What Came First, Power or Corruption?

By Ira Seidman — part two of twelve in the series decentralize

In the words of Lord Acton “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” On the surface this is an insight I have confirmed throughout my own reading and life — there cannot be corruption without power and that it is in fact the power itself that corrupts rather than just a correlation between the two. But upon deeper inspection there is a more subtle implication as well, the idea that absolute power corrupts absolutely implies that corruption happens along a continuum, and just because someone has power does not mean that they are absolutely corrupted. Hence, the causation for corruption is tied to the extent to which power is centralized. With this I ask you, what came first, power or corruption?

Much like how I think about chickens and eggs, the answer lies in how we define the terms. With regards to poultry, the answer to what came first depends on how we define a chicken — is it an animal that lays chicken eggs or an animal that was hatched from a chicken egg? This definition would have to be consistent with how we define what an egg is. We soon find ourselves in the depths of semantics, but our answers dependent on these semantics nonetheless. What cannot be denied is that chickens cannot be defined without eggs nor eggs without chickens, just as neither power nor corruption can be defined without each other.

It is precisely this interwoven reality that makes it so clear to me why power inherently cannot be centralized — the extent to which we centralize power is the extent to which we corrupt. Short of absolutely centralizing power there will be small pockets of progress and justice, but we should strive for better. It is precisely for this reason that I propose a system of government that prioritizes the spreading of power as thinly as possible — to optimize against corruption. It is precisely this reason why I’m running for mayor of New York City — to implement direct democracy.

What would this look like? On one hand it’s so simple — we implement a page on nyc.gov where any registered New York City voter can propose legislation. Once 60% of a proposal’s votes are in favor and there are at least 100,000 votes, we have a law! On the other hand the wheels of democracy turn slow with checks and balances, and putting our government in the hands of online voting and tech companies seems like the surest way to get hacked. What I propose is a middle ground with a New York-based tech firm that could host online voting through the city’s website and monitor for cyber attacks, I call it Athena. Once any citizen’s proposal, like a local carbon tax that funds carbon sequestration efforts within the city bounds, reaches 60% approval with over 100,000 votes on Athena, the legislation is immediately added to the next Election Day ballot (like a primary or general election). On Election Day, registered New York City voters can cast their referendum ballot with a paper-trail. If the initiative passes (again with 60% approval), once the legislation lands on my desk I as mayor would immediately sign it into law.

Of course an initiative like a carbon-tax that went through the process I just described would need to come through the typical legislative framework, i.e. City Hall. While other representatives would need to propose this legislation for it to actually cross my desk, this is the right first step in empowering the people to stop the mayor from voting on something that does not have the consent of the governed. As this model proves successful I would expect more representatives to take a pledge like I have to only vote as their constituents vote, and with time we will divorce representatives from their political power.

Where does that leave the representatives? Are they just lame ducks waiting to be legislated away with? No. They’re our leaders. Their job is to bring their constituents together, to promote discourse, and to let the truth and facts guide our discussions. They set an example for how we should treat each other and remind us of the more perfect city we can be if we just keep loving each other and freely analyzing each other’s ideas. They still throw out first pitches, give speeches, and make the front-page when they do not eat their pizza correctly — pretty much everything we think of when we think of our current representatives, just without the power. A politician’s job is not to use power as they see fit, but to lead their constituency as best they can by organizing, presenting the facts, and getting people to move forward cohesively. If the intoxicating effects of power are removed, it will leave lucid and effective leaders in charge to help us unify in ways that we have not been seen since divide and conquer was first devised.

From the liberals who want a society built on equality of opportunity to the classical conservatives with the deepest loyalty to freedom and liberty, I’ve found no one is immune from the corrupting nature of power. No matter what ideas politicians bring to the table, whether as individuals or as representatives, no one is invincible to the drink that is power. Ronald Reagan with his vision of a rising tide for all boats and Barack Obama with his promise of hope and change in 2008 somehow left the country riddled with unchecked wealth inequality since the 80s and mass-surveillance since the 2000s respectively. It’s not going to be a more handsome, or well-educated, or even more diverse candidate who will set this democracy aback (although diversity in government is extremely important), but a candidate who literally returns their power as soon as they receive it. It will be this candidate that instantly corrects the influence of money in politics, under-representation of minorities in government, and the general corruption that is power. It will be this candidate that gives us hope for collectively moving forward in the midst of so many local issues that we need drastic action on — police, education, prison, environmental, and sanitation reform. With more details on the specifics of my plans to come next in this series, for now please think about how power has corrupted in your own life. Whether it was the power or the corruption that came first, it will be the people who decentralize both. Then, like the chicken, we’ll cross the road together.

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