Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

Power Makes Politicians Stupid

Much as I want Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the few others in his government who matter to lie down on a couch and answer my probing questions about their psychological state, it is not likely to happen. And so I must ponder from afar. Why do they do what they do? Consider C-38. At more than 400 pages, the omnibus budget bill makes major changes to scores of existing laws, and is, as one would expect, spectacularly complicated. And because it's legislation, even a single comma badly placed can have terrible consequences. About that, there's no disagreement. And please, let's not get side-tracked into whether C-38 is wise or not. That's not the issue here. The government thinks it's all good stuff, so, for the sake of argument, let's assume it is. But is it perfect? Is every sentence pristine? Is every clause exquisite? Is every comma exactly where it should be? It would seem so. Because the government quashed every single amendment proposed by the op-position. And they weren't all big amendments that would have changed the policies the government wants to introduce. Many were modest little tweaks. Some were almost trivial. But the government dismissed them all, as if its legislation were perfect in absolutely every way. What makes this remarkable - what makes me want to put Stephen Harper on the couch - is the context in which the government chose to do that. The government has increasingly been accused of bullying opponents and treating Parliament like a rubber stamp. Even among Conservatives, the unprecedentedly sweeping nature of C-38 produced some modest rumblings of discontent. The government could have responded by making a show of listening to the opposition and Conservative backbenchers, picking a few innocuous amendments, and passing them. Doing that would have cost the government essentially nothing. But it may have softened the complaints a little. And, at a minimum, it would have taken away the inevitable opposition at-tack line of "They wouldn't change so much as a comma! They're treating Parliament like a rubber stamp!" But they didn't do that. Instead, they methodically and relentlessly voted down every single one of hundreds of proposed amendments, no matter how modest or reasonable they may be - making themselves look immodest and unreasonable and seeming to confirm that they do, indeed, expect Parliament to rubber stamp legislation. Strictly from the perspective of the government's self-interest, this was astonishingly dumb. And there's been a lot of that lately. When Jason Kenney made a rather emphatic and indelicate comment about the deputy premier of Alberta in a private email, and accidentally made it public, it wasn't a big deal. Politicians use naughty words occasionally. Sometimes they use them about each other. And who hasn't accidentally hit the wrong button on email? The obvious response was to stand up, look a little embarrassed, and say "sorry." Everything would be forgotten by dinner. But when opposition MPs pre-tended to be indignant in the House, and asked Kenney to apologize, he refused. So they kept at him. And he kept refusing. Parliamentary observers watched, agog and amazed. Only after making himself look like an obstinate jerk, and elevating the prominence of what should have been a nothing story, did Kenney call the deputy premier and apologize. Again, that was pretty dumb. So why is this is happening? In a word, power. It's not exactly a new observation that "power corrupts," as Lord Ac-ton famously wrote, but research has revealed a great deal more about the effects of power on how people perceive, think, and behave. And it ain't pretty. "What do exhilaration, stereotyping, and poor table manners have in common?" asked psychologists Dacher Keltner, Deborah H. Gru-enfeld, and Cameron Anderson in a 2000 paper. "Our answer is simple: power." I can't summarize the work of Keltner, Gruenfeld and Anderson. It's a huge thing that surveys and synthesizes heaps of research. But most relevant for present purposes is the authors' conclusion that power makes people more likely to focus on potential reward (rather than potential threat), to be impulsive and make snap judgments (rather than think things through carefully), and to pay less attention to what others perceive, think, and feel. Obviously, these are not positive tendencies. In each case, they are likely to reduce the quality of the powerful person's judgment. And if the powerful person lives in a bubble, insulated from criticism, surrounded by bobbleheads and bootlickers, his judgment will only get worse. And worse. Until he is making decisions like, hey, let's announce a plan to make ordinary people work longer to receive Old Age Security in a speech to an audience of billionaires at a Swiss re-sort! Or, let's announce changes to Employment Insurance without making so much as a single phone call to the premiers whose provinces will be most affected! Or, let's automatically reject any amendment suggested by the opposition and ram the bill through even though it would seem to confirm the nasty accusations being levelled at us! Power corrupts. And it makes the powerful stupid. Smart leaders know that, of course. It's why they disperse and decentralize power, and create checks and balances. It's why they seek out contrary views and dissonant information, why they consult, negotiate, and compromise. "In today's democratic societies, organizations share power," two intellectuals wrote some time ago. "Corporations, churches, universities, hospitals, even public sec-tor bureaucracies make decisions through consultation, committees, and consensus-building techniques. Only in politics do we still entrust power to a single faction expected to prevail every time over the opposition by sheer force of numbers. Even more anachronistically, we persist in structuring the governing team like a military regiment under a single commander with almost total power to appoint, discipline, and expel subordinates." That passage was written by political scientist Tom Flanagan and former Reform MP Stephen Harper. But that was back in 1996, before Harper got hold of the power he be-moaned, and demonstrated the wisdom of Lord Acton's dictum. CORRECTION: In an earlier column, I said Sweden was the biggest social spender in Europe. It's actually a close second to France.