We all have heard of Lord Acton’s dictum that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. We see it at work every day in our social life and politics. The police abuse their powers by racial profiling and even gunning down minority people with seeming impunity. Elected officials are seen selling out the interests of the people who elected them for lobbyist money and the promise of future favors from the giant corporations that actually rule the country.

But it turns out that all this power and corruption may not be so bad after all. Just last week Science Daily reported on an article recently published in the journal Evolution that indicates that power and corruption may be good for us. I hope they are right because we have such a concentration of power and corruption in our society that it would justify our claim that “USA is Number One.”

Let’s look at the evidence. Two professors, Francisco Úbeda at the University of Tennessee and Edgar Duéñez at Harvard, say that while “Moral corruption and power asymmetries are pervasive in human societies… [they] may play a role in maintaining overall societal cooperation.” Society needs cooperation in order to function.

There have to be some groups that punish non-cooperators and, the professors remind us, there are government officials and law enforcers who have that happy task. However these very groups often fail to cooperate among themselves and with each other because they abuse their power and are corrupt. It’s the old problem of who polices the police. The professors also “discovered” that these “law enforcers, by virtue of their positions, are able to sidestep punishment when they are caught failing to cooperate.” Who would have thought it?

The bright side is that the vast majority of society does try to play by the rules since they don’t want to be punished by the enforcers. Now the important thing is to maintain the optimum amount of social cooperation. We have a Goldilocks problem. Too much abuse of power and corruption and society begins to break down. But, according to the professors, with too little corruption, the enforcers would not do a good job because they don’t enjoy the perks of office (shooting you and getting away with it, not paying for their donuts, etc.) “Law enforcers often enjoy privileges that allow them to avoid the full force of the law when they breach it. Law enforcing results in the general public abiding by the law. Thus law enforcers enjoy the benefits of a lawful society and are compensated for their law enforcing by being able to dodge the law.”

Wouldn’t a pay raise be better compensation for doing your job?

In other words, the professors tell us that society is better off with abuse of power and corruption than without it, since with it the law enforcers have more incentive to do their jobs. So the occasional shake down, bribe taking, unjustified shooting, illegal war even is actually good for society and keeps us safe – it even saves us paying higher taxes in salaries; even an illegal war creates jobs, although this bit of corruption and abuse of power may be from papa bear’s bowl of porridge.

This “new” theory on the benefits of having a corrupt society has “far-reaching implications”: it could help us understand “corrupt behaviors in social insects” – a pressing problem facing the American people. It may also give us “insights on how to harness corruption to benefit society.” I’m sure the new Republican majority in the House will be working on this one.

Image: Ikhlasul Amal // CC BY-NC 2.0


Thomas Riggins
Thomas Riggins

Thomas Riggins has a background in philisophy, anthropology and archeology. He writes from New York, NY. Riggins was associate editor of Political Affairs magazine.