Psychopaths, political power and the rule of law

Published in Expansión

In order to preserve our freedom, it is not enough to vote from time to time. As Aristotle warned us more than two millennia ago, democracies degenerate into tyrannies because of “the unscrupulousness of despicable demagogues”, who appear like mushrooms in autumn in declining societies, and because citizens conform and forget that power always poses a latent threat to their freedom, as it tends to destroy the morals and judgement of those who exercise it. I addressed this issue in my article The Pathology of Power (EXPANSION 27-2-13), in which I wrote: “Perhaps the most disturbing discovery of psychologists is the evidence that power makes people more likely to act like sociopaths”. Sociopathy or psychopathy is a particular case of antisocial personality disorder, well defined by the DSM-5 (the world’s reference in the diagnosis of mental disorders), and just as the corrosive potentiality of power over the human being is practically universal, psychopathy affects a minority of the population and is far more dangerous for the common good.

Political power attracts psychopaths. Robert Hare, the expert who standardized the diagnostic test for psychopathy, stated that “although many politicians are just plain liars without necessarily being psychopaths, politics is a fantastic milieu for psychopaths to develop, the best environment, the ideal one”. Obviously, the vast majority of people who are involved in politics are perfectly normal and many have a vocation for service, but, given that psychopaths have a hypertrophic need for power and prestige, they are especially attracted by the activity that allows them to exercise the most power and that, moreover (quite paradoxically) requires fewer objective qualifications (moral or professional) in order to exercise it. Therefore, if politics is the ideal environment for the psychopath, the clever citizen, guardian of his or her own freedom, will always be attentive to the behavior of those in power in order to identify those signs that experts use to diagnose psychopathy. For example, the psychopath has a pathological tendency to lie unscrupulously with often blatant, exaggerated and crude lies, breaks promises flagrantly and practices victimhood to justify himself. He may lie for profit, but he may also lie for mere amusement while smiling at the astonishment produced by his behavior. Again and again, the extreme abuse of deceit baffles his interlocutors, who are unable to understand that they are not dealing with a normal person. Likewise, all psychopaths are narcissists (even if not all narcissists are psychopaths) with a false superiority complex, and manifest great irritability when contradicted, so that, even if they don’t reach aggression, they can exhibit a body language of clearly contained violence (for example, changing suddenly to a hostile face expression). Another trait of a psychopath is that he lacks the capacity to obey laws and moral norms, since he defines good simply as that which benefits him at every moment and evil as that which prevents him from doing his free will. He has no empathy and considers ethical limits to be an incomprehensible weakness of others so that, although he may sometimes speak of ethics, it will always be hollow words, a mere disguise designed to achieve his goals, since he ignores what it means to have a moral conflict or a problem of conscience. Finally, he despises his own safety and that of others, plays on the edge of the cliff and acts irresponsibly. Indeed, he can risk the most sacred things without giving a damn, because nothing has any value to him except his desires and, in his delirium of impunity, he believes that, being above any limit, nothing bad will happen to him.

Psychiatry is clear that the psychopath will not be deterred by moral or logical arguments, nor by the fear of harming himself or others, nor by embarrassment at the discovery of his misdeeds: the psychopath will only be stopped by the law.

If politics is the ideal environment for a psychopath, the ideal power he aspires to achieve is fully arbitrary power, which does not see its action constrained by exogenous rules. In the film Schindler’s List, which not only portrays the horror of the Holocaust but also how unlimited power destroys the soul of man and leads to absolute evil, the psychopathic and sadistic concentration camp commander tells Schindler: “We have the power to kill, that’s why they fear us”. But Schindler corrects him: “They fear us because we have the power to kill arbitrarily”. Indeed, the deadly poison of arbitrariness, which always leads to tyranny, is the great enemy of freedom, justice, order and peace, and has only one antidote: the objective norm, the rule of law. That is why the power junkies, psychopaths or not, will try to destroy the law or minimize its importance, especially those who “seek power by all means, not only just, but iniquitous,” as Aristotle warned. His coetaneous, Greek orator Hyperides, declared in his famous funeral oration: “Men should be governed by the voice of the law, not by the threats of a man”. The Rule of Law is everything. In fact, the fundamental judgment about the goodness of a political order must not only be based on a simplistic and puerile distinction between democracy and non-democracy (which would exclude almost all of human history), but, above all, in differentiating between states ruled by law and those ruled only by the will of the powerholder while the law is despised, distorted, constantly modified and violated openly or in a more furtive way, because as Aristotle himself warned us “illegality is introduced surreptitiously” to corrode the political order.

The pathology of power gradually consumes those who exercise it and leads to inanity, but when powerholders begin “to act like sociopaths”, the scenario becomes much more alarming. In such a case, the attentive citizen must wake up to the fact that his freedom and peace may be threatened, and that neither clever dialectics, nor flowery rhetoric, nor scandalized appeals to moral principles or the legal order, nor the normal safeguards of society, nor ritual oaths based on an honor and conscience that might simply be inexistent will protect him. Only relentless institutional resistance based on the strict application of the law will be able to defend him.


Fernando del Pino Calvo-Sotelo

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on google
Share on email
Share on print