The Nature of Power
The Modern Survival Guide #73
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. And I think that most of us have only a nebulous understanding of the nature of a concept that makes the world go ‘round:
This article is about power, its nature, and its corrupting influence.
A Good Definition of Power
A traditional definition of power would be something like, “the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events,” or words to that effect. I think that’s cumbersome, and I think we can refine it a bit.
I would define “power” as the ability to make meaningful choices, that is, choices that have an effect on the world.
Let’s elaborate, shall we? An example may work here. If I, right now, make the choice that the United States of America should withdraw from the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty, that is a meaningless choice. I don’t have any ability to affect that treaty, or any way to accomplish that goal. If the President makes this choice, on the other hand, it is meaningful; he can make that decision manifest.
This scales down. If I make the decision, right now, that a company is going to hire me, that is a meaningless choice. They don’t know me, and I have no ability to affect their HR decisions. If I decide tomorrow that I’m working for SpaceX, who cares? That’s not entirely up to me. On the other hand, if I decide to apply to a job at SpaceX, that is a meaningful choice. It is within my power to apply for a job. It is not within my power to decide that I get the job.
When we say that someone is “powerful,” what we mean is that they have the ability to make a lot of meaningful choices. A rich man is powerful because his money gives him a lot of options. If he wants to go to the Bahamas for a weekend… he can do that. If he wants to buy a $100,000 sports car… he can do that. If he wants to date a supermodel… he can probably do that.
But at the same time, it’s important to acknowledge that all power comes with limits. The rich man we just talked about? Yeah, he can date a supermodel. But if he’s 80 years old, no amount of money in the world can convince his peers to take that relationship seriously. He has the power to make a lot of personal choices, but that does not inherently mean he has the power to influence the ideas of others.
Flip that around. Your local parish priest is in almost exactly the opposite situation. He has very little power to make personal material decisions — he has, in fact, deliberately given up this power in many cases — but he has a great deal of power to influence others. His sermons and statements, his counsel, his decisions to forgive or not forgive the sins of his congregation — these things all give him great power.
Not all power is equivalent, and not everyone holds different kinds of power equally. That’s an article all on its own. It’s very much worth your while in life to figure out what kinds of people hold what kinds of power around you, though.
The Corruption of Power
It has been said that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. I have seen more than enough evidence in my life to state that this is entirely correct. But why? Why does it seem like power is such a toxic influence on people?
I think this can all be traced back the nature of power: constraint-bound choices.
Most of us do not have a lot of power; we are very much bound by the constraints of our social, cultural, and economic positions. We are additionally bound by our philosophical and moral restrictions. Having power means that we start to shake off those constraints; our array of meaningful choices expands, and with it our ability to make mistakes — in particular, the mistake of complacency.
It’s a fundamental fact that human beings can get used to pretty much anything, and it’s very easy to get used to power. That means getting used to the concept of making regular, meaningful choices about things that normal people don’t have to consider. It means having options normal people don’t get to have.
It means losing touch.
Once someone has lost touch with “normal” life, they get used to extraordinary life. It’s a short step from living an extraordinary life to considering oneself extraordinary. And once you’re extraordinary… it’s easy to think that the rules don’t really apply anymore. It’s easy to think you’re free.
Because that’s the thing, powerful people don’t have to live by the same rules as everyone else. Whatever their source of power, they eventually realize that they have a different set of rules. Really powerful people stop seeing rules at all. All they see are choices.
Realities of Power
The reality, of course, is that we’re all bound by constraints… it’s just that the powerful have fewer, and sometimes forget about them until they are forcibly reminded. The history of the world can be summed up, in some ways, as one long episode of powerful people overstepping their bounds and getting smacked back by the hoi polloi (usually after a long period of repression and wealth extraction, but whatever).
However, if there is one thing history has taught us, it’s that the powerful never, ever remember this lesson. I think this is because most people learn from personal experience, not from historical narrative or second-hand experience, and it’s a damn shame.
That means, in turn, that it’s up to the hoi polloi to continually remind the powerful of the bounds of their power. So… that’s our job. Remind people with money that some things can’t be bought. Remind people with authority where their authority comes from. Keep our leaders and the paragons of our society humble, because otherwise they are doomed to fall to the excesses their positions allow. It has happened before. It will happen again.
Power is about choice. It’s our job to choose well, in our own lives. It’s also extremely instructive to keep track of the choices that other people have and make. If you want to know who is powerful in your life, ask yourself — who can make a choice that will affect you? And if you want to live well, take a moment to figure out how you can influence that choice, and make meaningful choices of your own. That’s how you survive and thrive around people with power.