DOES “power corrupt and absolute power corrupt absolutely,” as stated by the 19th Century British historian Lord Acton? The answer from years of research and studies seems to be “it depends.” Well, that is no surprise in the psychological area! Another perhaps more relevant quote is from Abraham Lincoln—“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
The “gift” of power, one study suggests, is that it tends to heighten pre-existing ethical tendencies. Right-minded people use power to do the right thing, whilst with wrong-minded people, power has the effect as perceived by Lord Acton.
A reader’s comment on my column last week was bemoaning the fact that there is so much talk about corruption, it seems endless, and I agree with that. There is continual talk about corruption; finger-pointing, accusations of one sort or another particularly in the political arena, and it just fills up the media. But I guess people like to read about it. It’s newsworthy! The problem with its being newsworthy in the political arena is that public opinion can be manipulated often without all the facts being disclosed. On the other hand, if a specific issue were to end up in court, the results from proceedings where evidence is the key basically depend on who has the best lawyer or, failing that, there can be claims of corruption in the legal system!
My conclusion from this raises the question of how are people really to know whether an individual is corrupt or not. Perhaps it just depends on who has the most effective media relations group! I think it is fair to say that corruption is endemic, so much so that any new right-minded entrants to the Philippine business sector will be persuaded very strongly that the route to success is by paying somebody or other off, or at least turning a blind eye to some other transgression that really should be challenged, “but better not because everybody has to be comfortable and get a share.” If corruption and misrepresentation are really as bad as the media and people’s personal experiences would have us believe, then we have regressed to Hobbes “state of nature” in which everybody is just concerned with their own survival.
So, judging people in the Philippines on the basis of their claimed relative corruption is a zero sum game. Simply because you never really know the truth or even if by some miracle you did find out the truth, so what? Corruption is an accepted way of life.
So perhaps, when considering where in this democratic society to cast a vote (provided that the votes are counted properly!) corruption or the abuse of power should not be the sole prime consideration. This would have the added benefit of leaving lots of media space for real news and opinion.
Competence and efficiency are clearly measurable criteria for the selection of people to represent their interests. Whether or not potential representatives are corrupt, or whether one contender is more corrupt than another or will use power as it is meant to be used for the best interests of the electorate, becomes a very subjective and manipulable measure almost to the point of its being irrelevant.
So in my thinking, potential representatives and senior officials should be judged on the basis of what they have done or what people really believe they will do if elected to represent their electorate. In a society where the truth is often a delusion and media and social networking in particular can be stoked up to further the delusions, then unambiguous hard achievements must be a better, and the right measure, for electing those to represent the people. In the private sector, CEOs are not selected based on whether or not they are nice guys. They are appointed because there is a belief that they can bring results for shareholders by effectively managing the business for maximum profitability, and indeed let’s not think that businesses always behave in a most ethical way in order to do that.
Lest anybody think that this piece is in defense of corrupt behavior, it is certainly not. The laws of the USA and the UK and probably other western states demand a utopian approach to corruption, which just won’t work everywhere. So first, define corruption in Asia and the Philippines in particular and let’s not use utopia as a benchmark against which to evaluate it. Corruption which works for selfish intentions is undoubtedly a bad thing, particularly so when brought about by the abuse of power; perceptions of corruption are, however, more damaging, and it is the external perceptions of corruption which are stoked up by the Philippine media and the endless finger-pointing which it publicizes that damage the prospects of further development of the nation. Corruption is indeed a cancer in the Philippines and it is being encouraged to eat away at the potential of the country.
So, agreeing with the reader’s comment which I cite above, better to turn down the volume on the subject of corruption and turn up the volume on real concrete achievements and the competencies of contending politicians and senior government people. People are better selected against proven track records of delivering on promises in just the same way as shareholders would choose people to run their business. Morality is indeed an important consideration but it is not the only consideration, and I suggest it is not the primary consideration.
Mike can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org