The Lucifer Effect: Ron Paul and the Stanford Prison Experiment

April 14th, 2012   Submitted by Davi Barker

The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo is an in depth study of mankind’s capacity for evil, beginning with the complete treatise on the Stanford Prison Experiment, taking us through numerous similar studies on obedience and the corrupting influence of authority, and ending with the atrocities committed by US soldiers in Abu Ghraib. But as I was reading, I kept thinking of Ron Paul and the ongoing controversy between the libertarians and anarchists as to whether supporting his campaign is the right thing to do. I think this book has settled the issue for me, as I’ll explain as we go on. Although I started with the paperback, I really can’t sing the praises of the audiobook enough. A significant portion is actual transcripts from the experiment, and the narrator, Kevin Foley is a skilled voice actor that turns the book into a radio play with different voices for each character.

At first I was skeptical because Zimbardo was an expert witness for the defense of these soldiers, but his thesis is redeemed somewhat by acknowledging that those obeying authority are fully morally culpable for their actions. His intention is to show that systemic forces, what he calls “situational power” can transform otherwise conscientious people into authoritarian sociopaths. In the last part of the book he conducts a mock trial, prosecuting the entire command structure of the US military which made the inhumane treatment possible, even predictable. The line between collective guilt and individual guilt gets a little muddy, which makes interpreting it through a lens of individualist anarchy a little sticky, but incredibly valuable. Applied consistently Zimbardo’s conclusions about the corrupting influence of authority should apply as readily to the US Military as to any other coercive hierarchy, especially the State.

In 1971 the Stanford Prison Experiment was designed to study the psychology of the guard/inmate relationship. It is perhaps the most famous psychological study on authority next to the Milgram Experiment. By randomly dividing a group of similar undergraduate students, screened for psychological health, into “guards” and “prisoners” and conducting a two week long mock prison in the basement of Psychology department Zimbardo aimed to identify to what degree their identities and moral compasses could be supplanted by situational forces.

Guards were given uniforms, mirrored glasses, and wooden batons to establish status. Prisoners were dressed in smocks and addressed only by number. Guards were instructed only to keep a fixed routine, and to make the prisoners feel powerless. After a prisoner revolt on the second day, and a brief hunger strike, guards began to display cruel, even sadistic behavior. A system of punishment soon followed including, spraying disobedient prisoners with fire extinguishers, depriving them of bedding or restroom privileges, forcing them to go nude and locking them in “solitary confinement” in a dark closet. Then prisoners adopted submissive attitudes, accepting abuse, and readily following orders to inflict punishments on each other. They even engaged in horizontal discipline to keep each other in line. As Zimbardo explained, both prisoners and guards had fully internalized their new identities, transformed into perpetrators and placaters of evil.

The levels of cruelty witnessed in the experiment were so severe that it was halted after only six days. Zimbardo says now that it should have been halted sooner but his own judgement was compromised by internalizing his prison warden identity. The experiment worked too well, and Zimbardo began to prioritize the continuation of the prison over the ethics of the experiment. He writes of his own feelings of guilt, which kept him from publishing the full findings of the experiment for over 30 years.

Since then ethical guidelines have been enacted which prevent the repeating of the experiment. But similar experiments have been conducted, all with similar results, which Zimbardo goes into at length in the book. The most interesting finding, which I’d never heard acknowledged before, was that no experiment found any significant difference between the level of obedience in either gender. So, the “natural obedience” that theocrats often attribute to women is not expressed when tested. Instead, it seems that men and women are equally willing to murder an innocent victim if an authority figure tells them to.

In 2004 photographs of the torture taking place in Abu Ghraib hit the American media. Naked prisoners stacked in human pyramids, naked prisoners forced to simulate oral sex, and a hooded man balanced on a cardboard box with electric wires attached to his fingers that has become the iconic image of the torture. One guard sodomized a male prisoner with a flashlight, and another raped a female detainee. In many photographs a soldier is smiling approvingly for the camera. The photos were kept as trophies. The country stood in a shock and horror as the details came to light and many cried “how did this happen?!” But Zimbardo already knew, because he had seen it before. It was witnessing the cruelty at Abu Ghraib which convinced him it was time to publish the full results of the Stanford Prison Experiment.

The instant refrain of the military was that these soldiers were ‘just a few bad apples’ but Zimbardo insists that their behavior was the result systemic forces from “an entire bad barrel.” Abu Ghraib had been used by Saddam Hussein for public executions, and when it was taken over very little changed. The name was kept the same specifically because it elicited such terror for the Iraqi people. The most striking evidence he presents of systemic evil in the military ranks were the findings of The Schlesinger Report, which was an independent panel to review Department of Defense detention operations. The report includes documented discussions of high ranking military personnel about the Stanford Prison Experiment and similar studies implying they didn’t have to give orders to torture because the research indicated the situation itself would produce torture.

The officers in charge of the prison had no previous experience running a prison, just like in Stanford. The soldiers charged with ‘maltreating detainees’ had no previous record of anti social or inhuman behavior (unless you count enlisting), just like in Stanford. And even though they repeatedly asked their superiors for instructions and standard operating procedures they were given none, and told only to maintain routine operations and to be creative… just like in Stanford.

What’s really disturbing about this is that most of us read these studies searching for ways to oppose evil and prevent it, but for those in power these studies apparently represent instructions they can use to maintain plausible deniability.

So, why do I say this has ramifications for the Ron Paul campaign? I’ve come a long way for a pretty incredulous punch line. But here it is. Let me start by saying that I love Ron Paul like family. No seriously. If he needed bone marrow and I was the only match I’d give it to him. My conundrum has been that even though I have philosophically accepted that democracy is an immoral system, Ron Paul always draws me back in to thinking about voting. If it were a simple race between Obama and Romney not voting would be easy, but Ron Paul challenges my integrity.

What Zimbardo has shown is that all of us, given the right circumstances, are capable of monstrous acts. So, why would I want to put a loved one in those circumstances? People sometimes call America “The Great Experiment.” In reality it’s another prison experiment. The only difference is we elect our warden. If Zimbardo’s thesis is correct it doesn’t matter whether the warden and prison guards are elected, appointed or selected at random. We often mistakenly think that evil people are attracted to power, but that’s not what the research suggests. The studies show that power draws the evil out of people. Even Zimbardo, a psychology professor whose life’s work has been opposing evil, was taken in by it when the systemic forces called for it. Viewed through this lens it’s entirely possible the ambitious promises of presidential candidates are made in earnest, but their priorities are changed by the office they hold. And I see no indication that this wouldn’t happen to Paul. He has remained remarkably resilient to evil as a Congressman. But Congressmen don’t have as much power as a Senator or a Governor, and even Paul plays the earmark game with spending bills. That’s not a condemnation of Paul. It’s a condemnation of the office. It’s a condemnation of power.

In my heart of hearts I would like to see Ron Paul resign from politics and begin a campaign of telling us all the dirt he has seen but was too much of a statesman to expose. I would like to see how his message changes unrestrained by electoral politics. In, short I would like to see the gloves come off.

What is clear to me from these experiments is that human nature is not good or evil, but essentially adaptive. If you take an otherwise good person and invent for them an evil situation they will adjust to their new circumstances, which was perhaps best expressed in an often overlooked passage of the Declaration of Independence:

“All experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”

I don’t want a good man to run the prison. I want to abolish the prison system.

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44 Responses to “The Lucifer Effect: Ron Paul and the Stanford Prison Experiment”

  1. Ben StoneNo Gravatar says:

    Great article.
    I plan on referencing this on my next podcast.
    It’s important to point out that the writer is not saying Ron Paul would turn evil like Obama, Baby Bush, Clinton, Papa Bush, etc, he is only saying what is well established and has been proven throughout history. Power corrupts. Maybe Ron Paul wouldn’t kill children with drones, but no one can wear the Ring of Power and not be changed by it.
    Again, good job and thank you for having the guts to speak the truth.
    And thanks to Daily Anarchist for having the guts to publish this!
    Bad Quaker Dot Com

    • Davi BarkerNo Gravatar says:


      Thank you for your kind assessment. You’ve got my point exactly. I realized that I can only support Ron Paul for president if I dehumanize him and think of him as a fictional character in a crappy game show. If I met with Ron Paul face to face, heart to heart, as equal human beings, I would advise him to serve as President of the Free State Project (if Carla can stay Queen), or as a writer for Freedom’s Phoenix, or even to return to medicine. Anything but taking power over others.

      Where can I get your podcast?

      • Ben StoneNo Gravatar says:

        Thanks for asking.
        I do 3-5 podcasts a week. It can be found at iTunes under the name Bad Quaker Dot Com, or direct downloaded from
        I’m also on the Liberty Radio Network ( ) but I think they air my show at something like 1am eastern. Sometimes I have a co-host and sometimes I’m solo.
        Keep up the good work.

  2. Rob PanicoNo Gravatar says:

    The people chosen for these experiments are normal sheeple. They are not leaders. Very few people have the training and perspective to wield force ethically. What if an individual has trained practially since birth to be a ‘good’ authority figure and has been taught what the ‘rules’ are, has been provided with ample guidance, learned about every previous rulers historic mistakes, understands and accepts the philosophy of liberty, and is determined to not allow the authority to ‘draw their evil out’, but to master and control it. What if that person has already been in various positions of authority for decades and has shown no perverse changes in ethics, behavior, or personality as a result of having and wielding authority? Surely, if the experiments were totally conclusive and fit every individual and situation, there would be no such thing as a ‘good king’ in all of history. That is obviously not true.

    • JustSayNoToStatismNo Gravatar says:

      Even the “good kings” of the past did their own share of evil. But let’s say it’s possible to raise someone from birth to be exactly the “right” guy for the job. First of all, you don’t have the right to mold a young human being and force them into that role. But let’s assume you did. Maybe it would work. But we can’t afford to pay the consequences for the 99% of the time it doesn’t.

    • jonNo Gravatar says:

      The people chosen for these experiments are normal sheeple. They are not leaders. Very few people have the training and perspective to wield force ethically. What if an individual has trained practially since birth to be a ‘good’ authority figure and has been taught what the ‘rules’ are

      You mean like Thomas Jefferson? When he became president he made some serious mistakes (even admitted by himself after he left office – if I recall correctly).

  3. StevenNo Gravatar says:

    Just by having a website you are being a hypocrite.Darpa created the internet.
    The internet has many rules and is anything but anarchy. You thin your website just appears at of nowhere? Do you drive a car and have a license? I bet you even have a bank debit card. Anarchy is ridiculuous..

    • Davi BarkerNo Gravatar says:

      You appear unfamiliar with how anarchists define themselves or what they advocate. Stick around. I’m sure it will become clear.

    • Bob RobertsonNo Gravatar says:


      It’s clear you don’t understand the difference between “anarchy”, that is, “no rulers”, and “chaos” which is “no rules”.

      When you can grasp the difference, you will be ready for individual responsibility, and individual liberty: “Anarchy”.

    • DocNo Gravatar says:

      IDK who this Darpa feller is, but everyone knows that Algore invented the internets.

  4. Ernie MinkNo Gravatar says:

    “I don’t want a good man to run the prison. I want to abolish the prison system.” There is a BIG problem with that….Do YOU want child molestors, rapists, murderers and bank robbers to go free??? There HAS to be some sort of system to keep people like that in punishment. Otherwise you will have REAL chaos. I do NOT believe in anarchy because it means there is no accountability. Anarchy means no government at all, and that is not the way any country should be run. We still need government and police. BUT, we need a BETTER government and a BETTER police system, not the lucifierian/satanic illuminati/masons/skull and bones/catholic cult, etc. etc. stuff running it as has been the case. Yes, there are good people out there, and I see the points you are making that power can corrupt people…BUT NOT EVERYONE. You are hearing the words of someone who has NEVER made more than 11 dollars an hour on average his entire life. I never had a college degree, never owned a vehicle, never had sex, never did drugs, never drank alcohol. And yet I came out unscathed without hurting a single person in my life. My faith has kept me strong, and the long and winding road, although oppressive and depressive at times, never does me in. So no matter what president we have, the real issues are with the shadow government of people in the background that are running the general system without public consent. Those things Ron Paul DOES know. God Bless and peace to all of you! I will not check these comments. I just wanted to leave my feelings and thoughts from experience.

    • DocNo Gravatar says:

      “You are hearing the words of someone who has NEVER made more than 11 dollars an hour on average his entire life. I never had a college degree…”

      Yes, it shows.

      • JBNo Gravatar says:

        Regardless of whether I agree or disagree with Ernie Mink’s comment, it was well stated. I find the derisive tone of your reply amusingly ironic, coming from one who writes “…Algore invented the internets.”

        • DocNo Gravatar says:

          JB has no sense of humor. Must be a “liberal”.

          • JBNo Gravatar says:

            LOL No sense of humor, and yet I was greatly amused by your initial reply.
            JB, Ron Paul delegate.

            • DocNo Gravatar says:

              I know it’s been a few months since last we spoke, but I’m a little slow and it’s taken me this long to come up with a properly pithy rejoinder.

              I know that Al Gore didn’t invent the internets, but apparently he doesn’t know that. He might have stated that he invented the web. There’s controversy about the legitimacy of that statement and whether he actually made it. Calling the web, “the internets” is also a stab at humor.

              Anyway, I see I was correct; you are a liberal, albeit classical. And you, unlike Mr. Steven probably understand that “anarchy” doesn’t mean “no rules”. Mr. Steven came into the room foaming at the mouth and telling us we were all morons and dolts because we want “chaos”.
              He also reminded everyone that “Darpa (The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) created the internet.” I referred to Al Gore as “Algore” because its funny and he’s a kook.

              I used a derisive tone in my reply to Ernie Mink’s comment because Mr. Mink sites his lack of education, ignorance and his admitted lack of any experience in any of the basic norms of life here in the technical vastness of the future, as a plus. This man who must have lived in a convent all his life, or was raised by wolves, suggests that without a strong police presence, child molestors[sic], rapists, murderers and bank robbers would escape any punishment. Anyway, he promises us he won’t read any future comments here and so, taking him at his word I judged it safe to dis his silly comments.

              I’m glad we could clear this up JB. And FWIW, I’m glad the GOP did Ron Paul dirty and showed us (again) the uselessness of political parties. Whoever is at the helm when the SHTF will be blamed for it and I wouldn’t want Paul to get the blame because even though he ran as a Republicrat, everyone knows he’s a libertarian and the collapse would be prima facie proof for all those voters and other sheeple that liberty doesn’t work.

              • DocNo Gravatar says:

                (I had to fix my link because I left off the /vote.htm at the end and showed instead the index of folder wherein the files associated with that webpage live.
                Stupid fingers!

  5. DubbaUBeeNo Gravatar says:

    It is not so simple to apply the Prison Experiment to just the State apparatus. It can be applied to supervisory management, school system, probably any business and family institution.

    These authoritarian institutions are a part of everyday life. Even in a voluntary society.

    • Davi BarkerNo Gravatar says:

      That’s actually a really great point. The Stanford Prison Experiment was entirely voluntary. Prisoners could leave at any time if they wished, and speculating why they didn’t was a major subject of the book. It was a combination of factors. Part of it was a sense of duty to complete the experiment, another part was comradery with the other prisoners. But really all of these experiments fundamentally study voluntary scenarios.

      • Bob RobertsonNo Gravatar says:

        One more thing, if I may insert.

        In the article, it suggests that the participants in the Stanford experiment, as well as AbuGraibe (too hard to look up at the spelling) were amateurs. The management did not have experience controlling the _guards_ in their position as guards.

        As hard as I would hit the Big Red Button That Deletes The State with my entire being, there will be someone in the oval office next January 21st.

        Of the people presently within the subset “able to get elected”, Ron Paul is the only one I would trust alone in a room with my daughter for 5 minutes, much less having ANY kind of power.

        If the choice was “None of the Above”, that would be my choice. That choice is not given.

  6. SkepticNo Gravatar says:

    I don’t think that the presidency is comparable to prison. The reason that the Stanford Prison Experiment and Abu Ghraib got so out of hand is because prisons/the military are designed as mechanisms for exerting authority and subjugating others. The presidency isn’t quite the same. There is much less room for diffusion of responsibility, and the president is accountable to the electorate. I see so many differences I think it is irresponsible to try and use Zimbardo’s experiments to try and justify anarchy, especially when there are other good justifications available.

    PS – If you’re interested in the corrupting influence of institutions that Zimbardo discusses, you would probably also like some of Frederick Wiseman’s early documentaries. They illustrate Zimbardo’s point artistically.

  7. HReardenNo Gravatar says:

    I think you have perhaps presented a false ( at least for the momment} dichotomy with your statement, ” I don’t want a good man to run the prison, I want to abolish the prison system”. If you are a prisoner ( in a sense we all are) would you not prefer a good man running the prison than a bad man running it? If there is a chance that a good man could run it than why not work towards that goal than doing nothing to support that good man which will result in a bad man running it? Has it occured to you that perhaps you have made wrong assumptions? Perhaps it is a good man who would influence a bad system than a bad system corrupting a good man. Dr. Paul has stated that he supports voluntaryism.


    • JustSayNoToStatismNo Gravatar says:

      Despite being presented in a way that led you to see it as a dichotomy, I don’t think that’s what he was saying. He’s making two separate claims. He doesn’t want a good man running the prison (because it might turn him into a bad man, and doesn’t want to see him tarnished any further). Also, he wants to abolish the prison.

      • HReardenNo Gravatar says:

        I understand that he wants to abolish the prison. My point is that currently that is not an option. Think about my point. If you are a prisoner and at least for the current future are not able to escape wouldn’t you prefer to have a good man running the prison rather than a bad man running the prison? Sure you would still be a prisoner but it is a matter of how you will be treated in prison that would be the difference.

  8. helioNo Gravatar says:

    The conclusion i walk away with is that the experiment only shows what happens when people who subscribe to the ideology of coercive hierarchy are put into a coercive situation. Such an experiment couldnt even be attempted with voluntarists. They would simply walk out in protest, engage in disobedience, or refuse to do anything to the prisoners. I would guess that all the participants were raised and schooled to believe in statist ideology. The experiment shows the logical conclusion of human ownership and why only voluntary interactions are sustainable, social, and civilized.

  9. EulerNo Gravatar says:

    In the Lord of the Rings, someone had to be the ring bearer. The ultimate goal was to obliterate the ring, but this could not be done until one emerged who could resist its temptation. Ron Paul is our Frodo.

    • HReardenNo Gravatar says:

      LOR is not analogous. The reason is because LOR did not end with liberty being achieved. LOR was a sham.It ended with someone being crowned king, That was a contradiction of what until that point was the message of the film.


      • EulerNo Gravatar says:

        Message of the film = /

        I’m joking though. It’s not really analogous at all specifically because electing a president will never lead to the abolition of the state. Still, the point is some people resist corruption remarkably well. Ron seems to be adept at this.

        • HReardenNo Gravatar says:

          Dr. Ron Paul would be the best POTUS ever. I voted for Dr. Paul. Had Dr. Paul not been in the race I would not have voted.


  10. PrimeNo Gravatar says:

    I do have doubts about the validity of the Stanford experiment. The participants knew they were taking part in a “prison” experiment, and all had some idea of what a prison environment is like. There’s no reason to think such knowledge had no impact on their behavior during the experiment, but were instead role-playing. This is not to say that I doubt such phenomenon happens in actual prisons, or that you don’t have a point about the capability for corruption in even the best of us.

    You wrote, “We often mistakenly think that evil people are attracted to power, but that’s not what the research suggests. The studies show that power draws the evil out of people.”

    I don’t see it as an either-or situation. I think we can look at real-world examples and find both.

  11. AnotherfreemanNo Gravatar says:

    Great article. And great insight… Very relevant and cohesive… I liked it alot.

  12. asdfjkl;No Gravatar says:

    Well maybe this is a step in disassembling the prison from within. I dont think this “prison” is ready for something like that. I think it has already been shown several times that it is too hard to fight this “prison system” from the outside. It was built to handle that. However if there is a “good man” ahead of this prison system he is going to come under a lot of pressure because systems are made to deal with threats to them. Either way if Ron Paul gets elected I think it would be interesting to see what happens.

  13. Max WNo Gravatar says:

    “And I see no indication that this wouldn’t happen to Paul. He has remained remarkably resilient to evil as a Congressman. But Congressmen don’t have as much power as a Senator or a Governor, and even Paul plays the earmark game with spending bills.”

    Ron Paul said specifically that he vetoes all spending bills. but once its been passed, and its being distributed among districts, he tries to get back as much as he can. any money that is not distributed is turned over to the Executive Branch. would people prefer the money is given to the POTUS instead? at least member districts arent drone bombing people overseas.

    Ron Paul has a reputation on Capitol Hill for being “unbuyable.” he will support and reject bills solely on his Austrolibertarian beliefs, and of course, the US Constitution. the idea that Ron Paul will be corrupted is ridiculous. hes come this far, why would he turn astray now, at age 76? in one of Ron Paul’s books, Liberty Defined, he has a quote where a righteous man is asked “Why do you continue your protest against evil; cant you see no one is paying attention to you?” and he answered, “I’ll tell you why I continue. In the beginning I thought I could change people. Today, I know I cannot. Yet, if I continue my protest, at least I will prevent others from changing me.” i honestly think that quote is what kept Ron Paul going all those decades. he wont allow himself to be corrupted, no matter what.

    this whole targeting of Ron Paul is just typical of agorists. theres always this constant “status jockeying” over who’s the bigger anti-statist. and they always attack the anarcho-capitalist for political action, as if its a betrayal of principles to engage in what is tantamount to self-defense. i also think theres a serious case of envy, as Paul’s name has become more widespread.

    what agorists fail to understand is that its through the political process that people can be converted. statism is too heavily indoctrinated into the masses. introducing them to anarchism is too much too soon, and will be written off as crazy. thats why minarchism is effective. you still get across the moral, economic, and constitutional argument for why government should be as small as possible. but as they slowly realize the futility to minarchism, they will turn to anarchism.

    i myself cant tell you the amount of times i heard a statist tell me “the Constitution is just a piece of paper.” the fact of the matter is, minarchism has and will continue to bring more people to anarchism than agorism ever will. and Ron Paul is a big reason why.

  14. meNo Gravatar says:

    Paul is just another mason trying to divide and conquer us all just like Obama and ROmney. You probably are one too.

  15. CalvinNo Gravatar says:

    Ron Paul has been the idol of millions for how many years now? nearly 5? With the unofficial position as godfather of the tea party or American liberty icon, he influences millions with each word and action he takes. Still to this day, he leads by example and shys from ‘ordering’ his grassroots supporters to do anything.

    To this day people still look up to him for ‘substance’ and ‘inspiration’ many still look to him for ‘direction’ yet he’s still humble and is vague in his ‘directions’ for the future of this movement.

    Can this possibly mean that Ron Paul and others may be the exception?

    There have been exceptions before, peace leaders that have overcome temptation like Jesus and the Buddha.

    • DocNo Gravatar says:

      Just like we all have within us the ability to do evil, I think we each also have the ability to do good and resist evil temptations.

  16. Nearly all of whatever you articulate happens to be astonishingly legitimate and that makes me ponder why I had not looked at this with this light previously. Your piece truly did turn the light on for me personally as far as this particular subject goes.

  17. CodyNo Gravatar says:

    All I can say is, stop whining, get busy and learn the spirit of intractability….

    “This study renders men acute, inquisitive, dexterous, prompt in attack, ready in defence, full of resources. In other countries, the people, more simple, and of a less mercurial cast, judge of an ill principle in government only by an actual grievance; here they anticipate the evil, and judge of the pressure of the grievance by the badness of the principle. They augur misgovernment at a distance; and snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze.” Edmund Burke, 22 March 1775

  18. Buster CrabbNo Gravatar says:

    Try to imagine what goes on at the Police Academies

  19. Doug NusbaumNo Gravatar says:

    Interestingly enough I am doing research on a book that includes this topic among others. I got the motivation because I was a RP delegate to both of the 2008 state republican state conventions. That motivated me to write a 6000 word article that I called orwells boot which I posted on the web. When I did a search on those two words a year later I was on the first page of google. Six mo. later I was number 1, after paid links, on every search engine, and have stayed there for over three years. That lead me to write an article that is 40K words long and is at

    Here are a couple of quotes from that article — hopefully a book in the making.
    3. Hierarchical systems, almost always patriarchal, are bureaucracies and these systems enhance and focus human st00pidity

    4. Power attracts psychopaths. Thus larger more powerful systems /bureaucracies attract more clever manipulative psychopaths.

    that is large hierarchal structures populated almost entirely by people promoted to their levels of incompetence, shielded from the consequences of their actions and who learn from authority rather than from experience.

    The disease is hierarchy. The cure is networks