On power

by The Editor

SERIES: The Thing About is a weekly Business Day column designed to discuss democratic ideas, ideals, values and principles from a liberal perspective. Today a look at the idea of power and how those in close proximity to it, react to it. For those who seek it out for its own sake, its effect can be dangerous but, rather than outright abuse, it lends itself to maniuplation – of information and behaviour.

On power

By: Gareth van Onselen

21 May 2012

Much is rightly made of the pursuit of power and its effect on those who wield it; less about those who seek to be near it and feed of its influence. And yet, if power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, the proximity to power necessitates a similar warning.

Significantly, it is far harder to measure; for the intoxicating effect of power on those close to it does not come with the necessary checks and balances designed to limit those formal positions in which it resides. And so, often, its mere existence generates in others unprincipled or unethical behaviour.

On the one hand, there is an impulse to ingratiate oneself with power. Notoriously, this can cause those seeking to favourably influence the powerful to shield from them or manipulate that information which is unpleasant, in the hope that, by presenting only that which is seemingly good, they are associated with all things pleasant in turn.

On the other hand, if selfish ambition is the reason for their proximity, there is a tendency to abuse that lesser power delegated to them: either to misrepresent it as theirs alone, or to misuse it – to secure for themselves greater control, usually with an eye to usurping the incumbent to whom they report.

In public life this leads to all sorts of problems. Among them, it devalues trust – so necessary when seeking out advice or making decisions. That, in turn, can engender in the powerful paranoia. And so the one feeds into the other and, in an environment defined by power lust, good faith is hard to find.

Far more pervasive is ambition, which senses at every turn the possibility it might be realised, and acts accordingly.

Ironically, all of this ultimately denudes power of its real worth: influence for the public good. But that has long since been forgotten. In its place: influence for its own sake and power a drip from which everyone must have their fix.

An abbreviated version of this column first appeared in the Business Day. For more columns from The Thing About series, click here.

To follow Inside Politics by e-mail simply go to the bottom of the page and fill in your address. When you confirm it, you will receive an e-mail the moment any new post is loaded to the site.