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The Problem of Power

Entry 1995, on 2019-08-15 at 13:45:20 (Rating 4, Politics)

I receive regular email updates from all the major political parties in New Zealand. These range from the left oriented Green Party, to the moderate left Labour Party, to the moderate right National Party, and to the libertarian Act Party. These different parties go through phases of popularity, and a few years back Labour requested the recipients of their newsletter to send them advice on how to improve their popularity, which at the time was in the 20s with Andrew Little as leader.

My response was to advise them to promote Jacinda Ardern to leader, and they did, and it worked because Labour are now in power with Ardern as prime minister. Of course, I don't think they made that move solely on my recommendation, but I do have to share part of the credit... or blame!

And I say "blame" above deliberately, because I thought Ardern would make a good political leader, but I had no idea she would turn into the monster she has. I'm not the sort of person to just automatically blame her for everything which has turned out badly since she took power, or to say she hasn't done anything good, just like I am not the sort of person to say that kind of thing about people on the opposite side of politics, like Trump. But I do generally disapprove of her style and don't think she is doing a very good job overall.

People might point to her quite high approval rating, which is far above any other politician's, and say she must be doing a good job because of that, but I disagree. First, approval ratings just show someone is good at public manipulation, and Ardern is a master at it. The ironic thing is she is another example of the type of leader who is great at BS but very little else, just like John Key, our previous leader from the center-right party which is opposed to her. My second point is that there is no obvious alternative. The leader of the opposition does not show the leadership qualities we demand today: specifically, he's not a master of BS!

So what has turned a moderately intelligent, reasonable, thoughtful person into a dishonest, manipulative, dangerous prime minister? Well, either she always had aspirations to power and was prepared to do whatever is necessary to gain and maintain it, but disguised it well until she got into that position; or power has corrupted her, in the way commonly portrayed in the epigram "power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely", which is usually attributed to the 19th century British politician, Lord Acton.

Note that I realise that no one really has absolute power, not even dictators, so a better term would be great power or excessive power, however "absolute" does sound better!

As I said above, this is not unique to the current PM, and has been an obvious trend in modern politics around the world, and we did have a very similar style of leadership (all spectacle and no substance) with our previous prime minister. So it seems that this is the sort of person people are demanding to lead them now. Other examples, in places such as the UK and US, are obvious, the only difference is that Ardern is an example of this phenomenon on the left rather than the right where it is more common.

So what's wrong here? Do we really deserve these sort of leaders? You could make a case to say the people deserve what they get, because ultimately it is the voters' decisions which choose democratic leaders. But it's really not quite that simple, because there is no real choice but to choose bad people because that's all we ever get to choose from!

It's the system which is at fault. Yeah, how often do you hear that from me! But I think it is true, because to become successful in our system of government, you first have to become the worst type of person and exactly the type who shouldn't be there. Before I clarify this, I should say that the same process happens in most hierarchies: the people who get to the top are exactly the ones who shouldn't be there. This includes leadership in companies, councils, boards, and other organisations.

Please note, that I did use the word "most" above because it's hard to believe that there might not be a few good leaders out there, although I can't think of any right now.

So to support my point, let me offer a small thought experiment. Imagine a room full of 100 random people from many different parts of society, with many different skill sets, and with varying philosophical views on the world as a whole. Now imagine it is decided a leader should be chosen from that group. The leader needs to take on many difficult tasks which require a sophisticated knowledge of multiple issues, an ability to consider all aspects of a situation, and the honesty to portray the true situation.

What type of person of person is going to volunteer for that role? Is it a technically brilliant person who does understand the complexity of the potential problems, who has a reasonable understanding of their own weaknesses, and who is prepared to present information realistically? Or is it a person who is overconfident of their own proficiency, doesn't understand the extent of the difficulty involved in making progress, and who is prepared to offer superficial assurance to anyone who needs it?

It makes sense that the second type of person would be the one to stand up and offer to take on the leadership, and in general that's exactly what we see in the real world. Leader after leader has been shown to be grossly incompetent and often horribly corrupt too. So, when choosing a leader, those who stand up with great confidence and offer to take control are exactly the people who should never be given a position of power.

This related to the Dunning-Kruger effect, which I have discussed a few times before, in "Too Stupid to Know" from 2018-08-21, "Dilbert Cartoons" from 2017-05-09, and "They Are Idiots" on 2016-05-11. Here's the official short definition from Wikipedia: The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average, while the highly skilled underrate their own abilities. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their mistakes.

So it's usually those who are most confident who are least competent. I think we should concede that this effect is a concern in a system like democracy where simple catch-phrases (like the PM's "we are one") are widely supported but a meaningful analysis of the true situation (because we, most certainly, are not one) is ignored by most.

And the Dunning-Kruger effect isn't just an example of some smart political rhetoric, or a convenient pop-psychology piece of trivia, it's a real psychological effect supported by proper research.

So it seems that our current system is doomed to provide bad outcomes, but what is the solution? Well, I often advocate for no leadership at all. The main reason we have a prime minister at all is unclear. For that matter, why do we have mayors, CEOs, etc? these people are generally idiots, as shown by the previous CEO of the country's biggest company, Fonterra, who was paid millions per year for creating a complete and total mess of a monopoly industry any reasonable person could have handled far better. He was the BS artist who put up his hand when the board (who are also grossly incompetent) asked for volunteers. He should have been thrown out on the spot!

So I would prefer a meritocracy or technocracy. But it should go beyond that too, because according to Acton, even those people might become corrupt after gaining power. So a far better system would involve group decisions by experts and interested groups. I would hope that almost every citizen could make a contribution of some sort to the leadership, meaning no one person would gain too much control and become corrupted by it.

I know this might lead to a situation where various groups of experts make contradictory decisions which might reduce the effectiveness of the paths they choose, but I think that is better than a single person making decisions and leading us down a definite path, which is usually the wrong one. Better to go nowhere than a long way in the wrong direction following some overconfident idiot!

It seems clear enough: absolute power really does corrupt absolutely, and the only way to avoid it is to avoid anyone getting into a situation of absolute power. That's the only solution to "the problem of power".


Comment 1 (5064) by Anonymous on 2019-08-27 at 12:11:49:

And yet, despite all your well informed commentary, everyone has a power structure like the one you criticise. Why is that?


Comment 2 (5065) by OJb on 2019-08-28 at 12:53:02:

Well, that's a very good question. I think some people want the "easy answers" and just prefer to be told what to do at work, etc. Also, there is an obvious reason why people who want power over others might want to maintain the current system. Neither of those explanations imply that it is a good idea though.


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