Thoughts on Power

June 8, 2013 § Leave a comment

Human beings are skeptical of power. Modern Homo sapiens are very skeptical, if not downright hostile to centralized power. Members of contemporary society have come to associate power with some of the same institutions which they feel—correctly or incorrectly– are the source of the most the world’s problems. Namely, large governments and corporations. Both institutions have some of the same unsavory characteristics which are commonly associated with power: hierarchical structure, economic influence, and increasingly, large scale dependence upon their services. The essential difference between the two, of course, is how this power was actually obtained. Private entities are typically* forced to obtain power and influence via market means. That is to say, peaceful trade and catering to consumer demand. On the other hand, governments necessarily must obtain power via political means. This includes, but is certainly not limited to: democratic methods (i.e. an arbitrary percentage of the population votes for increased government power), military coups, or reference to some divine spirit (e.g. Kings in the Middle Ages and in most of Ancient Mesoamerica). Every aforementioned origin of government power is based on violence. Indeed, the very basis of government is violence and compulsion. For if any individuals were to ignore the political decisions arrived at by any of the above methods (democratic, militaristic, or monarchist) they would undoubtedly fall victim to the powerful arm of the state. Whether that means a public beheading (as might have been the case in many European empires during the Middle Ages) or a mandatory prison sentence (in the case of a modern democracy), the logical conclusion is the same. Simply put, the state depends on violence and compulsion.

It should be clear that some form of power is necessary for modern society to exist. The dreamland of a completely anti-hierarchical society is impossible. Egalitarianism is not consistent with human nature. It’s a biological fact that some humans are better fit for certain tasks than others. An entirely anti-hierarchical society implicitly assumes that every human is just as good at basketball as Lebron James and that everyone is just as adept at physics as Einstein. Hierarchy is an inevitable, spontaneous outgrowth of human nature. The only way to prevent its occurrence, paradoxically enough, is with the use of power.

Almost every modern political ideology accepts some form of power but seeks to restrain it in some fashion. The difference between each ideology depends largely on which forms of power they find most dangerous and which they find beneficial. In any case, the “regulation” of power is almost synonymous with the use of government power to control and limit private power. This is one of the most widespread government powers on earth, and is considered legitimate in most parts of the world as well. Private entities, as the argument goes, are incapable of regulating themselves, and thus an “objective” third party organization answerable to “the people” is used to impose such regulation and protect the public from centralized private power.

The obvious contradiction – that centralized power should be used to prevent centralized power – is explained away with one word: “democracy”. Democracy, it is said, is that beautiful tool which provides a voice for the people. Of course, it is never explained who will regulate the regulator. That is to say, who will keep government power in check.

Thus we’re taken back to the original paradigm: The origin of different forms of power and its repercussions on the further centralization of power. The general consensus is that private entities are incapable of properly regulating themselves. Furthermore, it’s generally believed that government power – when properly controlled by the people – is capable of responsibly regulating private interests and protecting the people from the perils of private power. In other words the state has the final opinion in all disputes. Those who disagree will be forcibly subjected to the state’s tools of subjection (fines, imprisonment, death, etc.). This widely accepted version of order is based upon a system of violence.

Compare this to the alternative: a society based upon peaceful association and private contracts. In this case, private power would exist in the absence of any state power. Any power that an individual or an organization has can only be obtained through peaceful trade and satisfaction of customer demand. The power of private firms or entities is not really power at all, at least when compared to government power. In the case of private firms, power is fleeting and fickle, subject to the whims and tastes of the average consumer. Thus, there is no such thing as permanent private power unless a firm can constantly cater to the masses by supplying the most desired goods and services. Thus it becomes apparent that there is an inherent regulatory mechanism built into market transactions. Without state interference, private entities can only survive by most efficiently pleasing the people.  This is the much more effective alternative to democracy. Government power is permanent, and can only be overthrown by a different form of violence (coups, rebellions, etc.). Meanwhile, private power is short lived and controlled by tens, hundreds, or even thousands of competing firms.

So the choice is clear: a society based on peaceful transactions and competition, or a society based upon violence and permanent power. When enough time passes, it’s hard to believe that most reasonable members of society will prefer the latter.

*More on this qualifier in a future post.

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