May 17, 2008

Power corrupts ...

I'm sure most of us know the famous phrase, or perhaps more likely, we've heard it misquoted many times, usually in reference to politicians. Here's Lord Acton's original statement in full:
"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority."
Many people probably suspect (or even expect) that corruption occurs, to varying degrees*, in politics, business, organisations, even families. 
On a more personal level, I have seen the disappointing change in people I knew well, when they were elected to the local council of the small country town where I lived and worked for several years. Not that they broke the law, I hasten to add, but their priorities became more focussed on what was good for them and their fellow councillors, rather than what would most benefit the community. This unfortunate shift in principles happened despite these same people having long railed against exactly the same behaviour in previous councils.
Hence the truth of Acton's observation: the position itself tends to corrupt, regardless of the person who occupies it.

This depressing tendency came to mind because I have recently been reading one of the webmaster forums where regulars repeatedly direct unsubstantiated accusations of corruption at the Open Directory Project (DMOZ) . I speak from considerable experience when I confirm that specific reports of editorial abuse are promptly and thoroughly investigated, whereas persistently vague insinuations are merely tiresome and pointless. 

Corruption in the ODP is not as universal as some disaffected people like to pretend, but I am sad to say that it does occur at all levels, to varying degrees.*  Unfortunately, watching for and investigating true abuse by fellow volunteers is a very unpopular task. Not only is it unpleasant, difficult, and very time-consuming, but it is often viewed with suspicion by other editors, who are naturally reluctant to believe that anyone they know could act in a self-interested way.
With a new community management team in place, I sincerely hope that some encouragement and support will now be given to those volunteers who devote a lot of their time to trying to keep the directory honest in this way. 

Throughout this post I have used the term "corruption" to mean any behaviour where an individual uses their position to their own advantage at the expense of others lacking that position. 
Under this broad definition of mine, the behaviour may not even be against the laws of the organisation concerned, and certainly there is not always a financial gain. But in my view, it is at the very least morally wrong to abuse any influential position in this way. 

No comments:


Related Posts with Thumbnails