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Opinion: Why power appeals to those who least deserve it

As part of his research, Klaas spoke with a range of people who wielded their power with controversial and sometimes catastrophic results. In visits with notable figures, ranging from American politicians to former officials of the Rajneesh cult, Klaas reveals the ways people use their authority when their actions can affect people’s lives in the gravest ways.
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His book is a relevant one, and his exploration of the power dynamics that arise on homeowners association boards will resonate with anyone who has encountered a minor Machiavelli. These experiences prove Klaas’ idea that any sort of power can be intoxicating, and lead those who hold it to take greater risks with less concern for others.
Klaas, who lives and works in London, spoke to me about his book via video. The discussion was edited for length and clarity.
Q: There’s much that’s up-to-the-minute in your book, but you also include a bit of background from primate studies to show how we may have what are almost instincts about power. What did you find?
A: I interviewed primate experts and read widely about chimpanzees because they have some similar cognitive processes, but without the culture and the norms of human society. One of the things that is really interesting is how humans have this instinct for fairness and sharing that chimpanzees don’t seem to have. For chimpanzees, ruthless dominance doesn’t come with second thoughts.
In human society … there is (more of) a self-selection dynamic. Just as tall kids are often more likely to try out for basketball, abusive, power-hungry narcissists are more likely to try to get power.
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Q: You seem to be talking about traits in individuals that make them more likely to pursue political power and to use it aggressively. How does our current political dynamic come into play with this?
A: We now have situations where people who simply want to serve their community on, say, a school board, face death threats, their children being harassed, and constant abuse. Good, decent people are just going to opt out. They’re just going to say: It’s not worth it. That means there’s a red carpet rolled out for the people who want power for the wrong reasons, either because they’re lunatics who want to impose their version of reality on everybody else or because they’re simply power hungry.
Q: You have some ideas for creating systems that would make positions of power more appealing to those less inclined to abuse it. How can that be done?
A: I think the viciousness around public service in the United States now is something that reminds me, unfortunately, of dynamics that I’ve seen in much more broken countries — where only the corrupt or power-hungry want power because it’s too dangerous for everyone else. To deal with this, you have to really crack down on the people who are threatening public servants. We also have to expand the rewards for service at every level … if we want school boards to be run by good people, for example, we need to pay them. We also need to consider bringing in some level of sortition, at least in an oversight capacity, which is basically jury service for leadership.
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Q: Sortition is a concept most of us don’t know. It involves selecting people from a big pool, as we do with jury summonses, and putting them into positions for a specific period of time until the next group is selected. How would this apply to leadership oversight?
A: You could create, for example, a randomly selected shadow House of Representatives, or a shadow board of directors in a company. These groups would oversee people in power and could examine decisions and, when necessary, say, “We’ve looked at the same facts as you but reached a very different conclusion.” So the people who are actually in power have to justify (their) conclusion. I think that would expose a lot of the aspects of power that are motivated by the wrong intentions; it would expose people motivated by either power-seeking or staying in office rather than treating people with respect and so on. But there’s no panacea.
Q: You also write about rotating people in leadership positions and changing up teams of people to prevent bad habits from forming when people have power. You mention how this works well in police departments. Does it also work elsewhere?
A: What I found is that there are only a few places where people are forced to think about preventing abuse of power — police departments, banks, and so on. And when they actually think about it and put resources into preventing this problem, they often decide to rotate people because they see the risk of keeping people together too long. Getting too comfortable with your partner makes you more likely to collude with them.
Q: You also say that transparency — arranging situations so people can be monitored — is very important but there are ways we get this wrong. Can you explain?
A: Open plan offices. Most people hate them. And they’re actually very, very bad for productivity. But more importantly, if there are real abuses of power taking place, like with Enron and Bernie Madoff, those (are more likely to) happen in closed offices . So while we’re making sure everyone in the open office is not taking an extra five minutes for their lunch, somebody in a closed corner office is embezzling, you know, $10 million. It’s totally backwards.
Q: What lesson is taught by the example of the company with open offices to catch people stealing paperclips and closed offices for people who embezzle millions?
A: I think Americans have to think long and hard about the implications of a society in which there’s massive abuse of power that goes on with no accountability. Under these conditions, people in power stop believing in the idea of playing by the rules. They start to figure that rules are for idiots and chumps. It becomes a self-reinforcing cycle that leads to only those who would misuse power seeking it. This is what happens in corrupt settings where good people just don’t want to be in public service because they assume it’s where people abuse power — and they are right. In those countries, it’s dishonest people who want to go into politics.
Fortunately, virtuous cycles happen when power structures are more visible. Right now, the United States has reached a fork in the road where we’re going to have to decide which we will be: The kind of society that attracts honest people to power, or the kind that attracts dishonest ones.
Q: Are you optimistic of pessimistic?
A: I’m pessimistic in the short term because the current trends are very negative. I don’t think that this is going to be, you know, quickly fixed. But I do think that we can have a world where at least power amplifies the ability for good, decent people to make other people’s lives better. I’ve included in the book 10 specific ideas that can help. All of them are really simple, but haven’t been tried in any sort of widespread way. Fixing it isn’t rocket science, but you have to at least try. And it’s hard to imagine that giving it a shot will make what we’ve already got any worse.
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