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Does power corrupt?

In the mid-nineteenth century Lord Acton first introduced the well-known dictum, ‘power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. For over a century this was accepted as the gospel truth.

Lately, Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist from the Wharton School in Pennsylvania, has offered a different setting of power dynamics in an article in the ‘Washington Post’. He says that it is not the possession of power that facilitates corruption because power itself does not change people. Instead, holding power ‘accentuates their pre-existing traits’ of say arrogance, hostility, haughtiness, corruption, selfishness etc. The key word is ‘pre-existing’. Similarly, on the other extreme inherent benign attributes in a person also get magnified when holding power.

This new line of thinking in psychology lays down that ‘power is like an amplifier. Whoever we were before just gets louder’.

Adam Grant provides two contrasting examples to support his thesis. He relates the case of a young American, fresh out of law school, trying his first case where he visibly annoys the presiding judge who threatens to debar him. The judge states that “I have serious doubts whether you have the ethical qualifications to practice law” after the lawyer adopts some questionable procedures without his client’s authority.

Grant then compares him to another American lawyer, who is running for Senate ‘but withdrew from the election because he was afraid that if he ran, he would split the vote and cause a corrupt candidate to win’.

Both these lawyers in their times became presidents of the United States. The young lawyer threatened with disbarment was Richard Nixon, who was forced to resign in ignominy. The other lawyer who withdrew his candidature to prevent a corrupt politician from being elected was Abraham Lincoln. These two obviously lay on opposite ends of the continuum but their characters marked them out early.

Richard Nixon was ‘not corrupted by power; he corrupted power’ while Lincoln’s character outshone his presidential powers and revealed to the outside world his sterling qualities. ‘Being president didn’t just fail to bring out the worst in him; it brought out the best’. Compare the character traits of most of our political power holders who knowingly corrupted power and contrast it with our highly ethical power wielders Abdul Sattar Edhi, Dr Adeeb Rizvi and Dr Abdul Bari. Grant goes on to quote author Robert Caro who said that “power doesn’t always corrupt, power always reveals.

Let us attempt a quick fact check on three streams of the past power wielders from Pakistan to determine whether they were ‘generous givers or selfish takers’?

In the military we saw that the two extremes were quite distinct. For instance, there were the three highly overbearing and ambitious army chiefs, Generals Ayub Khan, Ziaul Haq and Musharraf. Very different from them in identities and values were the three ‘K’ Generals, Waheed Kakar, Jehangir Karamat and Ashfaq Kayani. In short, for every one Lincoln we had three times as many Nixons.

In the higher judiciary, Justices Cornelius, Baghwan Das and Nasirul Mulk were imbibed with a measure of Lincoln’s selflessness and consideration. There were no scenes of intemperate conduct or public humiliation. Sadly, the ‘me, myself and I’ syndrome was in full display with some chief justices over the past two decades.

As for many of the top bureaucrats one knew from their junior days, and some before they joined service, they behaved just like Grant believed they would. Bold and honourable conduct, perhaps, is not even possible in our beloved land any longer; the better ones wish to play safe to save their careers and reputations regardless of their talent, training and upbringing. The state watches them with folded arms. Here again, for every Lincoln there were three Nixons.

And, finally, there were the politicians. They make for a much simpler analysis after one divorces rhetoric from their actual achievements. Governor General Ghulam Muhammad, president Iskander Mirza and prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto scored poorly in the power-wielding index due mainly to some unsavoury character traits, and missed out on building a rewarding legacy for themselves. (To their credit they were not corrupt unlike a host of those who followed them).

On the other hand, only three of our best politicians would be welcome to Lincoln’s company. These three comprised prime ministers Husyn Shaheed Suhrwardy and Muhammad Khan Junejo and the frontier chief minister Khan Qaiyum. Minor peccadilloes aside, they proved that inherent integrity and character determines whether power corrupts or not. About the politicians would it not be fair to say that for every one Lincoln there were ten Nixons?

At the end of the day it can be assumed that ‘how you use authority reveals your character. ‘Selfish leaders hoard power for personal gain; servant leaders share power for social good’. The majority of Pakistani leaders surely fall in the first category and the ultimate test of character for people in power is how they treat people who lack it. But how does one instil character and values in a society? Perhaps these are forged by the immediate family’s morality, forbearance taught in schools and the prevailing ethical standards of the society.

Dr Phil Edmonds of Edwardes College Peshawar would say that for two thousand years political philosophy revolved around the moral tenet on ‘who watches the watchman’, which led to the creation of a regime of checks and balances. Even more important to ensure character, it now transpires, is the mother’s lap, the father’s mentoring, the teachers’ teaching and the society’s ethical mores. Judging by our governance standards, we are on a slippery slope!

Shakil Durrani, "Does power corrupt?," The news. 2019-09-05.
Keywords: Social impact , Social sciences , Ethical values , Government standard , Judiciary , Corruption , Leadership