A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Monday, 15 July 2013

In Defence of Power

This post is intended to discuss Lord Acton's famous aphorism that "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." More precisely, I argue that it is overstated, and that this applies at most to certain well-defined types of power.

What is power? The standard definition used in political science discussions is "the ability to achieve desired ends." An objection to consider is that this is too broad a definition, and we refer to the power to get what we want out of other people. However, I reject this: it seems perfectly reasonable to refer to someone with the ability to summon lightning from their fingertips as "powerful", whether they use that power to threaten others into doing their bidding or to power an electric car.

Given this definition, what ways are there to cause one's own ends to be achieved? The ways in which one can cause something to be done can be divided into two broad categories: those which require outside agency, and those which do not. These may be categorised as "doing it yourself" and "getting someone else to do it".

Due to comparative advantage, it seems clear that one will never maximise one's power by doing everything oneself: one can increase the extent to which one's ends are satisfied by focusing one's effort upon whatever one is most efficient at relative to other people, and then trading.

The ways in which one causes others to fulfil one's ends may be divided into three categories, which I take from David D. Friedman's The Machinery of Freedom. These categories are Trade, Coercion and Love. Trade is characterised by receipt of goods or services from another agent in return for providing a good or service which that agent values. Coercion involves violence or the threat thereof to compel another agent to perform the desired action. Love involves causing another agents goals to become the same as your own (the name coming from the notion, that, if someone loves me, then they wish me to be happy and take action to achieve that goal, thus achieving my goal of increasing my own utility).

There does not seem to be any inherent reason why trade need cause corruption - indeed, if trade is to be repeated, then due to the discipline of constant dealings, it seems likely to reduce corruption: one cannot cheat a trade partner and expect to keep on trading in the future. However, it is possible that trade in certain circumstances may lead to corruption. I shall consider two views of this idea.

First, the Aristotelian sense of goods having a right and proper function, with their usage outside of this being corrupt. Quoting from Anthony Kenny's A New History of Western Philosophy, p.72: "Our possessions, [Aristotle] says, have two uses, proper and improper. The proper use of a shoe, for instance, is to wear it: to exchange it for other goods or for money is an improper use. There is nothing wrong with basic barter for necessities, but there is nothing natural about trade in luxuries, as there is in farming." The original passage may be found here.

I am not any kind of expert on Aristotle, so I remain open to the possibility that I have misunderstood him; however, his views on commerce do seem incompatible with the basic thrust of his moral outlook, that we should aim to increase eudaimonia, or human flourishing. The point of trade is that it increases the well-being of both parties, and so if Aristotle has an objection then surely his objection must be to the whole process of "unnatural" enrichment, rather than its achievement specifically through trade. In this case, power in itself is not corrupting: rather, it is the aims which one holds, the aims for the achievement of which one uses one's power.

One could of course argue that enrichment does in fact lead to corruption, or that it is itself a form of corruption. My question then is, at what point does this start? I refuse to countenance any moral system which views the move from subsistence farming to a typical modern standard of living as a worsening of the world. It seems implausible that enrichment of society starts as a good thing, and becomes bad at a certain level of technology.

A second way in which trade may be regarded as corrupting is when it is conducted with those incapable of securing for themselves a fair deal - young children, the mentally handicapped and so on. I would suggest that this situation, when a mentally incompetent person is being taken advantage of, represents power over another person, and will happily agree that this type of power has a tendency towards corruption. However, this represents a very small portion of trade, if it may indeed even be properly classed as trade.

Similarly, coercion, as a form of power over other people, does appear that it would tend to corrupt people.

What, then, of "love" as a means of achieving goals? If one is knowingly manipulating others to carry out one's own desires, it is easy to see not only how this may be corrupting, but how similar it is to "trade" with one incapable of rational dealing. But if one is not choosing to achieve one's goals this way? Well then, one is not capable of controlling the achievement of one's objectives, so this does not seem to truly represent power.

I thus conclude that power is only corrupting when it is exercised over other people. Absolute power, since it seems to include power over others by definition, would therefore seem to be corrupting. However, power is not inherently wrong and in many circumstances may in fact be virtuous.

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