Power and Hypocrisy

People in positions of power are very susceptible to behaving in ways that contradict their own public dictates. And the more legitimate they believe their power to be, the more brazenly they will do what they tell others not to do.

  • Barrack Obama attacks the "fat cats," declares that at some point we've made enough money, and nags us for not being generous enough -- requiring the government to spread the wealth around -- while making millions of dollars himself, giving little to charity, and taking ostentatious vacations.
  • Al Gore excoriates us on how we need to restrict our wasteful lifestyles and limit our carbon footprint while flying around the world in private jets and living in huge homes using a dozen times the energy of most people.
  • Republicans held the presidency and enjoyed majorities in the House and Senate for most of 2001-2007, elected by majorities who wanted smaller and less intrusive government. But many of those elected Republicans used their power to grow the government and increase their personal power and prestige -- the exact same habits as they had criticized in the Democrats.
  • Lisa Murkowski promised to abide by the results of the primaries, but when she lost, she betrayed her promise and is now running as a write-in candidate purely for the cause of her own power, no matter the consequences for anybody else.
These are all examples of world-class hypocrisy. They say one thing and do another. They go around telling everybody else how to live while they themselves indulge their own whims and appetites. Their hypocrisy is fueled by a sense of entitlement to their power, and if we want less hypocrisy, we need to make sure that people do not get too comfortable in that power.

These are the findings of a study by Lammers, Stapel, and Gailinsky, Power Increases Hypocrisy: Moralizing in Reasoning, Immorality in Behavior (Psychological Science, May 2010, 21 [5]).

And conversely, the less legitimate the powerful judge their power to be, the less likely they are to engage in hypocrisy. In other words, if you want to encourage powerful people to live with greater integrity -- to live more congruently with what they say, and presumably to stop nagging us and coercing us to live as they will not -- then you must limit their sense of entitlement to their power.

This was the great accomplishment of the founding of the United States of America. Ours is a country conceived in the idea that the power that government wields over its citizens is limited, and temporary.

George Washington set the example of retiring as president after two terms, demonstrating the transient nature of that office's power. These were to be time-limited positions held by citizen servants. Emphasizing this point makes their legitimacy intrinsically fragile -- as it should be.

We cannot hold our freedom if we vote for representatives and then let them do whatever they want. We must not let them become comfortable in their power -- ever. Our representatives should never be allowed to lose sight that their power is on loan to them from us, and any pretense otherwise is illegitimate.

As we prepare to elect a new, more conservative House and Senate, fueled by the passion and inspiration of the Tea Party movement, it's important that we remain vigilant, even as we support the candidates whom we are coming to respect and trust. Much as we may like them, as wonderful as they may seem to us, we must not ever relax our vigilance -- for the sake of their own integrity, and for the sake of our own freedom.

If we don't remind our representatives continually that they derive their just powers from our consent, most of them will, to some degree, come to feel entitled to their power -- even the ones we like right now. You can bet on it; it's human nature. We are creatures of habit. We grow accustomed to whatever our circumstances may be, and if those circumstances include unchecked power, most people will settle into a presumption of that power to some degree.

Note that I say most people. We are not passive victims of our nature, but it takes courage and self-awareness to counter the lure of such arrogance, particularly within a culture where power is taken for granted. Some people in powerful positions do show restraint against their temptations. Unfortunately, we cannot expect such strength of character from a majority of people.

We can and should honor those who hold to the Constitution, who exhibit the strength of character to live with integrity regardless of the temptations of power, and who exhibit courage in preserving our republic. But don't let anyone get too comfortable holding the reins that we hand to them.

This is supposed to be the role of the press. They are supposed to be all over our public officials, and the positive effect of this is to make those officials anxious in their positions of power. We have virtually none of this from the mainstream media today, since they generally support the powerful Democrats in office -- and the progressive Republicans who enable them. We need to call them on this, not just in support of our favorite politicians, but as a universal principle.

Our press trashes advocates of conservative/libertarian principles constantly, highlighting any weakness or hypocrisy that they can find. Our attitude should be: okay, fine. That's your job. But do your job everywhere -- and not just for those who are elected, either. Your targets should include the county planner, the state auditor, and the bureaucrats churning out federal regulations.

Anxiety inspired by a vigilant public should be the natural price of government work.

Not just because we want to save money, cut spending, and lower taxes; but because power tends to corrupt. When people come to believe that their power is more than just a temporary stewardship that we grant to them, we get just what we have right now: irresponsible, unaccountable, and self-righteous leaders who are much too impressed with themselves.

The simple truth is this: If we are to keep our freedom, we have to keep them anxious.

Joel F. Wade, Ph.D. is the author of Mastering Happiness: Ten Principles for Living a More Fulfilling Life. He can be reached at jwade@drjoelwade.com.