Monday, January 28, 2013

The Origins of Power

The political authoritarian exerts over our lives a coercive power which distinguishes him as ruler and us as subjects! Of what is it composed? From whence does it come? Why, as so often claimed, does this kind of power corrupt the wielder? The wise shun rather than seek it. Why?

  First, let us identify the authoritarian. His archetype plainly emerges from the double-barreled definition of socialism: the state ownership and control of the means of production (the planned economy) and/or the state ownership and control of the results of production (the welfare state).

  In the planned economy the authoritarian organizes and controls important sectors of our lives by forcibly imposing restrictions on individual free choice. These restrictions bear such names as wage, price, rent, interest, credit, production, and exchange controls.

  In the welfare state phase of the socialistic formula we find three archetypes: the looted, and those who share the spoils, plus the authoritarian who does the taking and the conferring.

  Controls are simply forcible interferences with individual decision-making, the negation of free choice. We refer to “governmental price fixing of cotton,” for instance. This terminology evades the real issue. It isn’t the bale of cotton that suffers the interference; it is the grower, the ginner, the trader, the weaver, the consumer. Interference with personal choice!

  We can clearly identify the authoritarian as one who coercively interferes with the creative side of people’s lives. Of what, then, is such authoritarian power composed?

  Individual liberty itself is a power; it is the power to choose, the power of personal decision. But since no man gains liberty by denying it to another, it follows that individual liberty is a voluntary, noninterfering power.1

  One Chance in Millions

  The authoritarian’s power is a substitution of coercive decisions for voluntary decisions. For instance, his power to spend our income is evenly matched by our powerlessness to spend it. When he can set our wage, or fix our hours, or whatever, we are not at liberty to arrive at wages and hours by voluntary procedures. Were we at liberty to offer our own goods and services as we please, the authoritarian would be powerless in these respects. We can deduce from these observations that the authoritarian’s power, while not a one-man exercise of voluntary powers, is a one-man exercise of a coercive power made possible by the loss, for whatever reason, of voluntary powers. It is, in fact, a transmutation of varied voluntary powers of the many into a unitary coercive power. In this sense, coercive power feeds at the expense of voluntary decision-making, freedom to choose, or, shall we say, individual liberties.

  This proposition can be expressed as a theorem: the coercive power of the authoritarian increases as individual liberties decrease, and vice versa. The reason for the precision of this power teeter-totter is the infallibility of the transmutation: whatever power of decision the authoritarian has over the people is precisely matched by the people’s voluntary powers that have been ceded or expropriated or, in any event, transmuted.

  Whether individual liberties are more ceded than expropriated is anyone’s guess. Most persons are no more conscious of liberty than of the air they breathe; thus, liberty is rarely prized and seldom defended, except in instances of sudden constraints. Let the authoritarian suddenly outlaw the eating of bread, and the people will rise in wrath, claiming an affront to their liberty. But if the authoritarian installs programs which will eventually diminish what we eat by an oblique and a gradual approach—inflation, controls, paying farmers not to farm, and workers not to work, et cetera—few voices will be raised; hardly a person will sense any loss of liberty, any more than one senses each day that he is older than the day before!

  Our failure to prize and guard what we take for granted doubtless accounts for the easy transmutation of individual liberties into the coercive power of authoritarians. The avidity for coercive power on the one hand and a careless, inattentive husbandry of individual liberties on the other—a passionate desire meeting little resistance—gives this unfortunate transmutation more the appearance of an osmotic action than of voluntary surrender or expropriation. The desire for coercive power can hardly be called expropriation. Nor can our inattentiveness to freedom of choice and individual decision-making be described as a voluntary ceding of these powers. We might as well call it a transmutation of voluntary powers into a coercive power and let it go at that.

  Variation Has a Purpose

  If we will keep in mind that the authoritarian’s coercive power is a transmutation of individual liberties and, in this sense, has its roots in voluntary powers, we will see why it is appropriate to refer to “origins” rather than to “the origin” of coercive power. For individual liberties are infinitely varied! Each of us is unique as to creative potentialities and, thus, each of us uses his liberties in unique ways. No two uses of liberty are identical; your choices and decisions are never precisely the same as mine; there are as many variations of individual choice as there are human beings and, thus, as many origins of coercive power.

  This fact of variation gives a clue as to why coercive power corrupts the wielder: he substitutes for that liberty uniquely required for his own growth and development a coercive power which he erroneously fancies is for our good. This corrupts him in two ways. First, this inattention to his own evolution must lead, sooner or later, to his devolution; and, second, he makes a fool of himself. By the wildest stretch of the imagination, he cannot in any single instance make a choice for you or me that will mesh with our unique requirements.

  Should I Live Your Life?

  This latter point reveals yet a third and even greater corruptive influence. Forget the millions the authoritarian attempts to stamp in his own image and, for easier analysis, turn to a you-and-me situation.

  Just suppose that I coercively impose upon you carbon copies of choices and decisions unique to my requirements. This would, unquestionably, spell your undoing. Now, if we can demonstrate how this would spell my undoing, we shall discover how the exercise of coercive power leads to “third degree” corruption.

  When I make choices and decisions unique to my own requirements, I get a play-back on any mistakes. This is highly instructive, for when I must bear the effects of my follies I often learn not to repeat them. But when I make choices and decisions to cope with your requirements, each decision likely to be wrong, you are the one who gets the play-back. And, as long as my power remains coercive, you are helpless to correct me regardless of how much instruction you receive from the play-back. It is obvious that I will go uninstructed as long as the play-back comes to you and not to me; there is no influence to swerve me from my errant ways; my coercive power shields me from the effects of my follies. What greater corruption than to remain forever wrong! Herbert Spencer put it this way:


    The ultimate effect of shielding men from the effects of folly is to fill the world with fools.


  The wise do not seek but always shun coercive power. Christ refused political power; George Washington rejected the offer of kingship. Many knowing individuals have done likewise. The wiser the individual, the less will he corrupt himself!

  The Prospects Examined

  The question arises as to the prospects for liberty on the Coercion-Liberty teeter-totter. Will voluntary powers rise, causing a matched decline in coercive powers, or what?

  In the first place, it is unrealistic to expect a marked diminution in the desire for coercive power; indeed, this desire gives every appearance of being on the increase. Robert Ardrey, in what I believe to be an accurate assessment, calls ours “the Age of the Alibi . . . which seeks fault anywhere but in oneself, and damns it as immoral to do otherwise.”2 A person who thinks of all others as faulty cannot suspect the same of himself; he is led to believe in his own omniscience; all would be well were his way to rule. The number who aspire to this role, who crave the power it confers, are legion. Those disposed to liberty can derive little, if any, comfort from the coercive side of the action.

  But what of the other end of the teeter-totter—the resistance-to-coercion side of the action? Short of a happy accident or an unimaginable breakthrough in human mentality, it would seem that liberty’s ascendancy is at the mercy of those few who can, by sheer rationality, portray the practicality and idealism of this abstraction—with the same vigor that most of us will defend against all comers our plot of ground or the bread we bake.


We must ever keep in mind that liberty is not like our plot of earth, or a morsel to be consumed. Liberty is as nebulous as respect and as intangible as intuition or thoughtfulness or spirit, and, withal, as indispensable as any quality of the soul, for it ranks as a reality along with life itself, life-growth depending upon it. Liberty can no more be sustained by physical might, which we customarily associate with defense, than can an insight, a thought, a silent prayer. Liberty’s sole defender is the highly advanced mentality, this state being within the potential reach of an adequate number. The answer to the question, will they arise to it? will probably be found in the answer each of us gives to the question, will I try to arise to it?

  Men may, in their thoughtlessness, believe they can do without liberty; they simply are unaware that liberty is indestructible; and that the only question is, how much of it will each recognize, appreciate and, as a consequence, possess?

  It seems reasonable that liberty’s chances are enhanced as more of us recognize that the corruptive, coercive power which plagues society is first a take-over and then an in version of individual liberties—yours and mine; that this evil we loathe has its origin in the ramshackle shape of our own intellectual and spiritual ramparts. With this recognition, it becomes plain that the required defense—resistance to the take-over—rests not only on prizing our liberties but on understanding and clearly explaining why, by all that’s good and just, we should embrace them with the same fervor we do our lives.



    When an individual settles on a way of life that appeals to him—be it shallow or profound—he becomes interested in its adoption by others. Deep-seated convictions usually are accompanied by an urge to “do something.” More often than not, the first impulse is to engage more actively in politics and “elect the right people to public office.” . . .

Deeper Than You Think - Digital Book

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