Power and Human Nature
We cannot properly appreciate, understand, and act upon our discussions of personal freedom without a basic understanding of several related factors that allow us to ascribe a more complete, correct, and proper meaning to it. One of the most important considerations is a correct and sufficient practical understanding of human nature in the context of power. For the purposes of this essay, we will further confine the discussion to that of political power. Be aware, however, that this short study of the principles of human behavior in the context of political power yields a fringe benefit that the knowledge gained is useful to the understanding human action no matter what brand of power may be under consideration. It is therefore of value in regarding a broader spectrum of personal and institutional power issues.
To begin, we must define the terms “power”, “politics”, and “political”. Consulting the dictionary once again, we find the following:
1. ability to do or act; capability of doing or accomplishing something.
Politics – noun
1. the activities and affairs involved in managing a state or a government.
2. social relations involving intrigue to gain authority or power
Political – adjective
1. of, pertaining to, or concerned with politics.
With these definitions in hand, we are now prepared to discuss the topic of political power from the standpoints of those who have it and those who do not. It is of little use to discuss the one without the other, as they are two sides of the same coin.
What, then, is political power? Given our definitions, we can state that it is two things. The first, perhaps “naïve” definition is that it is the ability to act or accomplish goals pertaining to managing a government. It is naïve because it does not take into account other significant and commonly found elements associated with the term. An auxiliary definition that goes hand in hand with the first and puts a somewhat finer point to it would be the capability to gain, cultivate, and maintain the means of accomplishing political goals through intrigue and other instruments. Note the specification of “intrigue”, a term whose definition will become useful at this point:
Intrigue – noun
1. the use of underhand machinations or deceitful stratagems.
Armed with this additional definition, the term “political power” takes on a meaning that strongly agrees with that to which governments, politicians, groups, and individuals treat us on a daily and seemingly unlimited basis: people and groups making use of force, deceit, and other dishonest or otherwise immoral means in pursuit of gains toward some set of goals. In most cases the goals in question, even if only partially met, result in further infringement and denial of our rights, which are nothing more than enumerations of some of the elements that comprise our freedom. Later we will explore the notion of human- or civil rights in some detail in the hope of bringing that concept into greater clarity. That will be, however, a discussion for another day, for it merits our full attention and devotion.
There are two kinds of people in the world: those who covet political power and those who do not. Most people covet some form of political power. Parents, for example, covet power over their children. Without it, chaos would reign, and in some households, it does. Very often members of personal relationships covet and exercise political power over their partners. It can take many forms, none of which we will discuss here. It is, however, important to be aware that our discussion of political power does not confine itself solely to governmental sorts, but applies to all forms where two or more people are concerned. This fact should prove useful as a tool with which one may better protect their personal freedoms from usurpation by third parties, whether a boyfriend, an acquaintance, a boss, or anyone attempting to violate one’s rights regardless of the manner or degree.
For the sake of this discussion, let us pay special attention to the case of political power as it applies to broad social applications such as government. This narrowed focus is necessary because while it is perhaps desirable for people to be free from unwanted interpersonal interferences, it is essential they be free in terms of unwanted institutional interference. Here, “institutional” refers to large institutions such as governments as well as corporations and other groups that often apply force in order to coerce people into doing their bidding. In this sense, an institution need not be necessarily formal; any group acting to exercise power over others we will consider an “institution” simply for the sake of easing the conversation.
The reason for making the distinction between those who covet political power in our narrowly focused sense and those who do not is that they comprise two sides of the same coin. Therefore, a complete understanding of the one is not possible without understanding the other. With all of this in mind, let us now examine the basic characteristics of human behavior where issues of political power are concerned.
Human Nature in the Context of Political Power
There is an oft-misquoted phrase attributed to Lord Acton from a letter to Bishop Marshall written in 1887. Lord Acton wrote:
"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."
This famous and almost universally misquoted statement is, in a word, a great steaming pile, the author’s presumed good intentions notwithstanding. Asserting that “power” corrupts is akin to advocates of so-called “gun control” asserting, “Guns kill”. Neither assertion has so much as the smallest shred of truth in it. They are, in fact, two examples of bald-faced falsehoods, sometimes offered as outright lies by those who know better, and perhaps more often are nothing more than harmful memes that people blindly repeat. Such statements, however, often carry with them a great preponderance of emotionally compelling, if wholly fallacious, logical energy. Given what we “know” about power, Lord Acton’s assertion seems intuitively obvious and true – perhaps even axiomatic for some. This is due to the subtle nature of the basic assumptions the very topic commonly engenders, the fallacious nature of which readily twists the unwary into believing things that are simply not true, and an examination of which readily exposes as obviously – axiomatically – false.
Here is a quote from Rorschach that provides another perspective. It states:
“It's not God who kills the children. Not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to dogs. It's us. Only us.”
In this quote, we find the truth. Power does not corrupt. People do, and only people. In this sense, the nature of power is that it is absolutely and incontrovertibly neutral. It is nothing more or less than a means by which the corruption of a human being, which was there in the first place, may come into bloom. Power is not the problem, but rather human behavior in its presence. The attribution of human qualities and capabilities to inanimate things such as power, guns, and drugs, is a problem of huge proportions, the extent and significance of which few people appear to be even faintly aware. We shall devote considerable effort to expose, clarify, and correct this greatly flawed habit of thinking and in so doing provide yet another implement for our toolbox of understanding.
The general characteristics of human behavior in the context of political power include the following:
1. Holders of political power always act to maintain current levels or to increase them, never relinquishing except by force, when presented with an otherwise more attractive alternative, or a combination of these.
2. Increases in power enable holders to amplify and act upon some or all of their outwardly apparent personal characteristics, plans, and desires, this being the nearly universal result of acquisition.
3. Increases in power enable holders such that previously latent personal characteristics tend to become apparent, regardless of whether he, or anyone else, desires it.
4. Those holding political power will often resort to any means available to them and with which they feel they can get away to maintain, increase, and exercise it according to their desires.
5. Holders treat political power as a zero-sum game.
6. Applications of political power most often serves to further diminish or deny individual freedoms, good intentions or otherwise notwithstanding.
Rare is the person who will relinquish power, once acquired. In this sense, power is analogous to a strong drug that users will avoid surrendering even to the point of personal destruction and death. The fate of Benito Mussolini is one example of this. For those attracted to such power, usually little will dissuade them from pursuing and using it.
When endowed with power, people will use its enabling aspect to fulfill and realize those desires and characteristics that may have otherwise remained latent. History provides us with countless such stories, as has
Very often, characteristics that were once latent become highly, and in some cases alarmingly and even dangerously apparent when a given individual acquires a certain level of power. Just as the lenses of power distort formerly apparent characteristics, they often expose previously latent characteristics as well, often to the misfortune of others. In this sense, power is like a nutrient in that it feeds whatever happens to be present. Throw fertilizer down and weed as well as grass and flowers will grow. If a saint exists within, the presence of power will only make him more saintly. However, if a saint turns to a monster, one may rest well assured that the saint was never real. Alcohol consumption has a similar effect wherein the behavior one witnesses in a person who drinks to excess is that of the real person. Thus is the case with power such that people who go off the rails are often referred to as “drunk with power”.
Because power reveals the true person and perhaps because the sorts of personalities that power attracts are usually rotten at a fundamental level, those who acquire power will most often use any means to grow it and exercise it to the greatest extent possible. Those who hold power and covet more are most often utter pragmatists, which is to say that the only principles by which they live are those dictated by their goals and the determination to achieve them no matter what it takes so long as they are able to get away with it. Note that “getting caught” no longer even matters in many cases because so very often those caught at something are never called upon to account for their actions. A good example of this was the affair between President Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. Congress had no business asking the President about his dealings with miss Lewinsky. It was a private affair. However, they did ask, and instead of telling them to mind their own business, President Clinton lied to them. Congress caught the President with his pants down, so to speak, lying to them under oath, yet never held him accountable for it. We could write several volumes on the long litany of similar examples from the last twenty years alone.
We could argue the precise nature of the game of politics as being zero-sum or not. The nature of the game is, however, irrelevant to the practice. What counts is the fact that those exercising such power treat it as zero-sum. In other words, the only way that one seeker of political power believes he may succeed in acquiring more is to take it from others because the pool of available power is fixed. Pragmatic considerations by competent holders of power will drive tolerance levels to the lowest possible value such that one’s position is not threatened, but no lower.
The written history of the human race presents an enormous body of examples of the results of the use of political power. We can readily see that such applications of power constitute de facto abuse by those in nominal control of a population. This has overwhelmingly resulted in the wholesale destruction of personal freedom for countless numbers of people, often including those who put that power to work. What many in power fail to see is that the prison they build around those they ostensibly control, they build around themselves as well in many cases.
A centrally critical point to be understood about those who wield political power is that its misuse is not always the result of cabals of conspirators in hidden places, scheming on how to foist the next great evil upon the world. Indeed it is likely that in many cases such abuse is the result of well meaning sorts who believe that they have the answers for everyone – what I refer to as the “one size fits all mentality”, another topic for pointed discussion someday. Such people are often idealists who are hell bent for leather to see their vision of utopia realized for all. Such people are usually so certain they are right that the hubris driving their certainty blinds them to reason and shuts them off to any possibility that they may in fact be on the wrong path. These are some of the most dangerous people in the world, behooving all lovers of liberty to learn how to recognize and fight them, preferably by ensuring they never make it into a position of power in the first place.
These behaviors tend to hold in varying degrees when we consider any form of personal power. They speak directly of human nature, as is readily observable in practice.
The bottom line is that people covet power of many forms, acquire it as they are able and motivated, and exercise it to the degree they choose or to that which the hard limits dictate. This applies to all forms of power and it is not necessarily a bad thing. Observe children as they grow and learn new skills. They revel in the newly discovered powers that learning and practice lend them. Power manifests perhaps most often in ways we might all agree are good, such as going to work and providing for one’s family. However, the so-called “negative” aspect of power, though it constitutes a distinct minority proportion of the practice, represents a concentration of capability that most often precipitates great harms upon people with but small applications.
Take the building of a skyscraper as an example. The towers of the
One might conversationally say that a little bit of evil goes a long way, which in turn goes a long way toward making clear the nature of political power as those wielding it have overwhelmingly tended to throughout human history. Overall, the exercise of political power has overwhelmingly resulted in incalculable suffering, death, and destruction of the natural and man made worlds. In virtually every case, excepting that of outright military assault, the fun begins with a campaign of ever-tighter circumscription of personal freedom. At least as often as otherwise, well-intentioned politicians or political groups, poisoned with the hubris of their absolute certainty, impose these campaigns upon the rest of us for our “own good”. In the other cases, the intentions are not so kindly.
Why people covet the acquisition and exercise of political power is a question whose answers are beyond the scope of this essay. In a sense, the reasons are irrelevant to the practical question of how we as individuals should respond to the reality. What is relevant is the knowledge that some people want it, seek it, get it, and apply it, usually to the detriment of others. That is the reality of that side of the power coin.
What, then, is the truth about the other side? Those who do not seek political power tend to be complacent with regard to its exercise by others, almost regardless of how it may affect them. A superficial survey of the history of US culture reveals that there was a time when the people would have met the sorts of license that politicians and government agents routinely take today with the rights of the citizens with immediate and unequivocal opposition, possibly spilling into physical violence. The great material abundance that the 20th century has provided, appears to have lulled us into a fantasy existence where convenience has nurtured a certain lassitude with respect to our will to guard our liberties. It has become more interesting and convenient for many to concern themselves with who won the game last night, which color BMW to get, or whether their latté is up to standard than to actively keep their political representatives on a very short leash. For such people, it appears that the conveniences of believing either that their elected officials are indeed seeing to their better interests or that there is nothing they can do in the other case is more important than dealing with politicians running amok in a head-on manner.
Unlike the near-irrelevance of the reasons why some people covet power, understanding the reasons why people allow other people trample on their rights is of central importance and should become a primary topic of discussion amongst those interested in recouping their liberty and maintaining watch it. Though a thorough discussion of this topic is beyond the scope of this essay, it is useful to mention that education and attitude are the two main causes. If people are unaware of what their freedom really is and why it should be centrally important to them, one cannot expect them to stand vigilantly and strongly against those who approach it. If their attitudes about those proposing to circumscribe their liberty are laissez-faire, it is equally unreasonable to expect them to respond appropriately. Therefore, we should all be actively advocating the seemingly tired old saw about the significance and importance of education with great vigor and determination. Without a broadly based change of heart and knowledge by people, freedom is doomed to extinction.
Does anyone here recall classes in civics and social studies? It appears that civics class has gone the way of the dodo and heaven only knows what schools are offer in social studies classes these days, if even those are still on the standard curricula. It is most interesting to note how our schools vigorously indoctrinate our children with an absolutist form of relativism, yet they ignore the crucial task imparting an in-depth practical knowledge of government, its structure, functions, and purposes. Likewise, schools appear not to teach our children what it means to be a “good citizen” any longer. How many children would be able to give a precise and complete account of what it means to be free? How many would be able to describe what the legitimate roles of government are? The answer to those questions appears to be “frighteningly few”. Until we force the issue of relevant education and restore these critical elements of the standard knowledge base, we will continue to suffer from the current scourges of ignorance and improper attitudes. If we do not teach the importance of freedom to our children, they will not regard it as such.
The central lesson of our political history as it relates to freedom of the individual is that regardless of intentions, the unwanted interference of one human or group thereof in the affairs of others is universally damaging to the welfare of all. Given this, the welfare of humanity is most faithfully served when people learn the lesson of the Golden Rule, live by it, and in so doing become utterly intolerant of those who seek to gain, grow, and apply political power such that it denies, diminishes, abridges, disparages, or otherwise infringes upon the liberties of the individual. Any lesser position with respect to the applications of political power is tantamount to a surrender to tyranny. If we, the people, fail to enforce the mandates of liberty on our own behalves, we have nobody to blame but ourselves as our freedom wings away in the hands of those who would have us toe a line of subjugation and slavery. Let us be clear that there are but two states for human beings, one in which they live and the other in which they merely exist. To the former we ascribe the appellation of “freedom” and to the latter, “slavery”. There is nothing in between, all cleverly and possibly obliquely pedantic philosophical arguments to the contrary notwithstanding.
Each one of us has the choice to make of whether we wish to live or to do nothing more than exist. One may choose boldly, intelligently, confidently, and actively for life and all that real living has to offer. Otherwise, he may choose meekly, uncertainly, ignorantly due to lack of knowledge, or irresponsibly through the default of avoidance in favor of mere existence. Take five or ten minutes to sit alone in a room and ask yourself the question of what shall it be for you in the context of considering what is it that you would really like from life for yourself and the people for whom you care. What do you really believe about how things must be? How did you come to believe it? Could you be wrong? Could you have been deceived, bearing in mind the nature of people in power as we have examined it here? There is so much nonsense asserted about how people must act that you must examine all offerings of truth with a skeptical eye, including what you read here. No matter on which side of the so-called “political fence” you may find yourself, there are heaps of lies, fallacies, and poorly formed opinions about how “it must be”. Social liberals go on endlessly with their wholesale lies about social obligations, the debts we owe our communities, and a whole raft of other nonsense. Likewise, many conservatives would have us believe things about liberty that are simply untrue and are in fact frauds equal to their liberal counterparts. We could go down the list and find perhaps not a single group free of the guilt of selling lies, distortions, fallacies, and other forms of false and misleading information. This is the greater truth of human behavior where political power is concerned and it is a sad one.
Remember that choice we must all make. We will each make it one way or another, by an act of will or by default. There is no escaping it. The answer you give will affect your life profoundly and possibly for all your days, so be careful in deciding what it is you choose. To that I ask, “what shall it be?”
Until next time, please accept my best wishes.