Power Is Not Conserved
If I become more powerful, it has to be at someone else’s expense. After all, power just means the ability to determine what happens, and if I become more able to determine what happens, then my defeated opponents are less able to determine what happens. Right?
Not necessarily. When the United States Congress gained the power to build transcontinental railroads, who did they take it from? Nobody; it was a new power created for the first time. When Congress lost the ability to build major transport infrastructure like transcontinental railroads or interstate highways, who received this power? Nobody; the power is simply gone. At a much smaller scale, I recently started a research group to learn about medieval Chinese economic history, and I now have the power to choose which book the group will read. Where did that power come from? I built it.
Sometimes the pursuit of power is strictly adversarial. Of course there is war and factional conflict and other clashes between groups with opposing goals that want to destroy each other, and this makes for a small but especially important piece of power dynamics. More common is bounded conflict over limited resources, especially socially-allocated resources. If many people want to become the Chief Operating Officer, one person will get the position and everyone else will go home empty-handed. If a wealthy donor wants to give away his fortune, then each dollar he gives to his favored political party is a dollar he does not give to his alma mater. If Tesla is deciding where to build its new factory, then only one place will be chosen. A fixed pie of preexisting positions, assets, and relationships is being allocated, and if someone else gets it, then you won’t.
One of the resources that is most often competed over is borrowed power received from a source which has already built up that power, such as appointments to powerful jobs and positions. The thing about borrowed power is that the lender can just as well lend it to someone else, who might use it better or worse. On the other hand, owned power—“power that cannot easily be taken away”—is not handed out by a patron. Owned power is built from the ground up, and very often brings new capabilities into the world. If you don’t build it, then it will simply never exist, or at best its replacement will be later and lesser. If Jeff Bezos did not start Amazon, then there would be no Amazon; someone else would eventually start selling books over the internet, yes, but the great logistical juggernaut would never have existed. If you do not organize your industry’s trade group, then your industry will not have a trade group. If you do not organize a conspiracy to embezzle coronavirus relief payments and use the proceeds to speculate on bitcoin, then your online community will not have an embezzlement-and-bitcoin-speculation conspiracy—a man can use any tool for evil, and when he does, the fault lies in the man, not the tool.
Some institutions are mostly directed by human judgment, and some institutions are mostly functioning on autopilot. To the extent that a society’s core institutions are directed by human judgment, there is more total power in that society. If the society’s leaders decide it’s worth building a railroad, then they have the power to get it built, and within five or ten years the trains will start running. If the society’s leaders decide that an ethnic minority is being treated unfairly, they have the power to change the laws. Powers like these are strong in some places and times, and weak in others.
To the extent that society’s core institutions are on autopilot, driven by inertia and the uncoordinated pursuit of local incentives, there is less total power in society. If the society’s leaders decide to build a railroad, then no railroad gets built, because there is no person, institution, or coalition with the power to execute their decision successfully. If the society’s leaders decide that an ethnic minority is being treated unfairly, then they might pound the podium and scream at the camera, but they have little or no ability to change the laws or culture in ways that improve anyone’s lot. Before Congress passed the Pure Food And Drug Act, nobody considered the sale of tainted food, weighed the tradeoffs, and decided that the laissez faire approach was best; it was simply what arose without any coordinating human judgment.
Unpiloted bureaucracies are another area where human judgment makes little or no appearance. Nobody looked out over academia and intelligently designed crippling myopia and unreplicability into the current disaster that we call peer review; it is simply what arose from academics pursuing prestige, funding, and job security. The reason that every interaction with health insurance is a Kafkaesque hellscape is not because someone decided it should be so; that is simply what arose from the cruft of a dozen unrelated payment schemes and decades of buck-passing liability avoidance.
All this applies at every level of society, from national governments and megacorporations, through individual factories or universities or fringe internet social scenes, all the way down to whether or not you’re getting your friends together to go out for drinks. No group, large or small, can function well for long unless a person or people is actively thinking about it and implementing their will. This sort of organizational control necessarily gives the organizer power—or more precisely, it is power.
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