A reader writes:
When you tick off a litany of powerful figures who have abused their own authority, you're focusing on just half the equation. What's most interesting about Ariely's post is that the powerful are also more judgmental of others' failings, even as they excuse their own. It explains how a liberal senator can live in a mansion and fly in a Learjet while decrying environmental waste, or a conservative senator can take a mistress and then defend family. Half of that is the corrupting effect of power. But the other half is more complicated, and perhaps even desirable - would we be happier with leaders who extended their private failings to public policy?
I suspect that many people who climb their way into positions of responsibility really feel the weight of their office, and take public positions of probity, particularly when their own conduct falls short of those standards. Suggestively, Ariely describes another study that found that people role-playing gaining positions of authority illegitimately were "stricter in judging their own behavior and more lenient in judging the others." Without that sense of public trust, in other words, people may be less likely to excuse their own failings, but they're also less likely to pursue any version of the public good.
That, to me, is a better description of Dick Cheney - self-selected, not directly elected, and wielding amorphous authority. Or of the present generation of bankers, schooled to think of the pursuit of profit as their principle responsibility. We need hard-nosed journalists not mostly to expose private acts of hypocrisy, but to fulfill an even more important function - pointing out when people in positions of public authority are acting without any sense of public responsibility. We can often afford the costs of hypocrisy; the price of acting without social restraint is far higher.
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