Saturday, December 29, 2007

On Power

In my previous essay I noted that might does not make right: "Right" is an issue that applies only between parties roughly equal in power. But I left unsaid precisely what I mean by "power".

Power is the ability to coerce someone else. To the extent that I can coerce you, I have power over you. I coerce you whenever I frustrate your will using physical force.

There are many different kinds of power, some, but not all, of them intuitively objectionable. The most obvious kind of power is holding a gun to your head: Do what I tell you or I'll physically kill you. (Presumably you don't want to do it, otherwise why bother to threaten to kill you?) Even such a blatant exercise of power is not always objectionable: It's the sort of power an armed robber uses to coerce a bank teller to give him money, but it's also the power a police officer uses to demand the robber disarm himself. The issue of rights becomes important when a police officer confronts an armed robber precisely because, both having guns, they are roughly equal in power. The sensible officer would prefer not to risk actually shooting it out, therefore he (indirectly) grants the robber certain rights (humane treatment, a fair trial, and finite worst-case consequences) so that the robber himself will also prefer not to shoot it out.

There are other ways of coercing people. When I lock my front door, I am physically coercing everyone who wants to come into my house to take my stuff. And again, we have to introduce the panoply of property rights because the burglar with his crowbar has a rough parity of power with my lock. If I could lock my door well enough to eliminate the possibility of burglary, I wouldn't need laws to protect my property.

I can, in some circumstances, actually coerce someone by dying: If a person wishes to employ my labor, I can frustrate his will by dying. Coercion by dying is not, of course, always effective, but it has been effective in some circumstances.

Why go to all the trouble, then, of talking about these complicated "rights" when you can simply enforce your will by overwhelming strength? There's no a priori answer to this question; if anything Occam's razor suggests that the simplicity of force is superior to the complications of "rights". It is, for instance, definitely the case that human beings do what they can to animals, and animals suffer what they must, so long as people eat meat and compete for territory with animals. If this state of affairs were to change, it would not be because of the arguments of moral philosophers (at least not directly), but rather the actions of humans exerting coercive power for the benefit of animals.

But between human beings, superiority of force sufficient to impose one's will in an unrestricted manner is more difficult than it looks. As noted above, Athens coerced the Melians, Sparta conquered Athens, Phillip of Macedon conquered all of Greece, the Romans conquered most everyone and fell in turn to the barbarians. We can see today the people of tiny, impoverished Iraq fighting the United States Military to a standstill (and probably eventual defeat), as did the Vietnamese in the middle of the twentieth century. The Nazis and the Soviets ruled by force unrestricted to a unique degree in modern times; Africa and India were ruled by brute force in colonial times, and none of these regimes remain in power: The Nazis were defeated, the Soviets collapsed into anarchy and kleptocracy, and the colonial European powers have lost all but a handful of islands.

In human society, "strength" is a matter of mostly organization and will, neither ineluctable. We are the descendants of those who transformed themselves from prey to predator by the force of will and the application of intelligence [the book to read is Blood Rites, by Barbara Ehrenreich]. We can be sure the weak will be applying all their will and brains to gaining strength; should the strong flag even for a moment, the situation could well be (and has been) immediately reversed.

Furthermore, once the paradigm of overwhelming strength becomes dominant, it becomes ever narrower. First a society achieves power over its neighbors, then a faction achieves power over the rest of the society, then an oligarchy achieves strength over the faction, and then a single person achieves power over the oligarchy. When that person dies, there is no infrastructure of rights or institutions concerned with negotiations between equals, and succession often becomes bloody and sometimes suicidal, as we see in the fall of the Roman Empire after a half century of civil war.

Rough equality of power is necessary to make a discourse of rights coherent, but as noted above, it isn't sufficient. And the equality of power necessary to make coherent the discourse of rights is at best only meta-stable and requires conscious attention. The present-day United States is a case in point: all the institutions — notably the press and the opposition political party — that are supposed to provide negative feedback loops to maintain a rough equality of power between the people and the government are failing, leaving us to the cruder, brutal negative feedback loops of physical reality.

My thesis is twofold: First, that rights become coherent only when there is equality of power. Second, that societies based primarily on overwhelming power — i.e. where rights are incoherent — are unstable in the medium- and long-term.

The present structure of Chinese society and government, about which I am almost completely ignorant, might well form a decisive counterexample to my thesis. They seem to lack the democratic institutions typically employed by Western countries to maintain equality between the people and the government, but they do not appear to be spiraling into autocracy, aggression for its own sake or dangerous delusions, and their economy seems as robust as the West's near the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Clearly they have some internal structures preventing suicidal insanity, unmovable stasis and widespread rebellion. (The Communist revolution in the twentieth century decisively demonstrates that the Chinese people can in fact rebel.) Are "rights" coherent in Chinese society? If so, are the structures which make rights coherent based in some subtle way on an equality of power between the people and the government? If not, how does Chinese society achieve stability without rights? Of course, Chinese Communism is barely five decades old. It has lasted longer than other non-democratic societies, but is still an order of magnitude younger than Western Enlightenment.

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