A Retraction

In the past I have offered an argument that goes: “there’s no value to having power unless you intend to abuse it”  I’ve used various phrasings, but the obvious dependencies are on the definition of “power” and “abuse”   Well, I won’t be using that one any more.

Holms makes the conclusive argument:

You are trying to reconcile an absolute statement with human behaviour and human made systems of governance.

Before that, however, there was an equally interesting question, namely whether the state has power: i.e., are laws “power”? I attempted to argue that laws are an emergent property of people’s participation in society. That argument basically aligns with the idea of the “social contract” – people give up some of their liberties in order to participate in the benefits of having a society, but it’s their choice to do so, and they are accepting society’s laws because the laws come from them. I’ve always been a bit uncomfortable with that idea, for reasons I won’t go into here, but it’s the basis for most of what we consider civil society. At one end of the spectrum you have anarchists like Robert Paul Wolff, that argue that individual autonomy is never consistent with submitting to the authority of a state, and at the other end you have outright authoritarians who reify the state and accept its authority as if it’s the divine right of kings reinvested in government.

Holms points out:

Yes there is a difference between ‘complying with behaviour mandated by the state’ and ‘complying with an order issued by a person’, but the state isn’t some wholly emergent property of large numbers of people, a gestalt guiding force that arises and gains power as populations grow. Rather, it is an aggregate of people’s different attempts to shape behaviour for any number of reasons – rather like a net force on an object being the sum of all forces on that object – some reasons being a desire for public safety in Pet Issue X, a desire to Fix Problem Y, or hell just a desire for power for the sake of power.

This is the critical point which I have to accept. Part of the laws may be abuse of power, and other parts may be wholly or in part beneficial to everyone. Laws that benefit everyone appropriately ought to be obeyed out of the mythical enlightened self-interest of the people, whereas abusive laws are still laws; I suppose Rousseau might argue* that such laws would be a violation of the social contract, but that’s a matter of circular definition.

If society’s laws are an aggregate of different people’s attempts to shape behavior, per Holms, then it’s impossible to say which laws are approved by the collective and which laws are authoritarianism. Holms was nice enough not to point out that in North Carolina, right now, it’s hard to tell which laws are favored by the collective and which are favored by individuals who want power over others – or collectives who want power over others. It’s never as simple as I tried to make it seem.

Further, Holms argues:

But I still don’t agree with your statement even if we grant your distinction. It suffers from the same ailment that many pithy deepities have: it is absolute. It permits no possibility of a person being a good steward of the power they gain, no responsible police officer or politician or anything of that nature. And the plain fact of the matter is that there are loads of people that are responsible with authority

I have to agree with that, as well. I can’t argue that there have been historical figures who have tried to be good stewards of power. As I write this, I thought of one example that I simply couldn’t quibble with: a ship’s captain. In most cases, the authority and power of a ship’s captain is much greater than the crew’s but it’s accepted as such as long as the captain is exercising good judgement. When I first started formulating the “no value to having power..” idea, I was concerned about the difference between “power” and “leadership.” I considered the example of someone who tries to organize people escaping from a burning building: that’s “leadership” because there is no attempt to maintain power after the incident is over. The counter-example of a ship’s captain did not, unfortunately, occur to me at the time.

So, I’m going to hammer a stake through that deepity and won’t be attempting to deploy it any more. Thank you, Holms, for taking the time to engage with my ideas!


Stderr: On Power

Stderr: Welcome Our New Oligarch

(* It’s not fair for me to suppose what Rousseau might argue, but screw it, I’m feeling “edgy” today. For the record, Rousseau’s view of the social contract was attacked energetically by establishment thinkers as being an argument for insurgency: if government does not live up to its end of the bargain, it is not legitimate, and can be treated as an occupying power. For the 18th century that idea was dynamite.)


  1. says

    It is worth noting, though, that if you (whoever “you” are) grant someone power, you need to be EXCEEDINGLY careful to compensate the holder of that power for the proper outcomes.

    The ship’s captain is damn near a sui generis case of power rarely abused (in these modern times) and it is not abused because a) it’s easy to measure “good uses of power” (i.e. the ship arrives reliably at ports in good shape with a crew that isn’t bailing out like rats) and b) ship’s captains are very well compensated for producing those good results.

    The modern corporation, by contrast, rewards its power holders (usually) for profoundly bad uses of power (i.e. make the stock price go up in the next quarter, at all costs). The state typically rewards its power holders for the wrong things. In both of these cases it’s not particularly easy to decide what, in fact, the “proper use of power” is, and so things are fuzzy, and we get abuse.

    Without very very carefully aligned compensation attached irrevocably to the power, there is no use in having power unless you intend to abuse it is, I think, undeniably true, the argument being thus:

    If the compensation model does not, exactly, reward “proper use of power” then it either rewards “improper use” (i.e. abuse) or it rewards nothing at all. In the latter case, the power-holder will generally seek out her own compensation, and that compensation seeking will take the form of abuse.

    Since aligning compensation properly is extremely hard, your original absolutist statement is in fact a pretty reliable rule of thumb.

  2. Holms says

    Power comes with the potential for abuse of power, and as the power increases so too does the temptation to abuse it also the scope of abuse possible. And so I actually agree with the sentiment behind the statement, I just have a bit of a Thing about absolute statements… they always pretty much always go wrong at some point.

    Anyway, as Andrew notes, linking compensation to good stewardship of power is difficult, and so another way of going about protecting that power from abuse is a legal requirement for transparency, or better still, scrutiny. Calls to ‘trust me!’ as a way of allaying scrutiny, or worse yet flat oppositin to it – such as police unions resisting body cameras – is an immediate tell. To paraphrase one Marcus J Ranum, “there’s no reason for those with power to resist scrutiny unless they intend to abuse it.”

    Not a retraction, but a revision.