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If Angels Were To Govern Men…Wait, What About Devils?

August 1, 2012

In the Atlantic, “The Startling Accuracy of Referring to Politicians as ‘Psychopaths‘”:

Psychopathy is a psychological condition based on well-established diagnostic criteria, which include lack of remorse and empathy, a sense of grandiosity, superficial charm, conning and manipulative behavior, and refusal to take responsibility for one’s actions, among others. Psychopaths are not all the same; particular aspects may predominate in different people. And, although some psychopaths are violent men (and women) with long criminal histories, not all are. It’s important to understand that psychopathic behavior and affect exist on a continuum; there are those who fall into the grey area between “normal” people and true psychopaths.

The question, then, is whether it is reasonable to believe that people with serious abnormalities in the way they interact with the world can be found running for (and winning) office. However unsettling as this may be, the answer seems to be yes. It’s possible for psychopaths to be found anywhere — including city hall or Washington, D.C. Remember, psychopaths are not delusional or psychotic; in fact, two of the hallmarks of psychopathy are a calculating mind and a seemingly easy charm.

Aware of the dangers of vaulting ambition mixing with power, James Madison famously wrote:

Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

I wonder if, in the future, there were a neurological test for psychopathy, would this be an acceptable “auxiliary precaution” to filter out candidates for office?

  1. nobody.really permalink
    August 24, 2012 5:32 pm

    “If a psychiatric and scientific inquiry were to be made upon our rulers, mankind would be appalled at the disclosures.” Alfred Korzybski

    The radio show “This American LIfe” reported on a study showing that captains of industry are 400% as likely to be psychopaths than the population at large. See

  2. mvee10 permalink
    August 3, 2012 9:06 pm

    The only reason that *politicians* are such a good match for the definition is because *politics* itself is so perfectly suited to those personality traits. That combination of traits have the interesting collective effect of maximizing all the things that create successful political campaigns. Take any of them away and it is effectively a weakness, politically speaking.

  3. Stuki Moi permalink
    August 1, 2012 6:01 pm


    Psychopathic traits are beneficial for getting into office, just as they are beneficial for climbing any social hierarchy. As psychopathy is also a matter of degree, wherever the line is drawn, will be where pretty much the entire successful political class will be found.

    As they say, the scum always rises to the top. The only meaningful antidote is making sure the tops are rather low; so that whatever psychopath (or absent accurate diagnosis, simple garden variety scumbag) happen to be in office this week, doesn’t really have much in the way of power and resources with which to demonstrate his invariable scumminess.

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