outcome. The winner was typically ruthless, but mentally stable.

  3. Tiberius is a bit difficult to fit into a pattern like Uday Hussein. Yes, his cruelties were enormous and he earned the hatred that Romans later felt for him, but Suetonius also says of him that he vetoed all bills for the dedication of temples and priests to his divinity, as well as bills to rename the months of September and October after him and his mother, forbidding that they be called Tiberius and Livius. He declined to allow “Imperator” to be set before his name or “Father of His Country” after it. He hated flatterers and warned senators not to address him as “My Lord and Master.” He was unperturbed by abuse and lampoons directed at him and his family, saying that liberty to speak and think as one pleases is the test of a free country.

    Later, he amused himself by having young couples copulate in front of him, and trained small boys, whom he called his “minnows,” to swim with him and get between his legs to lick and nibble him. When tradition forbade the strangling of virgins, he would see to it that the executioner violated young girls condemned to die in order to keep with tradition.

    So Tiberius displays the full cruel pathology of Uday Hussein, but Suetonius’ account of his character seems to take him out of the “narcissist from early youth” pattern.

  4. I guess it depends on what you mean by “dictator.”

    Dictators in modern societies are obsessed with their popularity, and struggle mightily to keep it high. There was a piece about this a few days ago (in the NYT? WSJ?) about Medvedev and Putin. I remember that Saddam Hussein (who was a sociopath but not IMO a narcissist–although what do I know about these terms?) used popularity-building measures, as well. Ditto likewise Milosevic. And Hugo Chavez. And the Chinese dictatorship.

    In a certain sense, it is impossible to exercise dictatorial power without the consent of the subject of the exercise. There are many ways to obtain this. Naked fear works, but it cannot be universal, because you must ensure the loyalty of your enforcers. So there must be something else: some kind of legitimacy. You could be a god, the head of a powerful large family or tribe, the defender of the true religion, the chief priest of Marx (or more commonly these days, the local nationalism), or whatever. But apart from nationalism, most of these do not work in modern societies. So what’s left?


  5. What the discussion above suggests is that dictatorship is ultimately self-toppling, not so much because power fails or dictators don’t want to do the things that would prop them up and prolong their power, but because at some point they stop getting usable information. Of course the same thing happens for ideologically-bound politicians — the publication of things that contravene their party line should serve as corrective information, but is actually remolded to fit their world view. (Think of the teahadis who assume that anything published in certain mainstream outlets is wrong by definition, or who abandon policy proposals they previously supported, just because centrist democrats offer to accept them.)

  6. “Think of the teahadis who assume that anything published in certain mainstream outlets is wrong by definition”
    This is a bit off topic, but I wanted to comment on this insight.

    What’s weird about this dynamic, which could also be said of a lot of conservative distrust of the “mainstream media” more broadly, is that it sets up a terribly circular kind of cognition. What gets published is assumed to be wrong, and thus exists as a sort of evidence of the truth of one’s own position. In fact, the more reporting the media does, the more research, evidence, etc. it presents, the more evidence of its own falsity.

    This is a classic hallmark of denialism. One or more established channels of authority are denied legitimacy, paving the way for essentially any suitably convenient counter-narrative. Another troublesome area of authority increasingly distrusted by conservatives is academia. And with academia and journalism largely slain, or at least hobbled to the point where their legitimacy is deemed unreliable enough to dismiss at whim, reality itself becomes enormously subjective.

    Interestingly, this bears striking resemblance to moral relativism, a traditional critique of the left by the right. Yet where moral relativism is about denying all external moral authority, here we have a denial of external factual authority. Truth and fact is merely what one witnesses with one’s own eyes.

    There is one other difference, however. While moral relativism tends to eschew all external moral authority, this kind of factual relativism, rooted in individual factual authority, is amenable to specific, non-traditional, non-establishment figureheads of factual authority. These would be the strong leader types who through a reinforcement of individual factual understanding, are able to exact an obedience to their own factual authority. The right has an especial fondness for leaders who are able to command their own individual fact universes. Yet their authority does not come from expertise or as representatives of any body of scientific or journalistic research. It largely draws its strength from the degree to which it mirrors the follower’s own preconceptions.

    One of the classic techniques of public speaking and persuasion is to make the audience feel like you “are one of them”. Audiences are routinely praised, never insulted, and information is presented in a non-threatening manner. Yet a special feature of this kind of conservative leadership has to do with individual authority. The common feature among these leaders is that their position demands absolute righteousness and inerrancy. After all, as their authority is almost entirely rooted in their own cognition, in their limitless conviction and assumption of total knowledge, they cannot appear to be susceptible to error or lack of prior knowledge. This would call into question their very authority itself, and – having no outside authority upon which to rely – all authority would be lost.

    So you can see how the circular trap has been set: external factual authority dismissed, individual factual authority remains. Yet rudderless on its own – and no doubt prey to feelings of self-doubt and, likely, alienation, it finds comfort in leadership. But that leadership must also dismiss external authority, and so becomes a sort of super-individual factual authority.

    In many ways, what we are talking about here is populism, defined by the emphasis on the individual, en masse, and away from established authority. A mass of individuals rootless in a sea of distrust naturally seeks coherence and support. To the extent that liberalism embraces traditional factual authority (journalism, academia), it will have nothing to offer an individual intent on limiting his factual authority to his own personal experience. To the extent that conservatism dismisses traditional factual authority, it will find great success in offering leaders who remain fact-independent, tethered to the realities as experienced by the anecdotal experiences of individuals, their factual authority based in what their audiences already believe.

    People often claim to love Sarah Palin because her opponents hate her so. What they are really saying is that in her opponents hatred of her, they see a hatred of themselves. She is merely a projection of themselves after all. She is a political figure, concerned with political ideas, but at the same time a representation, an embodiment of her followers’ own factual authority. So while her opponents may attack her ideas, and even her claim of factual authority itself, her followers feel as though they are being attacked, as well as their claim to factual authority.

    This sense of persecution has been long felt by the right. Never more so it would seem than today, when distrust of the media and academia seems to have reached an all-time high, reinforced no doubt by the rise of FOX news as a network devoted to presenting the individual-as-factual-authority, as well as an increasingly fragmented internet media that takes factual relativism to new extremes. Yet journalism and academia are nothing without factual authority. Their mere existence actually presents a sustained threat the the notion of individual factual authority. In some sense, they do represent a kind of persecution, in the sense that their authority represents the persecution of ignorance and individual bias and anecdote, the persecution of subjectivity.

  7. Eli: I think that what you’re talking about isn’t really a populism — there are certainly established authorities in the teahadi world, they’re just not authorities that you or I or anyone else in the fact-based fraction would think of as appropriate authorities. In fact, one of the hallmarks of successful authoritarianism is its success at getting people to deny or radically reinterpret their lived experience to bring it in conformity with the decrees of authority.

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