How to Make Power Less Corrupting

Post-Trump new ideas for keeping authoritarians out of the Oval Office—and the squad car.

Does power corrupt, or does it attract the already corrupt? Are scoundrels and tyrants created by corrupt institutions, or are they just born that way? With enough power, would almost any of us skim riches or torture enemies? These compelling questions are the centerpiece of Brian Klaas’s Corruptible. To solve these and other puzzles about power, Klaas, a professor of global politics at University College London, travels the globe introducing some of the “cult leaders, war criminals, despots, coup plotters, torturers, mercenaries, generals, propagandists, rebels, corrupt CEOs, and convicted criminals” he has interviewed. The result is a fascinating look at how power is dispensed by heads of state, police forces, school administrators, and pretty much anyone else who has authority over others. His tour of rulership styles yields the depressing fact that humans being humans, tyrants will probably always be among us. But in the tradition of Nudge, authored by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, or The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg, Klaas suggests ways in which we can steer people in the right direction. The U.S. Constitution was written in the belief that without checks and balances, tyrants would rise. (And the past four years show they can, even with a multitude of constitutional safeguards.) Klaas wants us to think about how we can make any abuse of power—not just, as the title may imply, forms of corruption such as bribery—less likely.

Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us
by Brian Klaas
Scribner, 320 pp.

We eagerly drink in the details of his bistro conversation with a daughter of Jean-Bédel Bokassa, the former dictator of the Central African Republic, who was rumored to have served human flesh to his guests. We share his amused disdain for petty tyrants like a school facilities director in Schenectady, New York, who plotted violence against his rivals and whistleblowers. It’s not only stories, though. Klaas elucidates complex concepts, exposing readers, including this one, to scholarly research about human behavior that he draws on to address core questions about what leads to corruption. Such literature reviews can be excruciating in the hands of a dull author, but Klaas lays out the academic tableau clearly. He weaves together research about the Neolithic revolution with recent studies about gender bias when reviewing résumés. His historical examples are telling. King Leopold II’s progressive reforms in Belgium in the 19th century were impressive because Leopold “faced accountability and oversight.” His colonial and savage treatment of the Congolese, where “he was a tyranny of one and his atrocities were hidden,” demonstrates that accountability plays a crucial role in guiding individual behavior.

That said, Corruptible does not offer precise answers about why there are tyrants among us. Instead, Klaas invites us on an epistemological adventure with no destination. We are warned in the first chapter that “our world is too complex for one unifying theory that explains everything.” Armed with historical evidence, empirical data, and persuasive theories, readers are exposed to diminutive despots and everyday corruption. The book provides suggestions for designing recruitment efforts to avoid attracting sadists and psychopaths for important positions in private and public spheres. He recommends that we “recruit smarter; randomly select people to perform oversight; rotate people around more; and audit decision-making processes, not just results.” Corruptible is also filled with enough cautionary tales that we can more quickly recognize red flags or establish monitoring systems (such as surveillance of suspected corrupt police officers to see whether they will steal money from what they believe is a drug den). This allows institutions to detect and remove bad actors as soon as possible. Abusive behavior in one area—say, inappropriate language—is a warning sign for other abuses. Sexual harassers are usually abusive in other fora as well. Speaking of which, Klaas recommends giving power to more women. Why? “Substantial research has demonstrated that, on average, women are less prone to despotism than men and more eager to rule by democratic means.” However, he correctly cautions against “being a gender essentialist (suggesting that men and women are fundamentally and irreconcilably good at some things and bad at others).” 

Klaas recommends giving power to more women. Why? “Substantial research has demonstrated that, on average, women are less prone to despotism than men and more eager to rule by democratic means.”

Quite welcome are the instances in which he corrects widespread misunderstandings that may have warped our view of power. For example, the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini did not make the trains in Italy run on time—a
common bit of conventional wisdom suggesting that his hold on power was due to ruthless efficiency rather than just ruthlessness. 

Klaas is particularly instructive when he explains why the widely understood belief about the results of the Stanford Prison Study of 1971 is wrong. A staple of Psych 101 classes for decades, the study supposedly demonstrates how ordinary people will behave when assigned the role of a guard or a prisoner, respectively. According to the study, those tapped to be guards became sadistic and the pseudo prisoners became compliant. But, as it happened, the 18 student participants were not quite a random sample. They responded to an ad regarding a “psychological study of prison life,” which may have unintentionally but decisively skewed the results. In 2007, researchers from Western Kentucky University conducted a new version of the study. In some college towns, they used the original wording in the ad, but they removed any mention of prison in others. When the volunteers arrived, researchers conducted personality evaluations and psychological screenings. Those who responded to the ad that included the word prison scored higher on tests measuring “aggressiveness, authoritarianism, Machiavellianism, narcissism, and social dominance and significantly lower on dispositional empathy and altruism.” 

In other words, you get what you ask for, which should give pause to anyone writing a “Help Wanted” ad or trying to reform a government agency—the latter being a longtime concern of this magazine. Consider police departments. The federal government has given police departments more than $7 billion in military hardware since 1997, including “helicopters, military-grade ammunition, bayonets,” and more. These weapons of war have apparently attracted more aggressive applicants. “Even after controlling for confounding variables such as crime rate or population size,” Klaas explains, “researchers have found that police departments that bought the most surplus military gear killed more civilians to begin with and saw the numbers of civilians that they killed in a given year rise significantly after the military equipment arrived.” 

What can be done? Perhaps we can follow New Zealand’s example. (This would seem to apply to how that nation handled COVID-19 as well.) New Zealand police created recruiting videos designed to attract candidates more suited for community policing than military combat. One video showed an officer in hot pursuit of a purse thief, who turns out to be a dog. Thus, there was no need for a life-endangering high-speed chase or the drawing, let alone the discharging, of a weapon. The theme of the ad was “Do you care enough to be a cop?” (italics added) and not, say, “Are you tough enough to be a cop?” No weapons were shown. This and other recruitment efforts emphasized diversity, with plenty of female, ethnic-minority, Asian Pacific Islander, and Maori officers. Applications increased by 24 percent. Impressively, applications from women rose by 29 percent, and Maori applicants by 32 percent. A frequent adviser to nongovernmental organizations and governments, and a veteran of Democratic Party campaigns, Klaas is cheered by these progressive results.

According to Klaas, it’s not just the kind of person you recruit or elect that’s important, but also the culture in which they are immersed. In one interesting study, even the godly could be callous. A group of students studying at Princeton Theological Seminary were asked by researchers to speak on the importance of the Good Samaritan, the biblical parable in which passersby ignore a man in need. (A Samaritan, of course, stops to help.) The researchers told each student in the experiment to walk to a neighboring building to give their speech. One-third of the participants were told that they had plenty of time to get there, one-third that they had to be there on time and leave immediately, and the last third that they were already late and needed to rush. Each student independently encountered a man screaming in apparent pain. The only way to get by this stranger was to step over him. You can guess what happened. The students who believed they had spare time were much more likely to help; around 60 percent did. Only about half of those who had no time to spare stopped. Of the group of students who were running late, only 10 percent stopped to help the man in agony. If the mere imposition of a modest deadline left aspiring clergy uncharitable on their way to discuss the Good Samaritan, imagine what worse circumstances could produce. 

A minor criticism of Corruptible is that it does not define “corruption.” Is all self-serving behavior corrupt? Is any situation in which resources are unequally divided, or decisions are made without a majority vote, corrupt? Surely not. Executive authority means executive authority. Anyone who has participated in town meeting–style local government or worked in an organization overwhelmingly dependent on consensus, conference calls, and committees knows how insanely frustrating that can be. 

To be clear, the book does not argue for an end to hierarchies, which became more and more important as humans evolved from hunter-gatherers to agrarians in larger societies. Today, “when humans get together in larger groups, flat societies become impossible,” Klaas acknowledges. “Put enough people together, and hierarchy and dominance always emerge.” And “competition for status in more meritocratic societies can sometimes produce much better outcomes than if everyone just rested on their laurels as equals.” 

All of this raises interesting questions about American politics, law, and culture. Do we want judges to have lifetime tenure, or instead what Article III of the Constitution provides, that they “hold their offices in good behavior”? Insulating the judiciary from partisan politics makes sense, but so might, say, the idea of staggered 18-year terms for Supreme Court justices. Such a system would offer political insulation but also insulate us from senile justices. It would have the added benefit of guaranteeing that each president had an equal number of seats to fill per term, so we don’t end up with a situation in which one-termer Jimmy Carter gets no appointments to the high court, and Donald Trump appoints three justices during his four-year reign of terror. As the Washington Monthly has emphasized in its annual college guide, the old-school college rankings, based entirely on factors like test scores and low admission rates, do not measure outputs like public service and contributions to the country. They reward a selfish view of the university in American life. Klaas has given us a useful framework not for eliminating corruption or hierarchy but for recognizing that while difficult to change, human behavior can be steered in better directions.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Jennifer Taub

Jennifer Taub is the author of Big Dirty Money: Making White Collar Criminals Pay, now available in paperback.