An earlier column, “Homo Politicus,” offered an explanation of why Washington does not learn from experience. (Recap: Washington elites rarely operate from observed results. Rather, they mostly emulate higher status members of their society — much as do chimpanzees and other primates.)
Calling “monkey see monkey do” on our high public officials is heresy, of course, because our political system’s legitimacy is based on claims of merit, reason, and effective service. The evidence for such qualities often is flimsy. Homo Politicus (part 1) concluded: “What besets Washington … is an ‘Obedience to Authority’ problem.” The implications are more dire than suggesting simple mediocrity.
What is an “Obedience to Authority” problem? In 1961, Yale Professor Stanley Milgram proved that, without much overt pressure, about two-thirds of normal people will shock an innocent victim to torturous, and potentially deadly, levels. All it takes is an authority figure directing them.
Alan C. Elms, a participant in the study, later a professor at UC Davis, describes the experiments in “Obedience in Retrospect:”
“By drawing slips of paper from a hat, one volunteer became the teacher. …. The teacher was given a sample 45 volt electric shock from the shock generator, a level strong enough to be distinctly unpleasant. … Soon the teacher found himself administering higher and higher shock levels, according to the experimenter’s instructions. …
“…[T]he experimenter ordered the teacher to continue, and to administer stronger and stronger shocks for each failure to respond—all the way to the end of the graded series of levers, whose final labels were “Intense Shock,” “Extreme Intensity Shock,” “Danger: Severe Shock,” and “XXX,” along with voltage levels up to 450 volts. …
“[…T]wo-thirds of a sample of average Americans were willing to shock an innocent victim until the poor man was screaming for his life, and to go on shocking him well after he had lapsed into a perhaps unconscious silence, all at the command of a single experimenter with no apparent means of enforcing his orders.”