selfaware soup

Esther Weidauer

Power and Corruption

2022-10-20

stylized hierarchical org chart with all nodes being white while the top one is red

They say, power corrupts. Does it though?

(This is going to be a bit of an aimless collection of thoughts with no particular point)

There’s this popular concept of “power corrupts”, meaning that anyone who when placed into a position of power will ultimately abandon any altruistic ethics and act in a selfish way at the cost of others. This has ling bothered me and while I don’t know if it’s true in practice, I keep thinking about an alternative model.

What if structures that have power imbalances selectively move people to the top who are already ok with advancing their own interests at the expense of others? I’ve seen this play out in my career in tech. It was incredibly rare that someone in a leadership position was there because they honestly tried to make the work environment better for the people in their part of the organization. Especially at higher level management positions I saw mostly people who had nearly no concern for the wellbeing of those under them unless it aligned with their own goals. In those same org structures however, people who’s primary interest was the wellbeing of other people ended up burning out and/or leaving because the org’s incentives are so fundamentally misaligned with their own. Being a “good manager” means very different things for their reports and their higher-ups.

I’m not exactly sure where I’m going with this. I usually don’t have high expectations of humans’ ethics overall so maybe this is an attempt to compensate that a bit. The pessimistic view would be that yes, most people would act in harmful ways when having power over others because that’s what they want even if they wouldn’t admit it while being without power, and that they will therefore also try to build structures that enable them to do so.
The more optimistic take would be that we happen to have a lot of hierarchical structures and those are highly selective to put the few people who are actually that selfish in positions of power but if we were to dismantle those structures into a more egalitarian system, those people wouldn’t end up with that much influence.

The main example that comes to mind is billionaires. I firmly believe that there is no ethically ok way to be a billionaire. Nobody earns that much wealth without exploiting other people. So, becoming a billionaire already requires a ego-centric attitude and a disregard for others. People don’t just end up with that kind of wealth without any intent. The system already selects those people because everyone else would drop out of the wealth accumulation process long before.