Sunday, November 28, 2010


Distinctions should be made between power, authority, influence and force. Power, in its most general sense is the ability to decide winners and losers in some area of endeavor. Powerful people may do this by use of force, but do not have to. There are many ways to wield power even of one does not have a constabulary or cavalry at hand. The Pope has power both within the Catholic Church and in international doplomacy, but it is doubtful that the Swiss Guard scares anyone. The more powerful someone is in fact, the less likely he is to use force in exercise of that power.

Authority is the recognition of and assent to a person’s or organization’s ability to perform actions that affect others. The judges on American Idol have both power and authority in their limited realm, but any use of force by them would likely be frowned upon. The treasurer of an organization may have authority to issue checks without any other significant power. Authority is most relevant to the legitimacy of exercises of power or use of force.

Influence can be distinguished from power by simply noting that dead people have no power, but may maintain influence indefinitely. Influence refers to the ability of someone to affect the conduct of others through persuasion as opposed to coercion.

Finally, the use of force is simply the method of last resort when an interest of one party cannot be reconciled with that of another. In civilized societies we always speak of justified uses of force, because coercion is inherently unjust and any resort to it must be legitimized by appeal to higher interests. All uses of force inherently result in the negation of rights, in that the person sho is the object of that force is denied the right choose his behavior. When that behavior is objectively undesirable, e.g. rape or theft, no controversy arises, but when a person is subject to use of force in the service of someone else’s subjective interest, a larceny has occurred.

If we then apply these distinctions to the notion of value discussed above, we are led to further revelations about the folly of statist policies. Value, as noted is subjective. If the government were to initiate a policy, the result of which would be valued by all, no force or coercion would be necessary to implement this policy; people would follow it because they value its result, i.e. it provides a benefit that is consistent with their interest. Protecting freedom of association, and the right to travel, for example need only be ensured by force when some third party attempts to restrict them by force. Conversely, if a policy relies at its inception on mandates, prohibitions, requirements, and criminal penalties, it is quite likely that the policy in question produces no objective value. Observance must be compelled because the interests that are served by it are too narrow or too insular to garner popular support. This is the hallmark of political interests attempting to increase their power. These interests attempt to use the facial authority of the state to compel people to behave in ways that favor certain groups over others. If one examines the TARP program, the auto bailouts, the stimulus plan, cap and trade, and Obamacare, one sees this pattern repeated over and over. The favored interests do not provide enough of a valuable enterprise to be favored by the masses, so those interests buy favor from pwerful politicians, and philosophers can then be reassured in their observation that power corrupts.

Obama’s petulance is quite naturally the result of his realization that he can be either powerful or influential, but he neither smart enough nor a good enough politician to be both. His power derives from huge majorities in the legislature and sympathetic media, but his lack of influence can be seen in his foreign policy impotence, his lack of success in endorsing politicians for local races, and his need to resort to sleazy and cynical political tactics to advance his agenda, despite his acknowledged advantages. Hopefully Obama is smart enough to know that, as demonstrated by Sparta, Napoleonic France, the Soviet Union, and the Third Reich, that policies that are instituted by force nearly always must be maintained by force and therefore are of relatively limited duration. The venal desire for temprary power is seductive, and occasionally successful, but the natural desire for liberty always outlives it.

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