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Power and Corruption

It seems that almost every day we hear of corruption in various organisations: many sports governing bodies seem to have massive levels of corruption, increasingly governments are doing secret and unscrupulous deals, unions are more interested in the power of their leadership than the good of their members, and private companies are constantly involved in horribly immoral practices.

So what’s the answer? If we distrust unions we can give private companies more power but then they will abuse that dominant position. If we then give unions more power to help offset the corruption in business then they become corrupt instead. If we dismiss the leadership of a corrupt organisation it seems that inevitably the new leadership drifts back in to the same old habits as the one it replaced.

Here’s the problem: give any group too much power and they will abuse it. Or, as Lord Acton said: power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely (that’s how I remember the quote, according to Wikipedia the full quote is “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” Now that I think about it, how much power did he (as a baron, lord, politician, etc) have, and how much did he abuse it?

It’s interesting to note two things in the full quote. First, he hedges his bets a bit by saying that power TENDS to corrupt. That’s probably a pretty fair point. The second is that he claims that great men are almost always bad men. Today we would extend that to women of course, but I do think it depends on your definition of “great”.

People can attain greatness in many ways. I guess Acton was referring to greatness in a political sense and in that sense he’s probably right. I think that most “great” political leaders are inherently evil because to get to the top of the political heap (what it is a heap of I will leave to the imagination) a person needs a certain form of devious self-interest and, in many cases, a misplaced confidence in their own ability and an unwavering faith in their political ideals.

So although politicians probably don’t really think they are deliberately acting immorally, in most cases they are. The modern trend towards giving excessive freedom and advantages to the rich in the (presumed) hope that the benefits will “trickle down” – even though all evidence is that they don’t – is an example of the sort of evil I mean.

Hierarchies do seem to be almost universal in human civilisations and cultures. In most cases even the repressed majority accept this as the natural order of things. In the past kings ruled because of “the divine right of kings” and that was impossible to argue against (mainly because most people believed it, but even if they didn’t any disagreement was seen as treasonous or blasphemous and the penalties for those were generally fatal).

Having just mentioned the divine right I am surprised to notice that I haven’t mentioned the worst offenders in the misuse of power: the church (especially the Roman Catholic Church, not because its dogma is necessarily worse but because it had more power). I will correct that now. In fact, over the millennia religion has been the worst example of excessive power leading to overwhelming corruption. OK, that aside, on with my main point…

So what is the answer? Well, as I have have suggested in this blog before, I favour direct democracy. After all, the only alternative is anarchy and I think that has too many potential problems!

In direct democracy the whole population vote on all issues. Of course there are many details which need to be resolved in a system like this. Who decides what the issues are? If “all” issues are voted on won’t that mean an endless stream of votes? Should there be criteria (such as a minimum age) for who can vote? What mechanism for voting would be used and how would it be done in a way that was secure?

Then there are the objections to a system like this even if the mundane issues could be resolved. The main one is whether a majority will give the best outcome anyway. The majority aren’t always right and people might be tempted to vote for what is good for them rather than society as a whole.

These are all real issues but I think they could all be overcome, especially if (initially at least) a less than pure version of direct democracy was used.

The internet provides an obvious way to provide for the simple “mechanics” of a voting system. It will soon be reasonable to assume that everyone will have an internet connected computer, and for a relatively small cost (easily less than the cost of a conventional election) a dedicated “voting machine” could be provided free for anyone who doesn’t have a computer.

In fact everyone could have one. I’m guessing one could be mass produced for about $100. It could have the necessary encryption and identification mechanism built in and it would make voting really easy.

Any new law, regulation, or policy any person or group thought was necessary could be submitted for consideration by the total voting population. If sufficient interest was registered it would go to a full vote. Voting wouldn’t be compulsory so people who weren’t interested or informed on a subject probably wouldn’t vote on it.

But what about that bigger problem: whether people would vote sensibly? Well, we trust our representatives to do the right thing already and, as has already been established, they often get it wrong. So could a citizen vote be any worse? And even if it was, the people would have to take ownership of the resulting problem and fix it rather than just hide the error as is often the case now.

It’s not a perfect system but it’s a lot less imperfect than the alternatives. And it does eliminate the problem of a particular group gaining too much power because the final power is with everyone. But, even though it solves the problem he brought to our attention I don’t think a conventional politician like Acton would have agreed!

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