Things are much worse than you thought, but there is a way out, and that is why things are much worse than you thought.
The rich and the powerful in all societies aren’t like the rest of us. Society’s political and economic elites stand outside the human family by virtue of their lack of ethics. Let me clarify: Amongst the well-to-do, voluminous studies documenting the existence of this alternate, ethical reality are too well known to dismiss the results and their implications. Although there are varying degrees of this “lack of ethics,” the general claim is not in dispute. Factual data supporting this alternate reality so prevalent among the rich popped up again the other day in a recent NYTimes’ article. The gist of this article (and all concurring studies) is that money makes you crazy, or in a more nuanced and academic voice (and if I may borrow a title from one such recent study): “Higher Social Class Predicts Increased Unethical Behavior.” The crux of all of these studies strongly correlates wealth and power with corrupt and unethical behavior. Further, once riches are achieved, the individual is drawn even deeper into an alternate reality where common standards of ethics are discarded or lost in the backwash of status and opulence. There are too many of these studies, with their exposed correlations, to ignore the message: the elites who govern us are largely made up of psychopaths and sociopaths, a claim that is not in the least hyperbole.
However! Are we not all familiar with the off quoted cliché: correlation is not causation? This allows for a reversal of the above claims to read: Rather than wealth and power being the cause of unethical behavior, it is a lack of ethics that is the cause of wealth and power. This seems to put the cart of wealth and power in its correct position, behind the badly-behaved horse
To track the importance of this shift, let’s tease out the proposed conclusion: great wealth is nearly exclusively born of immoral thinking and unethical action; that the rich and the powerful are cunning rather than intelligence, and are driven by narcissism rather than benevolence; and all of this is wrapped in a kind of indifference that conforms to many of the symptoms of sociopathology. This statement seems not to be a stretch at all.
If the suggestions of these ethical studies are accurate, from what wellspring does this immoral behavior gush? Is this disturbed behavior learned or innate? This last question is far more important than it appears at first glance. The studies themselves tend to push the cause of unethical actions in the direction of learned behavior. But consider: what would be the consequences of discovering that unethical behavior is not learned, but is an integral facet of the human psyche and is inexorably rooted in human nature, which is to say that sociopathology is rooted in human evolution?
A dilemma is found in that last (rhetorical) question. Such a rooting implies that we might uncover an innate, evolved source for ethical behavior — or its absence. This is a radically different (and, I suspect, unpopular) conclusion in that it suggests an evolved and innate, irrational feature that is immutable, incurable, and permanent. This implies a bleak outlook for the viability of democratic institutions and an enlightened ideology founded on principles of reason, majority rule, and equal justice.
[Sidebar: Knowing how evolution works is helpful, but in brief, early, unstructured family units survived in one of two ways: through cooperation, or through coercion by an alpha. Cooperation promotes empathy, while coercion by an alpha promotes narcissism and unclear standards for right and wrong — in other words, psychopathology. There is little doubt that both psychopaths and moral empaths survived and passed on their genetic material].
It should be obvious that while both types (moral empaths and sociopaths) exist throughout the world’s power structures, it is the sociopaths who dominate in politics and finance. This is made possible because empaths rarely survive the mosh pits that make up the vicious, overlapping worlds of politics and finance. People who are genuinely interested in public service for the betterment of society as a whole are barred from entrance by the rules of political engagement. The basic rule of political and financial engagement is self-interest; beyond that there are no rules, no civility, no morals, no kindness, no depth, no honesty, producing, a win-at-all-costs strategy that leaves the devil to take the hindmost. Empaths cannot survive this political world with honor and integrity intact. In short, if the race is for power and wealth, then good guys finish last.
With narcissistic sociopaths running the show, is it a realistic hope that these diseased individuals will direct and lead the nation and the world in combating climate change, gross economic inequality, sexism, the opioid crisis, educational decline, pandemics, or any other problem that does not result in an increase of their wealth or power? No, these narcissistic sociopaths will be one hundred percent focused on their own security, advancement, and self-aggrandizement, with every other issue, even those promoting humanities’ survival, getting little more than back-seat, lip service.
Is there any solution? Is there a way to block these sociopaths from reaching high positions in politics and finance? In the world of finance, and in a strictly capitalist economy, the probability is low, as the capitalist playing field is fit only for individuals who are solely motivated by acquiring wealth, with absolutely no democratic means available to impose restraint. However, regarding politics, one solution to this political conundrum has been staring us in the face for 2500 years:
Take all of the personal reward out of Western democratic politics.
Toward the end of Book III of The Republic, Plato outlines the material conditions appropriate for the rulers of the state: All private wealth is forbidden to these rulers, for if the rulers are permitted to acquire wealth and private property, they will inevitably abuse their power and begin to rule for their own gain, rather than for the good of the population. This first solution is more than simply getting the money out of politics: it is the removal of any material gain from public office (e.g., force political leaders to live on minimum wage).
At this point it should be clear why this makes things worse than you thought: such an achievement would require narcissistic sociopaths to cut their own throats. This is not a likely scenario, given that the political and legal structures existent in Western style democracies are designed almost exclusively to prevent any such sweeping reforms.
A second solution is to take personalities out of politics. Create a political system based on proportional representation by party: Vote for a party’s platform and policy goals, and not for individuals. Although this is an obvious solution, implementation is a far more difficult change (a new constitution?) than merely making political office economically and socially undesirable. Tying a lawmaker’s financial conditions to something like the mean income, and stripping after-office financial compensation from everything except a personal pension, might be possible through legislation and rather than constitutional amendment.
These solutions reveal that things are far worse than we thought because neither of the suggested reforms are possible when those changes would necessarily depend on the immoral profiteers whose comfortable lives are so dependent on the old ways. What was it that Upton Sinclair said: It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.
I hate to be the guy who ends a critical evaluation of a vital socio-political riddle with a non-answer, but I don’t see where else this leaves us. Contradictions abound: the people in position to correct a corrupt system draw their wealth from that corrupt system; the people who possess the integrity to fix the problem are prevented by their very integrity from getting into positions where something can be done. In sum, it seems that the only people that can fix the corruption are people who thrive on the corruption. This is why things are worse than you thought and there is nearly a zero chance of deep, meaningful, and genuine reform. This will remain a fact of (human) nature until democracy is real and not representative — another unlikely achievement.
 There are numerous other conditions, such as restrictions on marriage and having children (Book V), but what concerns us here is the impact of wealth on the behavior of political elites.
 Recall that the popular Equal Rights Amendment was passed back in 1972, but failed ratification.