Why Are Powerful People So Terrible?

A new book: ‘Corruptible‘ by Brian Klaas

Tucker Lieberman
4 min readNov 10, 2021

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I just picked up Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us by Brian Klaas, a professor of global politics at University College London. He devoted his new book to four questions:

“First, do worse people get power? Second, does power make people worse? Third, why do we let people control us who clearly have no business being in control? Fourth, how can we ensure that incorruptible people get into power and wield it justly?”

These carefully chosen questions have great depth. Their exploration in Corruptible is, by the way, highly readable.

Are terrible people attracted to power, or does power make them terrible?

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

These first two questions focus — or, we might tend to assume that they do — on an elite few who can generally be considered powerful.

Who pursues power? What makes them crave it or, at least, to show up for it? Does that mean there’s something wrong or dangerous about them to begin with? What distasteful, illegal, awful things do they have to do to acquire money, fame, and control over others? As their power grows, do they become more selfish, cruel, and ruthless?

To examine these questions, Klaas opens up the scope. He points out: When we think about people who might serve as useful examples, we have “survivorship bias.” That is, we tend only to see people who “seek,” “get,” and “hold on to power.” If someone doesn’t accomplish all three steps, we may not recall them as examples of who is attracted to power and how power changes them. Yet people who fail in their quest for power can yield insights, too.

Furthermore, since even the most powerful rulers are also human beings like the rest of us, the discussion in Corruptible ranges into how ordinary people — you and I — might behave, or how we might be changed, in certain situations.

Why do we let awful people control us?

A lot of this has an evolutionary basis. For millions of years of primate ancestry, we relied on fearsome-looking strongmen to scare away enemies of rival groups and predators of other species. Submitting to a…

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Tucker Lieberman

Editor for Prism & Pen. Author of the novel "Most Famous Short Film of All Time." https://tuckerlieberman.com/