The Modern Survival Guide #74
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 applications of a concept that makes the world go ‘round:
Isn’t that a deliciously freight-laden term? Right now half of you are wondering why I’ve put a picture of someone playing chess on an article about electricity (spoiler: I didn’t, that’s not what this article is about). And this is the problem. This term has adopted so many meanings that it’s tough to tell what we mean when we use it. So let’s start with a somewhat non-standard definition:
Power is the ability to make meaningful choices. I have a whole separate article on that.
This means that someone with power can make a choice about their own actions, the actions of others, or some quality of the workings of the world, and then that choice becomes reality. There are a number of ways to make this kind of choice, and in this article I’m going to talk about nine of them:
- The power of money
- The power of authority
- The power of will
- The power of fear
- The power of force
- The power of respect
- The power of organization
- The power of tradition
- The power of incentive
For each of these facets of power, I’ll talk about what they do, how they work, and mention the traps that may undermine them. Buckle in, this is gonna be a ride.
#1: The Power of Money
We’re starting with money, and we’re starting here for a reason. There is a term that we have to get out of the way for the rest of this article to make sense, and that term is: fungible. There’s your SAT word of the day. “Fungible” means that you can turn one thing into another on a relatively equal exchange. And we’re starting with money because money is the most fungible form of power — you can turn it into most of the others.
This actually makes a lot of sense, because when you get right down to it, money is just society’s way of trading labor, and labor is the act of doing things — which is pretty much what making a meaningful choice is all about. Having a lot of money is the same as having the distilled output of a lot of labor at your command, and that means you can do things.
Basically, money is the magic that anyone can do. Almost any of us can make some amount of money, and then that money gets turned into stuff, experiences, and life choices. It’s practical alchemy. Do you want a product? Give someone money for it. Do you want something to happen really fast? Throw money at it. Do you want someone to do something for you? Throw money at them. Do you want your life to go down a particular path? MONEY.
I laugh when people decry Americans as materialistic. Of course we’re materialistic, we’ve figured out that life is better with power and money is power. However, the catch with money is that it only buys things that people are willing to sell; it is fungible only up to a certain point. To paraphrase the joke, you can’t buy happiness… but you can buy a jet ski.
This is the trap of money: a lot of people think that money is the ultimate expression of power. It is not. Money will leave you hanging for the most important things. But it’s a very fungible form of power, and that’s why we worship it in our culture. Americans are obsessed with being able to choose our own destinies, and you can’t do that without power; in a capitalist economy, you can’t do that without money.
#2: The Power of Authority
If you have authority, you have power. Authority implies that you are in a social, political, or economic position where you have a title, you often tell other people what to do, and they do it. If your orders aren’t followed, you don’t have authority. You may be in an authority position, but you don’t have authority. Those are different things.
The power of authority is the ability to coordinate actions. Human society cannot exist without people who have authority, because we aren’t a hive-mind; we can’t all make decisions simultaneously. Someone has to be in charge. And if you are in charge, you get/have to make the big choices. Who gets money, who doesn’t. Who gets resources, who doesn’t. Who gets support, who doesn’t. Who lives… who doesn’t. Authority is terrifying. Authority is necessary. Authority is power.
But authority is fragile, and limited. Remember, you only have authority as long as people obey you. If they don’t, you don’t. You may be able to reassert authority using one of the other forms of power, but authority itself is a slippery devil. And authority is not absolute. There are no positions in our society (thank God) that give someone the ability to command everyone and everything. Authority is limited — by time, by information, by culture, by our very humanity. This tends to make authority one of the least fungible sources of power — but authority tends to grant a LOT of power within its particular sphere of influence.
This is the trap of authority: people with authority start to think they’re powerful. People with lots of authority start to think they’re all-powerful. People who’ve had authority for a long time start to get the idea that they’re infallible, invincible, and untouchable. You’ve heard that power corrupts? This is one big reason why; it’s easy to get complacent in authority positions.
#3: The Power of Will
In other places you might see this described as the “will to power” or the “will to act,” and all this really means is that in order to make a choice you have to have the strength of will to follow through on that choice. If you want to start a company, you have to actually fill out the paperwork, hire the employees, find the vision, etc. If you want to make a purchase, you have to pay out the money. If you want to fall in love, you have to get out there and meet your match.
There’s an action verb at the heart of every expression of meaningful choice, and every one of those actions is a function of willpower. It’s not enough to want something. You have to get off the couch and get it. That push, that mental command — that is power, the power over self. This is perhaps the most important expression of power any of us can command; if we cannot direct ourselves, the rest is moot.
It has struck me many, many times in life how simple most things are — if only I have the will to act. This is the first trap of willpower: most of us think that things are harder than they are, and so we lack the will to accomplish them. There is a second, and it is that willpower will only take you just so far; some of the strongest-willed people forget that one man by himself ain’t worth a damn. Willpower is necessary to start on any path, but once on the path you will need some other form of power to carry you through.
#4: The Power of Fear
Oooh, now we’re going to the Dark Side of the Force. The power of fear is the power to force someone out of their comfort zone and trigger their fight or flight reflexes. People who are afraid often act in predictable patterns that someone with a knowledge of their position can exploit.
The power of fear isn’t really about making a choice per se, but rather about dictating the choices of another person. Fear is a good way to get someone to stop doing one thing or start doing something else. It is most often used in interpersonal and political dealings to manipulate people into doing things they don’t want to do, and as such the power of fear is largely manifested in coercion. See? Dark Side.
There are three traps to the power of fear, though. The first is that fear and anger are only separated by a hair’s breadth, and pushing someone into their fight or flight instincts can trigger “fight.” The second is that one’s ability to inspire fear is largely dependent on one’s actions — never make a threat you aren’t prepared to follow through on. The third trap is that the actions that inspire fear also tend to inspire resentment. Why do you think the Empire always loses in Star Wars? They create enemies. Such is the nature of wielding fear as power.
#5: The Power of Force
Using force is, in many ways, a defining form of power. In this case, “force” means the application of physical interventions to influence the choices of another person. Sometimes that force can take the form of legal actions, such as arrest or asset seizure. Sometimes that force can take the form of violence, in all the ways violence is used. Force has a wide range of applications, and is available to anyone with a sharp stick. This makes force the second most fungible source of power, after money, which probably explains why it’s used so often.
Exercising force-backed power is dangerous, though. It tends to inspire reprisals, it puts you in immediate peril from someone fighting back, and it also degrades social capital.¹ It’s not an exercise one should undertake lightly or whimsically. For all of these reasons, in the modern world we almost exclusively reserve force-backed power to government agencies, in which it becomes force-back authority.² The primary exception to this rule is a lawsuit.
There are great and terrible traps to attempting to exert power through force. Unless overwhelming force is used, it is always possible that the other party might win, for one. It is also personally dangerous, and likely to invite injury or death, even in victory. It is a flashpoint for resentment, reprisal, and rebellion. And it is an opportunity cost; using force requires the expenditure of resources, and every resource spent in this way isn’t being used for something else. Force should never be used without consideration of alternatives, without planning, or without preparation.
#6: The Power of Respect
Exercising respect-based power allows you to make significant choices based solely on the fact that other people like you, or think you’re the best qualified person. R E S P E C T is insanely important in any job, any relationship, any enterprise that you undertake, and unlike many of the other forms of power on this list, anyone can have it.
That's because respect is earned, not given.
The respect in which others hold you is entirely dependent on your actions. You can’t buy it. You can’t sell it. You can’t trade it. It’s yours, and only yours. But it is dependent on two things: you have to be correct in your actions, and you have to be seen. Get either of those wrong, and you won’t earn any respect.
Accordingly, respect-based power has a trap built in: it only works if people know about you, and the power it grants is totally conditional based on the groups who respect you. And one wrong move upends the apple cart. Once you lose respect, it takes longer to regain it than it did to build it up in the first place, because you have to dig yourself out of whatever PR hole lost you that respect. You want to know why politicians are obsessed with image? This is why.
#7: The Power of Organization
Ultimately, the key part of making a meaningful change is that something gets done as a result. Therefore there is great power in organization, because without some degree of organized action trying to manage people is a bit like herding cats. With organization, on the other hand, you get companies, armies, bureaucracies, religions, volunteer groups… basically all the organized groups that make up society.
Large and successful organizations hold enormous power for this reason: they represent a proven methodology for translating choice into action. This makes them a workable solution to whatever problem they were created to solve, which makes people more likely to use them, which gives them more resources, attention, and respect. And accordingly they generate enormous inertia, because once you have a complex methodology in place for this kind of thing, it takes a lot of time and effort to change it — it’s usually simpler just to let it run.
The trap of organized power is that it very quickly becomes an inflexible tool. A big organization often has trouble moving because it is, metaphorically, tripping over its own feet after years of building internal processes. Organizations often have trouble adapting to new circumstances and adopting new ideas for the same reason: they were built to translate a particular choice into a particular action, and if either of those variables changes their methodologies stop working.
#8: The Power of Tradition
How often have you heard someone say, “That’s the way we’ve always done things?” And how often have you participated in a ritual of one form or another that marked a change? These are both examples of tradition, and traditions have enormous power because they represent stability and certainty. Name two things people want more in life. I’ll wait. It’ll be short list.
The power of tradition comes from doing something the way it’s always been done, and therefore producing an expected outcome. Using a tradition to make a significant choice is therefore attractive, because it provides some certainty that what you get is what you wanted. If you make the choice to get married to your significant other, for example, there are a variety of traditional paths to follow that will produce that outcome for you.
This means, of course, that the people who are in charge of the traditions have enormous power over their particular tradition. They get to decide who participates in the Christmas party, or how the wedding looks, or whether to invite Aunt May to Thanksgiving dinner. They get to decide who attends the White House press briefings, and how we treat fallen soldiers. There are a LOT of traditions running around.
By the same token, the trap of tradition-based power is that it only works if the tradition is honored. If society moves on, that source of power vanishes… which probably explains why people in traditional roles (priests, politicians, Aunt May) are quite frequently opposed to major social changes.
#9: The Power of Incentive
Now we’re getting meta. Incentives may cross any of the other categories, but I put them on their own for a reason: if you control something that someone else wants, you have power over them. It’s that simple. Incentives are among the most fungible sources of power as a result — you can turn them into almost anything.
Why do we go to work? Why do we listen to our boss? Why do we organize our entire working lives the way we do? Because someone pays us, and if we want the money we have to play by their rules.
Why do people climb mountains, or ride in the Tour de France, or play any sport? Well, sometimes for the money, but often simply because they want the glory. And if you play a sport, and want the glory, you have to play by the rules.
Why do husbands around the world mow the lawn every Sunday? Well, sometimes because they want a clean lawn, but very often also because they want to keep their wives happy. Happy wife, happy life.
Incentives drive us. Therefore whoever controls a source of incentive has power, power in spades. Most of the world’s most powerful people got to their position by isolating an incentive, controlling it, and turning it into other forms of power.
The trap of incentives, of course, is that they’re dependent on what other people want, and it can be hard to control that. Dictators throughout history have gambled and lost on the theory that people are more afraid of getting imprisoned than they are desirous of governmental change. Incentive-based power works really well… right up until it stops working.
Nine Applications, One Goal
To summarize, I think there are at least nine primary application of power — nine ways in which most of us make or influence meaningful choices in our lives or in other people’s lives. Each has their strengths and weaknesses. and some are more morally pure than others.
Power is a constant goal, and it’s not hard to understand why. If we have no power, our lives suck. Without power we have no agency, no freedom, no ability to determine our fate. Without power, we are at the mercy of whoever has the power. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for people to want power. I don’t think it’s wrong to want power.
Indeed, if I have one piece of advice for the people who made it to the end of this article, it is this: your survival, your quality of life, your personal freedom — these things are all dependent on how much power you have in your society. It behooves you to understand power. It’s important for you to ensure that you have some power. But because we’re supposed to be good people, this also means that power for the sake of power should never be the goal. Power is a means to an end — the meaningful choice. Make sure you know what you’re choosing, and make sure you can live with your choices.
¹Social Capital: the networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively.
²The difference between force-backed power and force-backed authority is that the latter is considered more “legitimate,” in the sense that society generally accepts, understands, and approves of the use of force under certain defined circumstances, by certain defined groups.