Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us by Brian Klaas

Review by Brian Tanguay

At one time or another most of us have suffered at the hands of a petty tyrant, perhaps an overbearing supervisor at work, a rude clerk at the DMV, or an imperious police officer during a routine traffic stop, and wondered how such a person landed in a position of authority. After watching Donald Trump and his most strident enablers malign, subvert, and corrupt our national politics for four years, it seemed to me that an inordinate number of immoderate and ethically-challenged people are involved in politics. When I witness, for example, House minority leader Kevin McCarthy contorting himself to stay in Donald Trump’s good graces in order to advance his own ambitions, it’s clear that for some people acquiring power is an irresistible urge. 

Brian Klaas, author of Corruptible: Who Gets Power And How It Changes Us, spent a decade studying the dynamics of power and why it leads some people to become tyrannical, cruel and corrupt. A political scientist and professor of global politics at University College London, Klaas criss-crossed the globe in search of answers to four main questions: Do Worse people get power? Does power make people worse? Why do we let people control us who clearly have no business being in control? How can we ensure that incorruptible people get into power and wield it justly? If there is one thing Klaas learned during his extensive investigation it is that much of the world is dominated by systems that attract and promote corruptible people. 

In a chapter titled “Moths to a Flame,” Klaas examines the issue of police reform and concludes that while changing the behavior of those who currently wear a badge is necessary, the path to true reform lies in recruiting people who have never considered putting one on. He presents the example of Doraville, Georgia, a small town of around ten thousand people. Doraville’s crime rate isn’t higher than other towns of similar size, yet the city’s police department owns a M113 armored personnel carrier, a military vehicle typically deployed in war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan. The M113 featured prominently in recruiting videos for the Doraville police department. Now, you might ask, so what? Well, as Klaas notes, “When you recruit into positions of power, it’s not just about who gets the job and who doesn’t. It’s also about who applies in the first place.” Klaas juxtaposes the Doraville recruitment video with a campaign used in New Zealand in which the theme had nothing to do with glorifying weaponry or military-style force, and everything to do with helping the community. This approach was very successful in attracting more females and ethnic minorities to apply. 

In addition to studying what sort of people are drawn to power, and looking at ways to entice a broader and deeper pool of people to seek positions of authority, Klaas also looked at systems and structures. What if someone who abuses power isn’t necessarily a malign person but rather a product of a malign system? In answering this question Klaas offers this thesis: “Our modern surveillance systems have everything backward. They should be inverted. We’re watching the wrong people.” CEO’s and board members can do far more damage than low-level workers, but who is monitored more closely in most organizations? This may be one explanation for the massive delta between property crimes and white-collar crimes. As Klaas points out, white-collar crimes account for far greater losses or damages every year in the United States, with estimates ranging from $250 to $400 billion. Those who wield the most power also have the greatest opportunity to do harm and should face far more scrutiny than they do. Oversight matters. (Reasonable laws and regulations are also needed, but laws and regulations are only effective if enforced with rigor.) But the idea that leaders need to be constantly reminded of the real-world consequences of their actions is sound. 

Klaas is surprisingly optimistic about our ability to make the world less corrupt. In terms of the political realm, especially in the United States, the impact of dark money makes meaningful reform very difficult. Proposals to hold the powerful to account are met with fierce resistance and relentless lobbying. Whether in politics or business, corrupt people and systems  are adverse to scrutiny. The persecution of Julian Assange is indicative of how little those in power tolerate scrutiny. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that ideas like those advanced in Corruptible gain traction.