Power and Corruption – What Would You Do With £20 Billion?

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Chalice lighting

A change is gonna come
Those with power will cause the changes they want to see
The politicians have power
The wealthy have power
And we have power too
Let the light of this flame bring us together
And guide us to find and direct our power
Toward our vision of a world with more love and more justice

Reading: from “Power increases hypocrisy: moralizing in reasoning, immorality in behavior,” Joris Lammers, Diederik A. Stapel, and Adam D. Galinsky, 2010

Anecdotal evidence from various domains of society suggests that power undermines people’s sense of morality, corrupting their thoughts and behavior. In the political domain, newspapers repeatedly report on government officials who have extramarital affairs despite decrying the breakdown of family values or who use public funds for private benefits despite condemning governmental waste.

This pattern of sanctimony combined with lechery and gluttony have led some to suggest that double standards are the hallmark of politicians. In the economic domain, captains of industry [ask] the government for billions of dollars to protect their banks, industries, and companies from economic ruin, but at the same time, these CEOs have secured millions in financial bonuses for themselves while continuing to clamor about the divinity of free-market capitalism.

Message, part 1 – by Rev. Andy Pakula

Imagine that you check your email in a free moment on the bus and you scroll through the ever-increasing stack of greetings, annoyances, answers, questions, sales pitches, and newsletters that seemed like a good idea to subscribe to but have now filled your inbox and make you feel guilty for not reading them.

And there, in the midst of all this, is a very formal looking message explaining that a very wealthy person died and left you quite a bit of money. You first think: “Scam!”

But the grammar is perfect and the email comes from a prominent law firm, so you don’t automatically hit the delete button. You wait for a few days and then you reply – still wondering if there’s someone on the other end waiting to get your account details.

The reply comes inviting you to come to the City law firm – no shady money transfers, no mysterious names or addresses. So you go.

You meet with a serious lawyer in a serious office in the serious law firm. They sit you down and explain that this wealthy person noticed you for something good you had done one day. You never met them, but they decided then and there to put you in their will.

They put you in their will in a rather significant fashion. Where would you like your £20 billion transferred to? It’s real.

You are now the third richest person in the UK.  Globally, you wouldn’t actually make the list of the top 25 wealthiest but you’d just squeak in at the bottom of the top 50. Not bad.

You are richer than Rupert Murdoch. He is worth a mere £19 billion - and he and his family have arguably made huge changes in politics throughout the world.

Now you have massive power. Now you can influence and change things. What will you do with it?

Talk to some people around you. I’ll give you a few minutes.


How many of you picked:

  • A superyacht with helipad

  • Give it all away – £3 to each person on earth, or £300 to each person in the UK?

  • Did you have a strategy?

You’ve probably heard the saying that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

It comes from a letter written in 1887 by John Emerich Edward Dalberg, a British historian who is best known simply as “Lord Acton”. The sentence that follows is even more blunt. “Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority.”

Unless you opted to give your £20 billion away, you risk being corrupted by that money and the power it brings you.

The reading we just heard describes our impression of the corruption that power brings. Whether in politics or in industry, the powerful are often revealed to behave in appalling ways. So, is power bad?

On the first Sunday of this theme of power I said that power is not bad or good – it is the ability to cause change. I said that we need power to make a more just and loving world, just as all those who want change of any kind do.

But today I’m going to tell you more about the negative impacts of power. Think of Frodo’s ring or the dark side of the Force. Even when we are drawn to accumulate and use power for what we understand to be good ends, power can indeed corrupt.  It can make us act against what we know to be good. It can make us insensitive and harsh. It can make us act selfishly.

I’m sorry to say that the £20 billion was made up and – as far as I know – none of us is about to receive that surprise bequest. I’m not sure if that is a disappointment or a relief – or maybe a bit of both.

But even without the £20 billion, many of us, even on our own, have power in some ways. We are also powerless in others.

You may have someone who reports to you at work. That is power.

You may have people come to your home to help you for pay. That is power.

If you stand up in front of people and talk and they listen, that is power.

If you can afford to have someone serve you a meal in a restaurant, drive you somewhere, or deliver parcels to you, that is power.

“Power tends to corrupt,” and you have power. I have power.

We want to do good in the world. We think that everyone should do good – and yet even those with good intentions can be corrupted by power.

Reading: “Report on the Fourteenth Subcommittee on Convening a Discussion Group”, by Marge Piercy

This is how things begin to tilt into change,

how coalitions are knit from strands of hair,

of barbed wire, twine, knitting wool and gut,

how people ease into action arguing each inch,

but the tedium of it is watching granite erode.

Let us meet to debate meeting, the day, the time,

the length. Let us discuss whether we will sit

or stand or hang from the ceiling or take it lying

down. Let us argue about the chair and the table and

the chairperson and the motion to table the chair.

In the room fog gathers under the ceiling and thickens

in every brain. Let us form committees spawning

subcommittees all laying little moldy eggs of reports.

Under the grey fluorescent sun they will crack

to hatch scuttling lizards of more committees.

The Pliocene gathers momentum and fades.

The earth tilts on its axis. More and more snows

fall each winter and less melt each spring.

A new ice age is pressing the glaciers forward

over the floor. We watch the wall of ice advance.

We are evolving into molluscs, barnacles

clinging to wood and plastic, metal and smoke

while the stale and flotsam-laden tide of rhetoric

inches up the shingles and dawdles back.

This is true virtue: to sit here and stay awake,

to listen, to argue, to wade on through the muck

wrestling to some momentary small agreement

like a pinhead pearl prized from a dragon-oyster.

I believe in this democracy as I believe

there is blood in my veins, but oh, oh, in me

lurks a tyrant with a double-bladed ax who longs

to swing it wide and shining, who longs to stand

and shriek, You Shall Do as I Say, pig-bastards.

No more committees but only picnics and orgies

and dances. I have spoken. So be it forevermore.

Message, part 2 – by Rev. Andy Pakula

One thing you should know about Sunday Gatherings is that when I choose topics, I don’t really know where I’m going with them. I don’t start out with a conclusion. Mostly, I choose a question that interests me – a question for which I don’t know the answer. It would be boring if I did.

This approach often leads to surprises.

In the past, exploring my questions led me to move from being a pescatarian to stopping eating fish and eggs. Other topics have caused me to change my mind about all manner of things.

In this case, I imagined that I’d end up saying something like – nah – power isn’t so corrupting. I’d say “that old saying is not really valid and here’s why”. I thought I’d probably say that power simply gives corrupt people the means to be more corrupt. I imagined I’d suggest that powerful people get a bad rap because everyone wants to have power and resent those who do.

But exploring this question, as a person with power, led me to learn something uncomfortable: that I and all of us with power over others are at substantial risk of corruption.

Science says so.

There are quite a few ways to get people to feel more or less powerful in a laboratory experiment. Do this [victory pose]. That apparently makes people feel more powerful.

You can make people feel more powerful simply by assigning them more powerful roles in acting out a completely made-up and artificial situation.

Any of us who resonated with the reading and have been appalled at the behaviour of the powerful – whether bosses or MPs or Prime Ministers or Presidents – will be unsurprised at the results of these sorts of experiments.

First, the very strong result is that power tends to make people more impulsive, less aware of risks, and less aware of how others feel. Compassion is eroded and a sense of one’s own importance grows. One leader in the field says that power causes something like a kind of brain damage. If power was a drug, it could only be available by prescription. The paper in the package would be brimming with serious warnings. Under the influence of power, the brain becomes unable to manage the basic social ability of seeing things from other people’s perspectives.

Power also causes hypocrisy. Those who are made to feel powerful in the lab become more likely to proclaim the importance of morality. They will insist that expense reports be scrupulously accurate, for example. And then, in the same day and the same lab, they will be the same ones who cut corners, who lie more and cheat more.

Umm, and at least in a few experiments, these effects of power were exacerbated by testosterone…  

When we respond to the word “power” or “leadership” as though these are bad words, it is the real-life implications of these research results that we have in mind. Those in power really do have a tendency to become hypocritical, insensitive, risk-taking, and in many ways, corrupt.

We are no longer surprised that a powerful person treats others without sensitivity. We are no longer shocked when a powerful person who criticises others for their sexuality is caught in an affair. We take it as given that powerful people will believe they deserve their seven figure bonuses and will be found to have cheated on their taxes.

This leaves us in an apparent conundrum. Those of us who want to change the world for the better know that power is needed. We want to use our £20 billion for good. But we also have to realise that the very power we need to do this can turn us away from behaving with goodness that is central to our vision.

What to do? We consider removing all power. We consider that no one should ever be able to make decisions without the consent of everyone else.

And we realise that this can put us in a trap. It can mean gross inefficiency with enormous amounts of time spent on even the smallest of concerns. It means too that expertise is devalued because everyone - whatever their experience - has an equal say. It can support the status quo because anyone with an inspiring vision and a path forward is mistrusted.

When I’m on a plane, I want the trained, qualified pilots to exercise their power. I don’t want the passengers consulted on every button push, lever pull, or setting change.

I have seen congregations that believe in pure democracy - where the vote of everyone is required for every decision - whether it’s what kind of dishes to buy, a design change in the newsletter, or what kind of coffee to serve. As you might imagine, not much ever changes. It is simply too hard to do anything new or different even when change is needed for justice or for inclusion.

But there is hope. Not everyone with power is corrupted in every situation. At least in the laboratory, some resist the damaging impacts of power.

The studies also show that the models we choose influence how we are affected by power. If, when given power, we focus on what we believe people with power do, we are quick to head toward lack of empathy and hypocrisy. If we focus instead on our best impulses and our values and we ask ourselves and others what is the right thing to do with power, we are more likely to continue to act ethically and decently.

Marge Piercy’s “Report on the Fourteenth Subcommittee on Convening a Discussion Group” is not the only answer to the tendency of power to corrupt. She speaks for many of us, of course, when she describes the inner tyrant wielding a double-bladed axe who wants to shriek “do as I say!”

For all of us who have power, even when we aim to use that power to further the loftiest ideals, there are important lessons here.

We must be continually mindful of the tendency of power to corrupt. We can only counter these impacts if we are present enough and honest enough to see them in operation in our own hearts and minds.

We must cultivate humility. Acquiring power does not make us knowledgeable or wise – it only makes us think we are. Whoever we are – whether a minister, a chair, a trustee, or a member of a team – we do not know everything. Somewhere, someone has a better idea or a better approach and we must always open ourselves to seek better answers.

And we must exercise our empathy and our compassion. To maintain our ability to understand the way other people see the world, we need to listen more and talk less.

Power is a necessity for those who want to change the world. It is also a dangerous tool that can harm the individuals and institutions that possess it. We can’t do away with power and leadership without giving up on positive change, so we must do all we can do to ensure that we use our power in ways that are inclusive and honest and caring.

In the words of Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Let us build and focus our power for the common good.

Closing words

As we build the power amongst us
And direct it toward the world of greater good
Let us treat our power like flame - powerful and dangerous
Beneficial and destructive
Let our light shine for justice. Let our light shine for love.