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Do Good Guys Finish Last?

By Lewis G. Miller

One of history’s great murder-mysteries can be found in ancient Rome. Romulus, the founder of Rome, late on in his life found himself sole ruler of his city after killing his brother, Remus, and witnessing the death of his co-ruler, Tatius. His conquests had earned respect from tribes far beyond the Seven Hills and admiration from philosophers, including Machiavelli and Montesquieu, for centuries to come.

Romulus, eventually named a god, was very humanly brought down by the seduction of opulence. As Plutarch writes; ‘like many, nay, like almost all men who have been lifted by great and unexpected strokes of good fortune to power and dignity, even he was emboldened by his achievements to take on a haughtier bearing, to renounce his popular ways, and to change to the ways of a monarch, which were made hateful and vexatious first by the state which he assumed.’ He began to dress in a scarlet tunic, draped over a purple toga, both symbols of Rome’s hated, hedonistic, monarchical Etruscan rivals.

Romulus is then said to have sapped the power of his patrician Senators, leaving parliament a mere theatre for Monarchical edicts. After making insulting demands, it is then that the mystery began. In July, Romulus suddenly disappeared. No trace of his body was to be found. Plutarch subtly noted the suspiciousness of the Senators. Cassius Dio outright accused them of regicide. Livy, meanwhile, wrote that that ‘a violent thunderstorm suddenly arose and enveloped the king in so dense a cloud that he was quite invisible to the assembly. From that hour Romulus was no longer seen on earth.’

What makes the Senators so suspicious is that Romulus had been corrupted by power, and so needed to be removed. Ancient Greek scholar Polybius thought more generally about power’s corrupting nature in his concept of ‘anacyclosis’. It is hubris and the need to feel superior which corrupts Monarchy into Tyranny. As Kings grow used to power, they gain an appetite for ‘superabundance’, feeling that they must dress and be addressed in manners above that of the multitude. Polybius writes that ‘these habits having given rise in the one case to envy and offence and in the other to an outburst of hatred and passionate resentment, the kingship changed into a tyranny; the first steps towards its overthrow were taken by the subjects, and conspiracies began to be formed.’

Power’s corrupting nature gives rise to what Dacher Keltner calls the ‘Power Paradox,’ in his book of the same title. The Power Paradox is defined by Keltner as the fact that ‘we rise in power and make a difference in the world due to what is best about human nature, but we fall from power due to what is worst.’

The observation is evidently not new. This would lead one to expect that this book fits nicely into our three thousand year-long discussion about why ‘power corrupts’. Keltner’s experience as a Professor of social psychology adds to one’s anticipation, offering an opportunity to deliver an in-depth study on a well-known phenomenon from an unusual vantage point. With claims that it ‘will change your view of what power is,’ I was instantly intrigued.

This is perhaps what is most irritating about this book; what it was not. The Power Paradox was not robustly grounded in history and inter-disciplinarian study. It did not fundamentally alter my view of what power is. Due to over-stated aims and unnecessary arguments, the book ultimately failed to fully exploit Professor Keltner’s experience and insights. Instead of adding a new element to an ancient phenomenon, the book instead focuses on criticising our apparent obsession with coercive power, on arguing that Machiavelli’s ideas are ineffective, on why good guys can win power, and on twenty ‘power principles’ which appear as if lifted from a slide show intended for disinterested managers on a training day.

His thesis is rather simple. Power is portrayed wrongly in our society. Shows like House of Cards and Game of Thrones mistakenly view politics as requiring deceit and craftiness. According to Keltner, you are more inclined to gain and keep power if you advance the general good, if you are caring towards others, and if you can find ‘a balance between the gratification of your own desires and your focus on other people.’ Those who lose power are likely to do so because they care little about their followers and therefore ruin their reputations. Keltner proposes a politics of empathy and selflessness in its place.

The book’s real enemy is not George R. R. Martin but Niccolo Machiavelli. Keltner chooses to portray Machiavelli’s book the Prince as a mere instruction manual on how to hold and exercise power through force, deception, and brutality. He paints Machiavelli as conniving and unconcerned with the safety and well-being of his fellow man. This is all part of a common and misconstrued characterisation which has associated Machiavelli with insidiousness rather than prudence. Keltner sides himself, wittingly or not, with the very moralisers who Machiavelli believes were responsible for the unnecessary deaths of thousands of innocent Florentines through naivety, cowardice, and incompetence.

Machiavelli was not concerned with the arbitrary and brutal execution of power. As Nicholas Barrett and I have noted on the Prince’s Podcast, Machiavelli dedicates entire parts of his book towards the admonishing of the arbitrary use of power. He chastises the brutal Agathocles, who is said to have crushed pregnant women with bricks and roasted men in copper cages, as unreasonably and pointlessly cruel. Those who possess virtue know when it is necessary to be cruel and kind.

Part of the Prince’s argument is that rulers should be adequately prepared for crises when they should arise. A Prince relies on fear as people tend not to be consistent in their love for Princes during times of adversity, not because he thinks love is for pansies. A Prince is to be frugal because the treasury should always have funds to repel foreign invaders, not because he thinks mountains of gold shimmer nicely. To gain power, a Prince needs to have luck (fortuna) and skill (virtù), of which it is better to rely the latter.

At the time, the reason Machiavelli’s frugality and fearsomeness was so controversial was because it went against the teachings of the good Christians. A kind and generous King who failed to act cruelly when necessary would end up bankrupting his city, presiding over its eventual descent into bloody chaos. Machiavelli summarises his approach in Chapter 9, where he argues that ‘a prince cannot rely upon what he observes in quiet times, when citizens have need of the state, because then everyone agrees with him; they all promise, and when death is far distant they all wish to die for him; but in troubled times, when the state has need of its citizens, then he finds but few.’

Keltner never seriously engages with Machiavelli although he is all too happy to dismiss him. His dismissal smacks of a need for some sort of ‘new politics,’ generally devoid of politics and difficulty, which appears so tempting for many today. Although he correctly notes that the Prince was of a more violent era, Machiavelli’s advice that sometimes politics requires us to be cruel for the greater good is never seriously challenged or acknowledged. Instead, Keltner simply uses Machiavelli to represent a dominant view of politics which gets in the way of a more positive and happy tale; that empathy can effectively win power. Keltner never really engages with the real problem of politics; what should leaders do when times get difficult and leaders have to choose from a selection of unpopular decisions?

Keltner’s understanding of power suffers from three main problems which could easily have been avoided. The first concerns his definition of power, the second his oversimplification of society’s demands, and the third his mere dismissal of coercive power. All three of them are dripping with his need to be overly optimistic, and dismiss many of the harsh realities of power.

He begins with two central claims. Firstly, power early on as ‘the capacity to make a difference in the world, in particular by stirring others in our social networks.’ Secondly, he unnecessarily insists that ‘this book is not about politics.’

The second idea confused me, as power is by its very nature political. If you ever enrol in a political science class, the very first lesson you are likely to attend will concern power. You will probably also learn about the ‘three faces’ of power. The first face is commonly attributed to Robert Dahl. Dahl argues that power is where ‘A gets B to do what B would not otherwise do.’ Bachrach and Baratz add a second face, where power involves the ability to decide what decisions are and are not made in the first place. Steven Lukes grants us a third face, arguing that power can affect us through dominant ideas which can cause individuals to accept situations which disadvantage them, explaining why women may support a patriarchal society.

The claim in the Power Paradox, that this book is not about politics, needlessly draws a line between the view of power in political science and that in social psychology. Keltner allows himself to put forward a definition of power which is controversial at best. Power as ‘the capacity to make a difference’ slightly echoes that of Dahl’s approach, but with a more value loaded wording. For example, Jim Jones had sufficient power over his cult members to successfully command 918 of them to ingest cyanide and kill themselves. To say he ‘made a difference’ would be rightly considered offensive.

The second element of Keltner’s idea of power is that it granted to us by others for serving a general good (Principle 5). The idea of the ‘general good’ is another over-simplification. The power of any dictatorship lies, not in serving all interests, but in serving the interests of those who keep them in power. We know that autocrats rarely serve the ‘general good’ when it requires that they remove themselves from office. They simply remove the dissenters. The need to gain the support of the most powerful is why Roman Emperors gifted enormous amounts of money to their armies (a grant called the donativum). If the military is in your pocket, then what else do you have to worry about?

The main problem with his assumption is that the idea of a ‘general good’ is always contested within any group of people. What is good for me may not be for you, that’s why politics exists. Relying on an idea of a ‘general good’ naturally understates the importance of competing interests within any group and assumes leaders can get to the top by pleasing everyone. This is evidently untrue. The politician who claims to represent everyone will eventually find themselves representing no-one, as some other leader will likely find a smaller banner under which people are more likely to march under. Being good to everyone is a nice idea, but sometimes we are forced to pick sides and decide who the winners and losers will be.

Keltner’s concept of power also attempts to do away with coercive power, the sort which the donativum represents. His need avoid coercion is never really justified beyond a desire to build a more pleasant approach to the exercise of power. Keltner’s over-statement is clearly visible when he sides himself with Joseph Nye, who is credited with the idea of ‘soft power,’ where countries gain influence through ideas and culture. What is notable about Nye’s work is not that he wants to supplant the idea of ‘hard power,’ but that he wants to build upon it with a differing conception. This is exactly what Keltner should have done.

The weakness is visible in the introduction’s assertion that coercive power fails to explain, among others, the abolition of slavery and the toppling of dictators. Certainly, force was not all that mattered, but it played an important element in both tales. The abolition of slavery in Britain may not have been possible without the compensation of slave-owners with £20 million. In the US, who can forget the armed conflict which arose over slavery? Regarding the second, dictatorships are often ended either through military support for revolutionaries (as with Hosni Mubarak or Nicolae Ceaușescu) or through using enforceable executive power to transition to a democracy (as occurred in Taiwan and Myanmar). Coercive power does not explain all, but neither does non-coercive power.

These three issues could easily have been avoided if the author stopped trying to give us a nice view of politics and chose to do one of two things: Either he could have focussed more specifically on his insights from social psychology, or made the book function as a bridge between social psychology, sociology and political science. Instead, the book is overly concerned in needless arguments and a need to make us think politics can be nice.

It was chapters four and five where the insights of the author’s work gave some interesting insights. Ignoring the ‘power principles,’ Keltner began late-on to offer us an insight into how empowerment and disempowerment affects us as human beings. He gives us a deeper understanding as to what exactly provokes corruption by power. He cites studies which are often intriguing and illuminating. One shows how empowerment can affect how much we consider the opinions of others. Another how power can affect our ability to read facial expressions. Keltner’s suggestion that powerlessness can negatively affect health is also particularly striking.

The research is often his own, giving his writing the gravitas his early chapters lacked. One of his studies showed that “the strongest predictor of which dorm dwellers rose to the top… was [their] enthusiasm.” Enthusiasm, of all things, may not have been the major indicator which you would expect to gain you influence. Such a finding links social psychology to other ideas, such as Max Weber’s notion of ‘charisma,’ and questions over whether enthusiastic people should always be trusted. If power becomes value neutral, we can see how enthusiasm can result in good and evil.

The book’s real contribution is the notion that “when an individual feels powerful, he or she experiences higher levels of excitement, inspiration, joy, and euphoria… Feeling powerful, the individual becomes sharply attuned to rewards in the environment… At the same time, surges of power make him or her less aware of the risks that attend any course of action.” Whether it is Romulus and Remus, IBM and Microsoft, or Celtic and Rangers, understanding the psychological effects of empowerment gives an added dimension to a much used idea.

In the end, it was the book’s strange need to be optimistic which undermined its effectiveness. The absence of insights of entire disciplines dedicated to power, and the need to talk about ‘making a difference’ drew attention away from the insights of a very qualified professor. Like in politics, we are coaxed in with promises of radical change, optimism, and a sense that good will triumph. In the end we are left dejected, feeling like maybe it was all too good to be true.