Last week I quoted Friedrich Nietzsche (via Bent Flyvbjerg) about power, in a blog “Are There Two Kinds of Stupid?” here at Ethnography.com. Nietzsche (and Flyvbjerg) made the point that “power makes stupid” for the simple reason that people in power come to see themselves as powerful, and therefore usually right and more clever than those around them. Flyvbjerg describes how the process of possessing power means that you can ignore appeals to reason if you wish, because you are powerful. This means that you can ignore data, logic, and reasoning in ways that not-so-powerful cannot. This is because power creates the frame for reason. The powerful, simply given the nature of their position, can decide to continue with a pre-determined policy, even when reason and data point in another direction–they just reframe the problem in a fashion suitable to themselves. And of course this happens all the time in meetings where the powerful are deferred to because they can fire the other people at the table, or at least make life unpleasant for them. Other people at the table can’t do that. “The boss has made a decision, so that’s what has to be” becomes the result of such meetings. And the underlings obediently and habitually fall into line, casting aside data, reason, and logic which they believed so fervently just minutes before “the decision” was made by the boss. The boss just cut a corner, so that’s it; and it’s ok, because, well, the boss is the boss. And so no one questions the boss, even though the boss just became stupider.
Nietzsche is making the point that people in power become accustomed to such deference, and come to interpret the deference as being a reflection of their own wisdom. But the in fact, the habit of ignoring data, and being blind to reason is “stupid.” But who is going to tell the powerful person that they are being stupid? To see what I mean, have a non-partisan look at the people running for the presidency of the United States in this election (or any other). What you inevitably find are people accustomed to being admired, fawned over, and being told they have extraordinary power of leadership, wisdom, and grace. And for Nietzsche, these are prime conditions for how “power makes stupid.” I other words, the wielding of power appeals to a rather human sense of vanity, with the result that the power-holder comes to believe the press releases written by the publicist they hired, and who they can fire.
The classical sociologist Max Weber actually described this problem regarding power-holders in his essay, “Politics as Vocation,” written in 1919:
Vanity is a very widely spread trait and probably nobody is entirely free of it. Certainly, among scholars and academic circles it is kind of an occupational disease. Nevertheless, especially for a scholar, vanity is distasteful when it expresses itself, but it is relatively harmless because it does not disrupt the functioning of academic organizations.
This is completely different in a politician for whom the pursuit of power is a means unto itself. “The Pursuit of Power” is in fact one of the normal typical qualities of a politician.
“The sin against the Holy Spirit,” which is a deadly sin, in the context of the politician’s professional calling, begins when the thirst for power becomes irrational and a matter for pure personal self-intoxication instead of being used exclusively in the service of a cause…
[The] need to be seen and push oneself to the front increases because the [politician seeking power] is forced to count on personal appeal; thus, the [power-seeker] is always in danger of becoming a mere showman and take responsibility for the consequences of his actions too lightly. He is always at risk for only caring about the impression he makes. It is his lack of objectivity that pushes him to seek the glamour of power, rather than true power. Further, his irresponsibility makes him enjoy power for its own sake and ignore the purpose of the content.
Power is the inevitable means of all politics, and thus striving for power is one of the driving forces behind all politics. Indeed, there is no more corrupting distortion of political force than the parvenu-like boasting with power, the vain self-reflection in the sensation of power, and any kind of power worship for its own sake. A simple power-seeking politician who is cultivated and glorified by groups of people in our country may come over as being strong, but in fact, his acts are typically futile and pointless. (Weber pp. 181-182).
And this, then is part of the formula for how “power makes stupid,” as Nietzsche put it. It is a very general human failing. This is well demonstrated in Flygvbjerg ethnography of city planning in the small city of Aalborg in Denmark in the 1970s when discussing things like the siting of a bus terminal. What Flygbjerg observed was an example of “decisions first, rationalization later” in which city planning staff were instructed to find evidence for the site the mayor already selected by a powerful mayor. Whose will won out? The humans in Flyvbjerg’s ethnography who had power, and offered the certitudes that only power-holders who set the “frame for reason” entertain. So the mayor’s pre-baked selection was approved, irrespective of the technical merits of any alternatives. The message of Nietzsche, Weber, and Flyvbjerg is that as Weber put it “Vanity is a very widely spread trait and probably nobody is entirely free of it.”
But we are also not free of is the fact that when power becomes concentrated, the rest of us can become the victims of the vanity and resultant stupidity that the denial of rationality brings. Decisions will be made, with rationalizations to follow. As Forrest Gump taught us “Stupid is as Stupid Does,” meaning that the irrational acts that you do despite the evidence that something else should be done is what makes you stupid, not your i.q. Stupid is made by vain people who assume that their power trumps reason. Which indeed it can, at least in the short run, and often the long run. Fiyvbjerg seems to describe “power trumps reason” as an almost iron law of public administration!
Flyvbjerg, Bent (1991/1998) Rationality and Power. Chicago: University of Chicago
Weber, Max (1919/2015) “Politics as Vocation” by Max Weber, in Weber’s Rationalism and Modern Society, edited and translated by Tony Waters and Dagmar Waters. Palgrave MacMillan.
Tony Waters is czar and editor of Ethnography.com. He came to us from the Sociology department at California State University at Chico where he has been a professor since 1996. In 2016 though he suddenly found himself with a new gig at Payap University in northern Thailand where he is on the faculty of the Peace Studies Department. He has also been a guest professor in Germany, and Tanzania. In the past, his main interests have been international development and refugees in Thailand, Tanzania, and California. This reflects a former career in the Peace Corps (Thailand), and refugee camps (Thailand and Tanzania). His books include: Crime and Immigrant Youth (1999), Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan (2001), The Persistence of Subsistence Agriculture: Life Beneath of the Marketplace (2007), When Killing is a Crime (2007), and Schooling, Bureaucracy, and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child (2012). His hobby is trying to learn strange languages–and the mistakes that that implies. Tony is a prolific academic, you can read more of his work at academia.edu.or purchase one (or more!) of his books from Amazon.com.