Sunday, August 7, 2011

Does power always corrupt?



Lord John Acton famously remarked that “All power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It is either a pragmatic comment or a cynical one, depending on your point of view, but modern democracies all assume its truth. Government checks and balances are built on the belief that if there are lots of people watching, and other people who can overturn previously made decisions, no single person or group will have too much power. Maybe this safety net works with government, but I can’t help thinking of Acton as I read about what United States airlines are doing at airports.

My comments here are not about the TSA; that’s a whole other discussion. I'm thinking instead about the airline employees themselves. In the last couple of months, a man was booted off of a plane for not pulling up his pants when a pilot told him to. (They were saggy, not obscene, although how low they were is a matter of dispute.) A woman was kicked off a plane because she was falsely accused of going pantsless when she wore a long sweater. And, a different woman, who was crying because her father had just passed away from a fatal heart attack, was removed from a plane because she asked for a glass of wine to calm down. In each of these, the airline employees used the power granted them to protect people passengers from terrorists. The people were no threat at all, and in two of the incidents, the cause was clearly a mistake. The first woman was indeed wearing pants and the second wasn’t drunk. Yet, no one said, simply, “Oops, my mistake. I apologize. Have a nice day.” 


A minute later, we noticed [the employee] chasing us across the lobby. She demanded that I hand over my camera phone so that she could delete the photo I took. I politely refused. She then insisted that I delete the photo while she watched. I again refused. She then informed me that if I didn't delete the photo in her presence, she would call the Houston Police Department, have be arrested, put me on the "no-fly list" and "make me miss my fancy Costa Rica vacation." She stated, "you will never fly my airline again." I asked her what law she was talking about and she replied, "My law."

So, a woman wanted to complain, took a picture of an employee to document an activity, and she was threatened with being added to the no-fly list. Again, this is a list that is designed to protect people from terrorists. The sole purpose of preventing someone from taking a picture is to prevent the possibility of checks and balances. It is to preserve one’s power over another person. The airlines can be sued. Employees can be fired. But none of this can happen without documentation.

After the photograph incident, the TSA confirmed that taking pictures of airport employees is legal. Continental Airlines says that the woman was owed an apology but United Airlines says it’s an acceptable policy. In other words, it is completely arbitrary as to whether or not a person is permitted to take a picture. This violates two key precepts in the philosophy of law: all laws must be publicly known and they must consistently apply to all people. (Inventing a law on the spot is also problematic.) 

There can certainly be a debate as to whether flying is a right or a privilege; similar debates take place about driver’s licenses all the time. But the real issue is whether even a privilege can be taken away for no reason. It seems that the airline employees are trading on their newfound power to protect themselves and to avoid admitting they made a mistake. This, it seems to me, is unacceptable.

There are people who will point out how difficult it is to work in airports and how rude passengers can be. I don’t deny this. But these facts are irrelevant to the issue at hand. Rude people should be held accountable in a proportionate way, including, perhaps, being refused service until they calm down or act respectfully. Nevertheless, being rude is not a crime and it is in no way akin to terrorism. Most importantly, polite people, grieving people, people with a certain fashion sense, or people who want to document activity to make a complaint shouldn’t be denied either rights or privileges because someone else was rude.  

Do you think it’s possible to be in a position of significant power and not abuse it? As Lord Acton points out, it isn’t that power necessarily corrupts, it’s that a lot of it does. Airline employees these days have a lot of power. Do you think that they are a special case? Do you think I’m making more of this than I should, or do you think that any person or group of people, in this same situation, would act in the same way? Are this employees a few bad apples or are we watching human nature at work? 

I will admit that there’s a part of me that worries that this blog post will result in me being put on the no fly list. But that’s just paranoia, right? Right!?

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1 comment:

  1. How do we distinguish cause and effect here? We would have the same result if only corrupt people sought power. As the saying goes, "The purpose of power is to enforce a bad idea. Good ideas can be explained."

    If that is right, the pursuit and achievement of power is a proxy for a diseased individual. With our current institutions, someone in power, president, despot, union leader, can fairly be surmised to be neurotic.

    Martin Luther King, Jr. sought no power except that to explain. Ditto Jesus of Nazareth, Gautama, Socrates and Ghandi AFAIK.

    Perhaps people who seek power should be put in protective custody, as prima facie they are intending harm to themselves and others.

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