THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 668, April 29, 2012
"The cops are now the standing army the Founding Fathers feared."
Thoughts on Power
Attribute to L. Neil Smith's The Libertarian Enterprise
Some thoughts on the difference between the absence and equality of power, and on the nature of political power.
I was on a message board the other day, where some of the posters were criticizing Libertarians, because they said that Libertarians wanted to create a 'power vacuum', and that there was no such thing in human society. Although I did not like the particular disparaging tone of the critics, I admit they do have a point. As the saying goes, 'nature abhors a vacuum'. Vacuums, or absences, of power, or anything else for that matter, are very difficult to create or sustain, except in the absence of ANYTHING that might potentially fill it, such as exists in outer space. However, I don't think that the emptiness of outer space is a good or viable model for human society.
There does, however, exist a far more desirable alternative, which is actually probably more compatible with Libertarian principles. This is not an *absence* of power, but a combined *increase* and *equality* of power. Historically, this is actually the way in which freedom and rights have been gotten for most people. Consider, for instance, the important matters of literacy and education. Both have existed for a very long time, and have certainly been available, for a high enough price. The politically elite of the human race have generally made sure that their own children were educated - and that the children of those they ruled were not!
This intellectual inequality in human beings was solved (at least before the current dumbing down of the public schools) not be creating a 'vacuum', or by making the children of the rulers illiterate or ignorant, but rather, by an INCREASE in the power of everyone, leading not to an *absence* of learning, but an *equality* of learning. We have such people as Gutenberg and Bill Gates to thank for the easy and increasingly cheap ability of any children - or adults - to be educated who has the ability and desire to be.
Guns are another example in which human beings were made equal, by increasing the power of EVERYONE, rather than by taking power away from those who have it. A gun is a very fast and effective way to kill someone at a distance. There is nobody in the world who is strong enough to kill someone from more than about ¼ mile away - without a gun! Guns made everybody equal in terms of violent potential, by means of increasing that violent potential. I believe an equality of power, or as near to such a thing as can be approached in the real world, to be a desirable thing in human society. Unstable societies are ones in which some classes had far more power than others. A balance of power between human beings is much like the balance of electrical power, in two objects which are both charged with 50,000 volts (or some other fairly equal amount). So long as the amount of power, or the electrical potential of both objects are the same, there will be no electrical current between the objects, and human beings can stand between them safely, without being electrocuted. Political power is, I believe, caused not by power itself, not by a sword or the muzzle of a gun, but rather, it is comparable to the current caused by an inequality in the electrical potential of two objects. Political power comes not from the muzzle of a gun, but from one person (or one class) having guns, and another person (or class) not having them.
In a larger sense, abusive political power comes not only from an inequality of power, but an inequality of the lethality of two differing amounts of unequal power. What I mean by this is that in a political sense, it may also be that once you sufficiently empower all human beings, which I believe is what Libertarians ought to be pursuing as a goal, at some point any remaining existing inequalities of power become far less important in a political sense. For instance, if I am powerful enough to kill you once (be it by guns or electricity, or any other means) and you are powerful enough to kill me seven times, the disparity of power between us probably doesn't matter that much, since neither you nor I can die more than once. On the other hand, if I am powerful enough to kill you once, and you are only powerful enough to cause a small scratch to my hand, the inequality in power between us, even though it may be quantitatively far less than in the first example, probably matters a great deal more in a political sense, since I can certainly survive having a small scratch to my hand, but you cannot survive being killed.
It is not by accident that the would be tyrants of today seek to take away power, regardless of the form that power might take, from the majority of human beings. They will even reduce their own power at times, if it also *further* reduces the power of others, as was seen when the ruling class in Medieval Japan 'gave up the gun'. The political class understands well the principle I discussed in the above paragraph, that inequalities of power between people are far more significant in a political or exploitive sense at lower levels of power, than at very high levels of power. If, for instance, it takes, say, 100 volts of electricity (or whatever amount it takes) to kill a human being, a would be tyrant would VASTLY prefer a situation in which they are able to command the equivalent of 100 volts of electricity, and those they rule are permitted only 25 volts of electricity, rather than a situation in which they are able to use 10,000 volts of electricity, and other people are able to use only 1000 volts of electricity. Although the quantitative difference in power is far greater in the second scenario, the *political* difference is far greater in the first one. It makes little difference in a political sense whether you can apply 1000 or 10,000 volts of electricity to a human beings, since the end result on is the same, namely a dead human being, and it doesn't make much difference to a dead person whether they are 'slightly crispy' or 'incinerated'. However, it makes a great deal of difference in a political sense, whether you can apply 25 volts or 100 volts to another human being, since the former is merely somewhat annoying, and the latter is generally fatal.
It is the desire of would-be tyrants to see the majority of human beings kept illiterate and unarmed - while their own class retains guns and a decent education. They justify this with mealy-mouthed platitudes, such as 'power corrupts' or blaming the source of the power for misuses of power, such as claiming that guns cause crime, or easy internet access causes child pornography. You might as well claim that electricity causes electric chairs, thus accepting the absurd premise of malevolent motives on the part of inanimate forces and objects, while disregarding the obvious truths that electricity is directed by human beings and that our quality of life would be far poorer without electricity.
The real truth is not: "power corrupts", but rather "inequality of power corrupts" And make no mistake, any politicians who seek to see people disarmed and dumbed down, certainly do not intend to make their own class physically and intellectually helpless. They seek, rather, to create an inequality of power, because they either are already, or desire to be, corrupt.
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