Thursday, May 21, 2009

On Power: Types

This is the first in a series of posts about the way I understand power works.

First off, a definition - power is the ability to influence the behavior of other people. Essentially, it is the ability to get people to do what you want them to do.

Historically, there have been three sorts of power, which I'm going to call military, economic and intellectual.

Military power is the power to coerce - it is the power to get people to do something by threatening them with harm if they don't comply.
Economic power is the power to cajole - it is the power to get people to do something by enticing them with benefits if they comply.
Intellectual power is the power to convince - it is the power to get people to do something by convincing them that said action is in their best interest.

Military power is the most stable form of power. All animals, whether they live in societies or not use military power to get what they want. Even in modern human society, military power is prevalent.

One of the interesting things about military power is that it acts as a sort of base for the other two sorts of power. In order for economic or intellectual power to form in any sort of concerted manner, there has to be sufficient military power for a level of stability to develop.

Economic power is the power to cajole. It is the power to get people to do something by offering them a reward if they do it. Economic power always co-exists with military power to some extent. In a war band, the relationships between members can be thought of as a sort of informal economic power. To expand on the point, most people, when they think of economics, think of what I'm going to call formal economic power - the trading of goods for money or vise versa. Informal economic power is generally contained within inter-personal relationships, making it difficult to analyze; this does not make it any less real. Imagine it as a network of favors, debts and constructive alliances between people which are rarely explicitly spoken of, but are very real none the less.

Economic power has become immense of late for very good reasons. In a situation where the exercise of military power is strongly curtailed, economic power becomes ascendant, simply because the exercise of economic power is always positive sum. Additionally, as wealth - the currency of economic power - accretes, generally a part of it ends up being capital, which increases the efficiency with which economic power is generated. This ends up being a virtuous cycle, whereby economic power in a system increases at an exponential rate.

This presents a problem, however - a large amount of economic power in the form of wealth is easily capturable via military power. As the amount of wealth grows, the more desirable a target it becomes for predations from the militarily powerful.

Intellectual power is the power to convince. Intellectual power is the power to get people to do something by convincing them that doing that thing is actually in their own best interest. Intellectual power has also always co-existed with military and economic power. In the old days, it was almost exclusively restricted to religion. Indeed, there is a reason why religious systems that incorporated a solid set of ethics out competed religious systems that didn't - ethics is essentially primitive form of game theory - and it works. If people lived for thousands or even hundreds of years, perhaps ethics wouldn't be such a big deal. However, given the current relatively short life time most people enjoy, ethics has historically been quite important - allowing people to converge quickly towards Nash equilibrium strategies.

One of the interesting consequences of this is that most times, when people attempt to use intellectual power, they use the language of ethics. A classic example is A Theory of Justice which. as Mencius Moldbug points out, has absolutely nothing to do with the correct application of the law. Other examples abound - finding more is left as an exercise to the reader.

Intellectual power depends on a stable economic system. Without a stable economic system, there is generally no surplus from which people seeking economic power can take a cut. Generally it is quite difficult to think of complex theories of human interaction while mining coal or harvesting wheat. This means that intellectual power is also indirectly dependent on a stable military power base.

While I only identify three methods of gaining power, I freely admit that there might be some that I have yet to discover (or that simply do not exist without the requisite technological advances). If other forms of power do exist, though, they should be readily discoverable: people who can get others to do their bidding tend not to stay in the shadows for too long.

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