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Why Does Power Corrupt?

23 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 14 October 2008 12:23AM

Followup toEvolutionary Psychology

"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Great men are almost always bad men."
        —Lord Acton

Call it a just-so story if you must, but as soon as I was introduced to the notion of evolutionary psychology (~1995), it seemed obvious to me why human beings are corrupted by power.  I didn't then know that hunter-gatherer bands tend to be more egalitarian than agricultural tribes—much less likely to have a central tribal-chief boss-figure—and so I thought of it this way:

Humans (particularly human males) have evolved to exploit power and status when they obtain it, for the obvious reason:  If you use your power to take many wives and favor your children with a larger share of the meat, then you will leave more offspring, ceteris paribus.  But you're not going to have much luck becoming tribal chief if you just go around saying, "Put me in charge so that I can take more wives and favor my children."  You could lie about your reasons, but human beings are not perfect deceivers.

So one strategy that an evolution could follow, would be to create a vehicle that reliably tended to start believing that the old power-structure was corrupt, and that the good of the whole tribe required their overthrow...

The young revolutionary's belief is honest.  There will be no betraying catch in his throat, as he explains why the tribe is doomed at the hands of the old and corrupt, unless he is given power to set things right.  Not even subconsciously does he think, "And then, once I obtain power, I will strangely begin to resemble that old corrupt guard, abusing my power to increase my inclusive genetic fitness."

People often think as if "purpose" is an inherent property of things; and so many interpret the message of ev-psych as saying, "You have a subconscious, hidden goal to maximize your fitness."  But individual organisms are adaptation-executers, not fitness-maximizers.  The purpose that the revolutionary should obtain power and abuse it, is not a plan anywhere in his brain; it belongs to evolution, which can just barely be said to have purposes.  It is a fact about many past revolutionaries having successfully taken power, having abused it, and having left many descendants.

When the revolutionary obtains power, he will find that it is sweet, and he will try to hold on to it—perhaps still thinking that this is for the good of the tribe.  He will find that it seems right to take many wives (surely he deserves some reward for his labor) and to help his children (who are more deserving of help than others).  But the young revolutionary has no foreknowledge of this in the beginning, when he sets out to overthrow the awful people who currently rule the tribe—evil mutants whose intentions are obviously much less good than his own.

The circuitry that will respond to power by finding it pleasurable, is already wired into our young revolutionary's brain; but he does not know this.  (It would not help him evolutionarily if he did know it, because then he would not be able to honestly proclaim his good intentions—though it is scarcely necessary for evolution to prevent hunter-gatherers from knowing about evolution, which is one reason we are able to know about it now.)

And so we have the awful cycle of "meet the new boss, same as the old boss".  Youthful idealism rails against their elders' corruption, but oddly enough, the new generation—when it finally succeeds to power—doesn't seem to be all that morally purer.  The original Communist Revolutionaries, I would guess probably a majority of them, really were in it to help the workers; but once they were a ruling Party in charge...

All sorts of random disclaimers can be applied to this thesis:  For example, you could suggest that maybe Stalin's intentions weren't all that good to begin with, and that some politicians do intend to abuse power and really are just lying.  A much more important objection is the need to redescribe this scenario in terms of power structures that actually exist in hunter-gatherer bands, which, as I understand it, have egalitarian pressures (among adult males) to keep any one person from getting too far above others.

But human beings do find power over others sweet, and it's not as if this emotion could have materialized from thin air, without an evolutionary explanation in terms of hunter-gatherer conditions.  If you don't think this is why human beings are corrupted by power—then what's your evolutionary explanation?  On the whole, to me at least, the evolutionary explanation for this phenomenon has the problem of not even seeming profound, because what it explains seems so normal.

The moral of this story, and the reason for going into the evolutionary explanation, is that you shouldn't reason as if people who are corrupted by power are evil mutants, whose mutations you do not share.

Evolution is not an infinitely powerful deceiving demon, and our ancestors evolved under conditions of not knowing about evolutionary psychology.  The tendency to be corrupted by power can be beaten, I think.  The "warp" doesn't seem on the same level of deeply woven insidiousness as, say, confirmation bias.

There was once an occasion where a reporter wrote about me, and did a hatchet job.  It was my first time being reported on, and I was completely blindsided by it.  I'd known that reporters sometimes wrote hatchet jobs, but I'd thought that it would require malice—I hadn't begun to imagine that someone might write a hatchet job just because it was a cliche, an easy way to generate a few column inches.  So I drew upon my own powers of narration, and wrote an autobiographical story on what it felt like to be reported on for the first time—that horrible feeling of violation.  I've never sent that story off anywhere, though it's a fine and short piece of writing as I judge it.

For it occurred to me, while I was writing, that journalism is an example of unchecked power—the reporter gets to present only one side of the story, any way they like, and there's nothing that the reported-on can do about it.  (If you've never been reported on, then take it from me, that's how it is.)  And here I was writing my own story, potentially for publication as traditional journalism, not in an academic forum.  I remember realizing that the standards were tremendously lower than in science.  That you could get away with damn near anything, so long as it made a good story—that this was the standard in journalism.  (If you, having never been reported on yourself, don't believe me that this is the case, then you're as naive as I once was.)

Just that thought—not even the intention, not even wondering whether to do it, but just the thought—that I could present only my side of the story and deliberately make the offending reporter look bad, and that no one would call me on it.  Just that thought triggered this huge surge of positive reinforcement.  This tremendous high, comparable to the high of discovery or the high of altruism.

And I knew right away what I was dealing with.  So I sat there, motionless, fighting down that surge of positive reinforcement.  It didn't go away just because I wanted it to go away.  But it went away after a few minutes.

If I'd had no label to slap on that huge surge of positive reinforcement—if I'd been a less reflective fellow, flowing more with my passions—then that might have been that.  People who are corrupted by power are not evil mutants.

I wouldn't call it a close call.  I did know immediately what was happening.  I fought it down without much trouble, and could have fought much harder if necessary.  So far as I can tell, the temptation of unchecked power is not anywhere near as insidious as the labyrinthine algorithms of self-deception.  Evolution is not an infinitely powerful deceiving demon.  George Washington refused the temptation of the crown, and he didn't even know about evolutionary psychology.  Perhaps it was enough for him to know a little history, and think of the temptation as a sin.

But it was still a scary thing to experience—this circuit that suddenly woke up and dumped a huge dose of unwanted positive reinforcement into my mental workspace, not when I planned to wield unchecked power, but just when my brain visualized the possibility.

To the extent you manage to fight off this temptation, you do not say:  "Ah, now that I've beaten the temptation of power, I can safely make myself the wise tyrant who wields unchecked power benevolently, for the good of all."  Having successfully fought off the temptation of power, you search for strategies that avoid seizing power.  George Washington's triumph was not how well he ruled, but that he refused the crown—despite all temptation to be horrified at who else might then obtain power.

I am willing to admit of the theoretical possibility that someone could beat the temptation of power and then end up with no ethical choice left, except to grab the crown.  But there would be a large burden of skepticism to overcome.

 

Part of the sequence Ethical Injunctions

Next post: "Ends Don't Justify Means (Among Humans)"

(start of sequence)

Comments (55)

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Comment author: Phil_Goetz5 14 October 2008 12:32:21AM 0 points [-]

I'm unclear whether you're saying that we perceive those in power to be corrupt, or that they actually are corrupt. The beginning focuses on the former; the second half, on the latter.

The idea that we have evolved to perceive those in power over us as being corrupt faces the objection that the statement, "Power corrupts", is usually made upon observing all known history, not just the present.

Comment author: denis_bider2 14 October 2008 12:55:01AM 5 points [-]

Eliezer: I don't get your altruism. Why not grab the crown? All things being equal, a future where you get to control things is preferable to a future where you don't, regardless of your inclinations.

Even if altruistic goals are important to you, it would seem like you'd have better chances of achieving them if you had more power.

Unless, I guess, if you judge that the activities needed to keep power, and to remain alive while under increased threat, would be too much of an obstacle to your other goals.

The only valid reason I see not to grab power is a selfish one: if it would mean getting yourself into a mess that you don't really need or want. Which seems likely to be the case. But then this is a selfish motivation, not an altruistic one.

Comment author: RobinHanson 14 October 2008 01:31:35AM 9 points [-]

Once people are aware than many people often succumb to a certain temptation, they like to collect stories of times when they resisted the temptation. Those new tribal leaders may have done this dozens of times before and while actually being the new power-abusing leader.

Comment author: Roland2 14 October 2008 01:36:38AM -1 points [-]

Denis Bider: I agree with you.

Comment author: TGGP4 14 October 2008 01:41:05AM 1 point [-]

Was Washington seriously offered the crown? Also, he's not as memorable a fiery revolutionary as Patrick Henry or Samuel Adams. Maybe one of them would have accepted it (I know, fundamental attribution error, yeah yeah yeah).

Comment author: Tom_McCabe2 14 October 2008 02:32:18AM 7 points [-]

"I am willing to admit of the theoretical possibility that someone could beat the temptation of power and then end up with no ethical choice left, except to grab the crown. But there would be a large burden of skepticism to overcome."

If all people, including yourself, become corrupt when given power, then why shouldn't you seize power for yourself? On average, you'd be no worse than anyone else, and probably at least somewhat better; there should be *some* correlation between knowing that power corrupts and not being corrupted.

Comment author: DanielLC 22 September 2012 05:18:56AM 8 points [-]

Two reasons occur to me:

First, you may be able to avoid anyone getting the power. When Eliezer decided against insulting the reporter, he did not leave the position open for someone else. When Washington was offered the crown, not only did refusing it not result in it going to someone else, accepting would have (eventually).

Second, it's possible that you can do more good while neither corrupt nor in power then you could if you are corrupt and in power.

Comment author: Carl_Shulman 14 October 2008 03:22:46AM 8 points [-]

I think this post draws excessively on the psychological unity of humanity, and fails to highlight psychological morphs (resulting from frequency-dependent strategies and local or temporal variation in conditions) that will be more or less successful in seizing power in different circumstances. Silicon Valley seems to allocate power to a systematically different group of people than would acquire it through democratic elections or the internal politics of the PRC.

Comment author: Carl_Shulman 14 October 2008 03:30:04AM -2 points [-]

Robin,

Great comment.

Comment author: Douglas_Knight3 14 October 2008 04:00:26AM 2 points [-]

TGGP: at the very least, it's well-documented that he defused a couple of coups.

My understanding is that GW decided he'd get more pages in the history books if he declined the crown. George III agreed: "if he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world."

Comment author: Grant 14 October 2008 05:07:02AM 1 point [-]

If all people, including yourself, become corrupt when given power, then why shouldn't you seize power for yourself? On average, you'd be no worse than anyone else, and probably at least somewhat better; there should be *some* correlation between knowing that power corrupts and not being corrupted.

Knowing power corrupts, a self-interested individual would seek to surround himself with those who did not seek power (or at least did not seek power that could be wielded against him). These individuals would not be likely to put up with people who sought power with the potential to do serious harm, so it would be advantageous for this self-interested individual not to seek power at all (or to do it clandestinely).

Comment author: JulianMorrison 14 October 2008 06:52:43AM 6 points [-]

In terms of mechanism it sounds like a classic case of hyperstimulus - a mechanism designed to make the most of a little, suddenly handed a lot.

Comment author: billswift 14 October 2008 07:24:31AM 1 point [-]

Part of the disagreements above are caused by there being five different kinds of power. Three are inherently ethical, that is in the way the power is gained, not its use; the other two, which are more commonly thought of as power are inherently unethical. (I am using power in the sense of ability to get things done; some libertarians make the error of equating power with coercion, which limits it.)

The unethical forms are politico-religious (fraud) where you trick people into serving your ends and politico-criminal (force) where you coerce them. The other three are love or shared ends, as David Friedman discussed in the chapter "Love Is Not Enough" in "Machinery of Freedom", economic power where you pay others to do what you want done, and personal power where you do it yourself.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 14 October 2008 08:41:29AM 7 points [-]

@Julian: Excellent point.

Knight: My understanding is that GW decided he'd get more pages in the history books if he declined the crown. George III agreed: "if he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world."

Yes, this is also the history I learned. But if we aren't to forgive tyrants for their good intentions, shouldn't we only judge GW by his results?

Shulman: Silicon Valley seems to allocate power to a systematically different group of people than would acquire it through democratic elections or the internal politics of the PRC.

I've yet to hear that all Silicon Valley CEOs are wise and benevolent tyrants who never abuse their subordinates or their companies. And if a larger fraction of them do manage to do better, then I never said the temptation of power was invincible.

Hanson: Once people are aware than many people often succumb to a certain temptation, they like to collect stories of times when they resisted the temptation. Those new tribal leaders may have done this dozens of times before and while actually being the new power-abusing leader.

Shall we not praise that behavior which we wish to encourage?

Human society has not been designed to operate entirely without nodes of power. We would like people to refuse to abuse power on specific occasions, so it makes sense to praise stories of people who refused to abuse their power on specific occasions. But we should praise, far more highly than benevolent rulers, those who find ways to check power or avert it entirely; the framer of a functioning constitution above the wisest king.

And if someone comes to us with a handful of anecdotes of times they refused power, but without much of a systematic record recommended by neutral third parties, let us perhaps agree that each specific occasion was worthy of praise, but not trust them to be a good tyrant in the future.

Comment author: steven 14 October 2008 09:15:40AM 2 points [-]

Isn't the problem often not that people betray their ideals, but that their ideals were harmful to begin with? Do we know that not-yet-powerful Stalin would have disagreed (internally) with a statement like "preserving Communism is worth the sacrifice of sending a lot of political opponents to gulags"? If not then maybe to that extent everyone is corrupt and it's just the powerful that get to act on it. Maybe it's also the case that the powerful are less idealistic and more selfish, but then there are two different "power corrupts" effects at play.

Comment author: jls 14 October 2008 10:26:02AM 2 points [-]

Eliezer: Not only did you resist the temptation of power, but also the temptation of revenge. Until now. He reported on you, now you told us, your readers, about him. Report on him. Half the job is done. We already know he's a bad reporter. We just need his name in order to laugh on his face. Sure, you could carry on with this resisting temptations thing, and it would be very praiseworthy... But revenge is even sweeter than power.

Comment author: Carl_Shulman 14 October 2008 10:55:02AM 3 points [-]

@Eliezer: IOW, there are evil*er* mutants.

@Steven: There's a selection effect for ideologies that justify any means to attain a distant future payoff, so you can locally optimize for the acquisition of power, and do good with it once you have enough that you'd get more results by spending than investing your political capital. Consequentialism is particularly good for this (and gets even more suited to it when one takes into account existential risk and technological considerations).

Comment author: haig2 14 October 2008 11:00:32AM 0 points [-]

That is why systems consisting of checks and balances were eventually created (ie. democracy). Such social systems try to quell the potential for power aggregation and abuse, though as current events show, there will always be ways for power hungry people to game the system (and the best way to game the system is to run it and change the rules in your favor, creating the illusion that you still abide by the rules).

I always felt that the best system would be one of two extremes: 1.) a benevolent dictator (friendly superintelligence?) or 2.) massively decentralized libertarian socialism (or similar).

Notice that its an all or nothing dichotomy based on the absolute 'goodness' of a potential benevolent dictator--meaning that if it is possible to have an absolutely perfect benevolent dictator, than it would be best to concentrate power with it, but an absence of perfection would then require the exact opposite and to spread power out as wide as possible.

Someone contemplating changing the world for the better (or best) would necessarily need to decide which camp they fall in, #1 or #2. If #1 (like EY I presume), your most important duty would be to make the creation of this benevolent dictator your highest priority. If in camp #2 (like myself), your highest priority would be to create a system that uses the knowledge of human cognition, biases, and tendencies to diffuse power aggregation/abuse while trying to maximize the pursuit of happiness.

I think work on both can be done concurrently and may be complementary. Working on #2 might help keep the world from blowing up until #1 can be completed, and work on #1 can give insights into how to tune #2 (like EY's writings inspiring me to work on #2 etc.).

Given a choice, we would all want #1 as soon as possible, but being a pragmatist, #2 might be the more fruitful position for most people.

Comment author: haig2 14 October 2008 11:11:08AM 0 points [-]

Short addition to my previous post.

I've been thinking about how to apply the notion of recursive self-improvement to social structures instead of machines. I think it actually offers (though non-intuitively) a simpler case to think about friendliness optimization. If anyone else is interested feel free to email me. I'm planning on throwing up a site/wiki about this topic and may need help.

haig51 AT google mail

Comment author: haig2 14 October 2008 11:18:15AM 2 points [-]

Sorry for the triple post, one more addition. Larry Lessig just gave a lecture on corruption and the monetary causes of certain types of corruption prevalent in our society.

http://www.lessig.org/blog/2007/10/corruption_lecture_alpha_versi_1.html

Comment author: michael_vassar3 14 October 2008 12:39:56PM 5 points [-]

Eliezer: We have argued about evolutionary psychology for a long time. Maybe we need a disagreement case study.

"But human beings do find power over others sweet, "

I would be careful to distinguish "power to accomplish goals", which is a "basic AI drive", and thus needs no evolutionary explanation in an intelligent system, or even in a system built by conditioning, and power specifically over others, which does. It seems compelling that both are desirable, but the latter doesn't need to be for power to be somewhat corrupting in the manner discussed.

It doesn't really seem likely that there's much evolutionary basis for wanting power over MANY others though. You probably get that from reflective generalization of evolutionary preferences. This will lead to a wide distribution where presidents and tyrants, who have fanatically sought power, will find it VERY attractive, even when actually holding it prematurely ages them and leaves their lives in shambles. Kings, by contrast, will often casually give up power over large numbers of people, or possibly even not really notice that they have it, leaving rule to their advisers and officials so long as their basically rather cheaply fulfilled (by a nation) evolved goals (most significantly status in all likelihood) are met. Certainly Washington was an exception for a revolutionary, but it does look to me like the crown of the United States was not much of a temptation. What could kingship over a couple million rowdy backwoodsmen have given him that ownership of a thousand slaves couldn't? Yet the latter was SO MUCH easier, safer, less demanding etc, and he was old and childless and left power to trustworthy comrades in arms.

A better case for generally corrupting influences from power comes from petty officials, who have not been selected to the degree to which rulers have, acting capriciously. This however can also be interpreted as resentment of rules or of rule based nominal authority over them, or alternatively as laziness, or to imitating others and filling a social role. Once again, subtle conditioning is also a possibility. Just ask any animal trainer how easily bored animals learn to play potentially annoying games with one another or with the humans. It falls out of a very general drive to learn/explore/experiment that practically any activity at the right level of difficulty or producing a highly salient response within the right range of complexity and predictability can be a reinforcer. If we, like crows, are evolved to test boundaries, to investigate what is safe, what our abilities allow, what we can get away with... if we are attracted to the right level of apparent danger, all this will make power corrupting in just the manner Eliezer discovered with the reporter without requiring any distinct evolved power drive.

Hmm. Does Atheism produce a corrupting feeling of power at first? It fits this model.

Its worth noting how very few people seek power on any significant scale, and how culturally and cognitively ill equipped to hold it most people are.

The human specific part of the genome is small, and omits simple and useful survival details such as the proper techniques for crocodile wrestling. Baboons and toddlers don't even understand hiding! They have to LEARN to HIDE! I need a evolutionary explanations to make specific predictions that my other knowledge of psychology omits before predicting mutational support for a behavior.

Comment author: michael_vassar3 14 October 2008 01:02:26PM 5 points [-]

Eliezer: The interesting thing in Carl's post is not that some people resist corruption but that some institutions resist putting the corrupt/corruptible in power while still putting someone in power.

Steven: VERY important point. Marx, who never held power, approved very publicly of killing large numbers in the name of his ideals. How many thoughtful people don't have silly ideologies? In any event, there are still other dynamics. I strongly recommend "Darkness at Noon" for an important one.

Carl: Consequentialism is more logically dangerous with longer time horizons. Should we fear life extensionists but not singularitarians? How do both compare to the religious?

Robin: Do we have any way to collect data on how many people read these threads past some point? I fear that its a waste of time to write long comments this far down a thread.

Comment author: wallowinmaya 18 May 2011 12:32:25PM 2 points [-]

Do we have any way to collect data on how many people read these threads past some point? I fear that its a waste of time to write long comments this far down a thread.

I for one am glad that you wrote down your thoughts..

Comment author: beoShaffer 14 August 2011 07:37:04PM 3 points [-]

I read this far.

Comment author: DSimon 14 August 2011 08:49:47PM *  0 points [-]

Me too, but only because I saw beoShaffer's comment in the Recent Comments box.

Comment author: JohnWittle 19 September 2011 06:15:17PM 4 points [-]

First time poster.

I would consider myself typical, whatever weight that may carry. Here is my algorithm for reading LessWrong:

1: Start at the Core Sequences Wiki Page 2: Middle-click every blue link (not purple). 3: Go through and read to the bottom of the page (including all comments), middle clicking on things which look interesting. 4: Satisfy Tier N+1 before moving onto other Tier N articles. GOTO 3

I use a tree-style firefox tab addon pictured here: http://i.imgur.com/rmq2Z.png

Comment author: Constant2 14 October 2008 02:20:50PM 1 point [-]

Morality is an aspect of custom. Custom requires certain preconditions: it is an adaptation to a certain environment. Great political power breaks a key component of that environment.

More specifically, morality is a spontaneously arising system for resolving conflict among people with approximately equal power, such that adherence to morality is an optimal strategy for a typical person. A person with great power has less need to compromise and so his optimal strategy is probably a mix of compromise and brute force - i.e., corruption.

This does not require very specific human psychology. It is likely to describe any set of agents where the agents satisfy certain general conditions. Design two agents (entities with preferences and abilities) and in certain areas those entities are likely to have conflicting desires and are likely, therefore, to come into conflict and to need a system for resolving conflict (a morality) - regardless of their psychology. But grant one of these entities sufficiently great power, and it can resolve conflict by pushing aside the other agent, thereby dispensing with morality, thereby being corrupted by power.

Comment author: michael_vassar3 14 October 2008 02:35:59PM 3 points [-]

Strong agreement with the first and third paragraphs by Constant.

Here's another simple way in which morality is undermined by power. Power makes it harder not to acknowledge the sacred values trade-offs which undermine common-sense morality.

http://www.scribd.com/doc/311935/Tetlock-2003-Thinking-the-unthinkable-sacred-values-and-taboo-cognitions

Comment author: Caledonian2 14 October 2008 03:02:07PM -1 points [-]

"Ah, now that I've beaten the temptation of power, I can safely make myself the wise tyrant who wields unchecked power benevolently, for the good of all."

Considering that different individuals are virtually certain to have mutually exclusive definitions of 'good', that's not a wise tyrant. That's a very foolish tyrant, who is unlikely to survive the possession of power for any length of time.

Benevolence itself is a trap. The wise treat men as straw dogs; to lead men, you must turn your back on them.

Comment author: Phil_Goetz5 14 October 2008 04:20:04PM 4 points [-]

Eliezer: I don't get your altruism. Why not grab the crown? All things being equal, a future where you get to control things is preferable to a future where you don't, regardless of your inclinations.

Even if altruistic goals are important to you, it would seem like you'd have better chances of achieving them if you had more power.

...

If all people, including yourself, become corrupt when given power, then why shouldn't you seize power for yourself? On average, you'd be no worse than anyone else, and probably at least somewhat better; there should be *some* correlation between knowing that power corrupts and not being corrupted.

...

Benevolence itself is a trap. The wise treat men as straw dogs; to lead men, you must turn your back on them.

These are all Very Bad Things to say to someone who wants to construct the first AI.

Do we know that not-yet-powerful Stalin would have disagreed (internally) with a statement like "preserving Communism is worth the sacrifice of sending a lot of political opponents to gulags"?

Let's think about the Russian revolution. You have 3 people, arrayed in order of increasing corruption before coming to power: Trotsky, Lenin, Stalin. Lenin was nasty enough to oust Trotsky. Stalin was nasty enough to dispose of everybody who was a threat to him. Steven's point is good - that these people were all pre-corrupted - but we also see the corrupt rise to the top.

In the Cuban revolution, Fidel was probably more corrupt than Che from the start. I imagine Fidel would likely have had Che killed, if he in fact didn't.

So we now have 4 hypotheses:

1. Males are inclined to perceive those presently in power as corrupt. (Eliezer)

2. People are corrupted by power.

3. People are corrupt. (Steven)

4. Power selects for people who are corrupt.

How can we select from among these?

Comment author: taryneast 08 June 2011 10:58:38AM 7 points [-]

How can we select from among these?

It's easily possible that all four are true.

Comment author: Stuart_Armstrong 14 October 2008 04:57:55PM 1 point [-]

I think this story explains some aspects of power and corruption - but not the most dangerous ones. I'd say it fails to explain Hitler and Stalin (though it does a better job with Mao, based on my limited understanding).

Hitler and Stalin were not very personally corrupt. They had near total power, and seemed to spend it all on getting more power, and on inflicting pain on vaguely defined enemies - but not on their lifestyles. Nowhere in Stalin and Hitler's lifestyles do I see the sort of evolutionary self-indulgence that should have been available to the absolute rulers of millions. Imagine what you could indulge in, if you were in their shoes.

Maybe there are still evolutionary reasons for that restrain - after all, we never had the chance to be the ultimate ruler of more than a few thousand back in the past, so we were never wired to take evolutionary advantage on that scale.

But all in all, I think this story doesn't enlighten much on the true nature of power and corruption. What does it do to constrain our expectations of how people will behave in power?

Comment author: Doug_S. 14 October 2008 05:04:02PM 0 points [-]

So we now have 4 hypotheses:

1. Males are inclined to perceive those presently in power as corrupt. (Eliezer)

2. People are corrupted by power.

3. People are corrupt. (Steven)

4. Power selects for people who are corrupt.

How can we select from among these?

That is a very good question, and it seems like an important one, as well. It is also a question to which I do not know the answer.

Comment author: Doug_S. 14 October 2008 05:18:56PM 8 points [-]

Also, I'm reminded of this quote...

"To become king of the Goblins, one must assassinate the previous king. Thus, only the most foolish seek positions of leadership."

One very important thing to remember about power is that having it makes you a target of everybody else who wants it.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 14 October 2008 05:20:07PM 2 points [-]

I'd endorse 1, 2, and 4 as human universals; and 3 as a matter of variance.

Comment author: Carl_Shulman 14 October 2008 05:39:59PM 1 point [-]

Eliezer, you're saying that 1, and 2 don't have significant quantitative heritable variation among people, measurable via twin studies? There is heritable variation on generosity in the dictator and trust games, among others:

http://ideas.repec.org/p/huj/dispap/dp457.html http://www.pnas.org/content/105/10/3721.full

Are you predicting that genotyping high-status individuals in different institutional frameworks won't result in significantly different frequencies of such variations in different frameworks? If the framework selects for anything uncorrelated with abuse of power, then the latter will likely be driven down.

Comment author: Stuart_Armstrong 14 October 2008 06:29:33PM 2 points [-]

Need power corrupt? What if it's just the same people, with the same small flaws - except the scale of the temptations and the consequences of the actions are multiplied, and there are no longer any socially dominant people to disagree with them and cause them to question their actions?

Comment author: g 14 October 2008 08:06:44PM 2 points [-]

To those who are saying things like "Eliezer, someone will get power anyway and they'll probably be worse than you, so why not grab power for yourself?", and assuming for the sake of argument that we're talking about some quantity of power that Eliezer is actually in a position to grab: If you grab power and it corrupts you, that's bad not only for everyone else but also for you and whatever your goals were before you got corrupted. Observing that other people would be corrupted just as badly defuses the first of those objections to power-grabbing, but not the second.

Comment author: billswift 14 October 2008 09:11:24PM 1 point [-]

As a contrary position, the Bene Gesserit saying is "Power does not corrupt, rather it is magnetic to the corruptible."

Comment author: Doug_S. 15 October 2008 06:35:46AM 8 points [-]

I like the "Power selects for people who are corrupt" hypothesis. A "corrupt" government is, roughly speaking, one that acts in the interest of those doing the governing at the expense of those being governed. The process of maintaining power often requires that those in power act, well, like Stalin did - ruthlessly eliminating any potential opposition in an incredibly brutal and often arbitrary fashion. Consider Saddam Hussein's rather literal reign of terror in Iraq. Most people hated him, but they were too terrified to take any action against him. Furthermore, he was more than willing to engage in collective punishment, operating by the principle that the deaths of large numbers of "innocent" people is an acceptable price to pay for killing one would-be rebel.

Western democracies have trouble defeating guerrilla tactics. There is, however, a simple and effective way for a conventional army to quickly end a guerrilla uprising: massacre the civilians until the survivors stop fighting back. Saddam did this many times in order to maintain power. If he did not, he would have been replaced by someone else, and that person would likely face the same choice: commit atrocities or lose power. If the only way to maintain power is to commit atrocities, then only those who commit atrocities will have power. (Doug's rule of war: If a cause is not worth killing enemy civilians for, it's not worth killing enemy soldiers for, either. As far as I can tell, once war threatens, the only options tend to be paying the Danegeld, destroying populations, or enduring a low-level civil war that never ends.)

I would also claim that, in many places, the only alternative to a brutal dictatorship is anarchy and warfare (usually tribal warfare) in which would-be dictators battle for control. Democracy can only function when people who lose an election prefer losing power to civil war. Even the United States has seen this failure mode. When Abraham Lincoln was elected, the South decided that going to war would be better than allowing the election result to stand.

Comment author: cerebus2 15 October 2008 06:07:56PM 0 points [-]

jls: It's not that hard to work out. Hint: WiredNews

Comment author: Douglas_Knight3 16 October 2008 05:05:52AM 0 points [-]

But if we aren't to forgive tyrants for their good intentions, shouldn't we only judge GW by his results?

Yes, when we judge people, we should judge them by the same standard. But this post mentioned the tyrants' intentions, so it should also mention GW's.

Comment author: Bruce 25 October 2008 12:44:22AM 5 points [-]

"Power selects for people who are corrupt."

That's the correct hypothesis. However, it depends on the system. In chaos, the absolute worst, most ruthless and amoral monster is most likely to get to the top. In democracy, the smoothest and most charming liar gets to the top. In nepotism, the most talented bootlicker gets to the top. And so on.

Comment author: buybuydandavis 26 October 2011 11:53:54AM 2 points [-]

George Washington's triumph was not how well he ruled, but that he refused the crown - despite all temptation to be horrified at who else might then obtain power.

Washington resigning his commission was the defining moment of the American Revolution. Jefferson and a committee of the Continental Congress choreographed the ceremony in great detail.

Comment author: cordocar000 09 January 2012 05:56:11PM *  1 point [-]

"alas, fortune does not change men; it unmasks them"--Stephen T. Steve ----this is my point of view on this particular subject. fortune (or power in this case) does not corrupt, it draws forth the true nature of those in power.

Comment author: duckduckMOO 01 April 2012 04:19:20PM *  -1 points [-]

edit:POLL

"But human beings do find power over others sweet." Need some data points because wow do I need to update if this is accurate for most people. Did "sweet" throw anyone else off?

Please take the time (I GOTTA KNOW) to upvote this post if that doesn't reflect your experience, downvote if it does, and do this opposite to the post I'm gonna post right after this that says "counterbalance." Thanks.

Comment author: Blueberry 01 April 2012 07:51:55PM 1 point [-]

Downvoted and upvoted the counterbalance (which for some reason was at -1 already; someone didn't follow your instructions). You're surprised people like power?

Comment author: duckduckMOO 01 April 2012 08:46:07PM *  0 points [-]

no, it's the specific description of the feeling that surprised me: "sweet." edit: and thanks for helping me out.

Comment author: Blueberry 02 April 2012 07:37:44AM 0 points [-]

Yes, "sweet" is a great description. Why, how would you describe it?

Comment author: duckduckMOO 01 April 2012 04:19:26PM 0 points [-]

counterbalance.

Comment author: MagnetoHydroDynamics 11 June 2012 10:29:07AM 2 points [-]

Whoa... The further I get in my chronological read-through the more... mundane... my past errors get.

Comment author: army1987 15 October 2013 12:23:21PM 0 points [-]

You could lie about your reasons, but human beings are not perfect deceivers.

Now that I think about it (after the zillionth time I've heard that)... Why couldn't humans just evolve to be better deceivers?

Comment author: nshepperd 15 October 2013 01:25:48PM 2 points [-]

I imagine humans would evolve at the same time to be better deception detectors. Maybe the two sides of this arms race cancel out. And perhaps there are diminishing returns to being a good liar, if people would distrust good liars generally.