Power is a word that gets thrown around regularly but it’s not clear that people who use the term understand its implications. The most iconic pop culture delineation between power and influence can be displayed in Game of Thrones during a conversation between Cerci and Little Finger. Little finger says that knowledge is power, Cerci responds by ordering her men to seize Little Finger and cut his throat. Just before the guards kill him, she orders them to stop and says: “Power is power.”
What Power Is
Power exists. Power, as I will define it, is the ability to force someone to do what you want, in exchange for no real or perceived benefit to them. This is not to say that there cannot be an exchange of benefits between authority and subordinate; the social contract of hierarchy is a facet of all power structures. This relationship of exchange, however, is not necessary during the exercise of power itself. To have power, you must have the ability to demand something and receive compliance, period.
Power is an abstraction from the threat of coercive force. It is a human construct. Coercive force is any method of convincing someone to do something lest they face some form of punitive countermeasure. Punitive countermeasures can take the form of financial penalties, ostracization, imprisonment, bodily harm (in the forms of loss of life, limb, or application of pain), or any other harm which can be levied against another person. At its core, coercive force is built entirely on the threat of violence.
Violent application of force is specifically marked via imprisonment or bodily harm in the forms of loss of life, limb, or application of pain. We’re getting a little into semantic weeds here so an example is in order:
You pay your taxes (whether you cheat on them is between you and your local tax authority)
If you don’t pay your taxes, the government will slap you with large financial penalties that harm you. If you continue to resist paying your taxes, the government will send people with guns to your house and throw you in a cage. If you resist those officials with sufficient voracity they will physically harm you and possibly kill you to get you into that cage.
Ultimately, all coercion is based upon the capacity for violence.
Side note, have you ever wondered why the IRS has guns?
The IRS is primarily a compliance agency. This is off topic, but the reality that a compliance agency also has the ability to draft regulations AND enforce compliance (with machine guns) runs contrary to the spirit of the 3 branches of government.
Some of you may still be skeptical of my assertion that power is the application of force. Specifically, you are probably focusing on purely hard force, such as raw physical violence. We can now review an example of soft power: social ostracization.
In communities just a couple hundred years ago, exile was a fate third most feared behind death and sterilization
For humans in an even more primal, state less than 5,000 years ago, isolation guaranteed death. We relied on migrating communities for survival and reproduction. Social isolation, excommunication, banishment, etc. virtually guaranteed a horrible death.
Humans have not adapted in any meaningful way to cope with soft power. Certainly it took less than 50,000 years for human populations to digest milk in adulthood. If we’re honest with ourselves, however, extending production lactase through adolescence is an extremely simple adaptation. Rewiring the human psyche is a task of unknown and likely extreme difficulty. We have been unable to breed violence out of the elephant psyche despite deliberate efforts to do so; it is unreasonable to think that our own psyche can be sufficiently modified without such deliberate efforts.
So hopefully you followed these definitions well enough for me to make the next simplified definition for power: “power exists, and is the capacity to levy violent force.”
Power is not a means, it is an end.
One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power George Orwell, 1984
Impacts of Power
Knowing that power exists and what it is do not give us everything we need to navigate the world. We also need a worldview with which we can navigate around power and, ideally, manage its impact on our lives. Unmanaged power frequently results in civil conflict and war among competing factions.
Anarchy and the Absence of Power
Anarchists assert that the state exercise of violence, itself, makes the state illegitimate. This is a highly ideological perspective. If one is to truly accept that the ends cannot justify the means, there are few logical alternatives to this worldview. Historically, the means and ends bear significant resemblance to eachother, regardless of the initial aims of the movement. Anarchistic idealists believe that means of force by the state negates any peaceful ends, and therefore the state is inherently evil.
Fundamentally, the fact that power exists (at all) makes a difficult road for anarchy to take root on all but the smallest scales. Anarchists are correct that people will self-organize; they may also be correct that anarchy will distribute resources more fairly than our current system. The problem with anarchy, is that it does NOT provision a system to prevent selfish individuals from forming a bloc and leveraging power upon the rest of the community. Any such system would require a monopoly on the use of force, and would therefore have power. Any group which seizes or is granted such a monopoly would leverage the capacity of force to become a government. In fact, the monopoly on the use of force is the cornerstone of governance; any government without it collapses.
There are examples of anarchy in which governments did not have or did not enforce their monopolies on force:
- Unwilling to Enforce - The Weimar Republic’s refusal to enforce its monopoly on power led to a vigilante culture that paved the way for the Nazis’ rise to power
- No One to Enforce - South Vietnam was a puppet government of the West; the USA assassinated its final prime minister, Diem, due to his brutality. This assassination created a power vacuum which destabilized the south beyond repair until it was conquered by North Vietnam
- Unable to Enforce - The Western Roman Empire could not recruit enough of its own people to enroll as Legionaries and hired outside fighters instead; these mercenaries were less willing to fight or enforce rule of law upon their fellow Germans, despite their Roman overlords’ orders. This experiment on the use of mercenaries cost the Italians indoor plumbing for thousands of years
These 3 examples outline the most likely problems a society faces when its government cedes or loses its monopoly on force. For members of said society, I condensed them into the following:
1) Collapse into tyranny 2) Outside invasion and tyranny 3) Complete collapse and utter destruction
These are ordered from best to worst case for the society experiencing state collapse. This says nothing to the horrors or benefits an outside society may experience from such a collapse. Points #1 and #3 are often terrible for outsiders, whereas point #2 is frequently beneficial.
Some of the worst tragedies in human history came out of the formation of power vacuums.
What We Ought to Do About Power
Our first principle as actors in a state-based society is to ensure the long-term containment of force. Containment of force is the sole benefit of having a state. This does not mean that the government requires a monopoly on the CAPACITY of force (it is not possible to fully defang humans), only its application. Vigilantism must be crushed by the government, no matter how much you enjoyed the Boondock Saints.
Finally, the government’s monopoly must be used extremely judiciously. Overuse of power undermines sufficient goodwill among the people; at best, this will result in reduced economic output and, at worst, rebellion. While the use of force is evil, it can promote general safety and a framework for interpersonal behavior that guarantees the preservation of life. At the end of the day, the state-sanctioned gang known as “the police” actually do maintain order, and within that order, we are generally safer. For example, law enforcement protects with order in the following ways:
- The police stop people from driving the wrong way on the freeway – while dangerous this can be tempting during certain hours of California traffic
- Fire departments stop people from setting off bottle rockets in dry areas – thereby reducing risk of wildfires
- The FCC stops radio operators from interfering with aeronautic communications – mitigating risk of aircraft collisions and preserving the lives of unwitting travelers
So, what do we mean by exercising power judiciously? By what limiting standard can we control our application of state-sanctioned violence?
The judicious application of power simply requires empathy. We must always remember that any time we ask the government to enforce a new set of standards (environmental, logistical, behavioral, etc.), we are asking the government to leverage force. Adding any new rule or law is the ethical equivalent of sticking a gun in someone’s face… at the end of the day, a police officer may be ordered to do exactly that.
To conclude, let’s review bullet points regarding power:
- It exists
- It is the abstract application of force and violence
- Anyone who believes that the ends cannot justify the means must determine that its application is evil
- Without it, we expect tragedy
- We ought to limit its application
- It has social benefits
- Empathy ought to be our guiding principle with its application
The last point here is the most important. Because power is inherently evil, and yet we cannot live without it, love and compassion for our fellow humans are crucial to mitigating its destructive impact. Those that carry substantial empathy will not seek power but would also likely be the wisest of rulers.
If we carry love in our hearts, there is still hope that we can one day mitigate or neutralize the harm that power causes.