Lesson shows power corrupts | Rich Elfers

When I taught sociology in high school, I employed something called a simulation as a class lesson. I divided the class into three groups. Each was given a mixed bag of colored chips: golds, reds and blues. The students didn’t know it, but I had added more gold chips to one bag than to the others. Golds had the highest value. Students could trade their chips with other teams, trying to improve their scores.  I did this several times.

There were a few shifts up to the higher “gold” team or down to the lower teams. Usually the most aggressive and competitive students moved up to the group with the most gold chips. I then told the predominantly golds that they could now make the rules for the simulation.

With cackles of glee the golds went outside the classroom to write up their new rules for the game. The other two groups could write out suggestions for the golds to consider. What usually happened was that gold group promptly wadded up the suggestions and threw back them into the room with an air of contempt.

When the gold group came back in they wrote their rules on the board. It was obvious that they wanted to maintain their power and status by making rules that benefited the golds and gave them more gold chips. They had no regard for the lower status groups’ ideas or feelings. Their goal was to gain more and more power for their group at the expense of the other groups.

Eventually, the nongold groups began to react in one of two ways: either they opted out of playing the trading game or they began to rebel against the golds by subverting their rules. Eventually the golds became frustrated because they wanted me to enforce their edicts. I told them that since they had made the rules, they had to enforce them. The golds had a rebellion on their hands and the only way they could continue the game was to strong-arm the opposition to obey – which I would not permit. At that point the simulation ended and I had the students sit down in their desks to consider what had just occurred.

My goals for the simulation were to help students understand the nature of power and how, as Lord Acton noted long before: “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I pointed out to them that those in power often make the rules, which benefit them to the detriment of others in society. Another moral from this simulation was that those who reach the top of the social structure do not often remember that they used to belong to the lower groups. The golds developed a sense of superiority to those beneath them. They objectified the “lower classes” and forgot they were once just like them.

As I read and study about the news in the U.S. and abroad, this simulation and its lessons keep demonstrating themselves to me in real life situations.  I see it in politics where wealthy corporations, by lobbying, have gotten laws passed through Congress that benefit those who have provided campaign contributions or junkets on private jets to exotic places. These corporations have been rewarded with tax breaks and governmental subsidies.  Special privileges are eventually considered sacred and any attempt to get rid of these “percs” is strongly resisted.

For all its flaws, our government has checks and balances.  I’m thankful our government uses this tendency of special interest groups to benefit themselves by having them compete or lobby against each other. The reason our nation has as much freedom as it does is because the founders of our nation took this negative human tendency toward self-interest and turned it to the peoples’ advantage. No wonder Thomas Jefferson called the founders of our Constitution demi-gods.

I am also thankful that occasionally a person arises on the scene who has such high moral character that he/she resists the urge to make laws that benefit themselves and their cronies, but really desires to benefit society as a whole. Teddy Roosevelt comes to mind with his trust busting of corporate monopolies at the turn of the 20 century. Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King are three others who have stood up for the rights of the weak and the oppressed.  Usually, these great people end up as martyrs.

I’ll never forget one of my students who, while playing this simulation, got into the highest group. When given the right to make the rules she loudly and strongly stated, “We will not make rules to benefit just us, but instead the whole class!” Because of her leadership and personality the golds wrote rules that benefited all the groups. Of course, the simulation was no longer “fun,” but what an example in greatness did she show to the class and me! She taught me the fact that one person with a strong enough will and a deep sense of ethics and concern for all can change the attitudes of a class, a town and even a nation and send it in another, more positive direction. Would that we had more leaders like her.

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