The Distribution of Power

In modern political jargon, conservatives are associated with the concept of "small government" or "limited government". If this is interpreted to refer to the degree of government power there is, historically conservatives have not stood for it. Indeed, so-called "conservative" governments and parties have historically supported quite a high degree of government power. However, if this is interpeted to refer to the amount of people who weild government power, conservatism has always stood for "small government" in this sense. This understanding of the terms and their implications coincides well with Karl Hess's claim, which was articulated in his brillaint article "The Death of Politics", that the defining characteristic of a "right-wing" regime is the concentration of power into the fewest hands possible.

Using this analysis, monarchy is actually as small or limited of a government possible. In contrast, democracy in the original sense of the term refers to an equilibrium of power that is spread out in as many hands as possible. Assuming that there is a finite amount of power available, this would imply a decrease in the actual amount of power weilded by each individual. Taken to it's logical conclusion, the end result would actually be the negation of political power as such, as it is essentially rendered obsolete in terms of the degree of power able to be held by a person. It is a sort of checks and balances in which each respective individual's power is kept in check, as each individual's liberty is limited by the like liberty of everyone else. The individual is sovereign only over themselves. This concept was once dubbed "the law of equal freedom" by Herbert Spencer and was adopted by the individualist anarchist Benjamin Tucker. It is also another way of phrasing what contemporary libertarians call the non-aggression principle.

In applying such an analysis to modern politics, the bulk of what is considered to be the political left today would actually have to be considered "right-wing" and undemocratic under these definitions, since left-liberals most certainly do favor the concentration of power. The disagreements between the contemporary political left and right can mostly be seen as a matter of which particular individuals or interest groups should weild this concentration of power and how they should use it. Democrats favor concentrating power in the hands of Democrats and Republicans favor concentrating power in the hands of Republicans. The welfare state concentrates power into the hands of welfare bureaucracies and the warfare state concentrates power into the military bureaucracies. State-socialists favor concentrating power in the hands of socialists and state-capitalists favor concentrating power in the hands of capitalists. No matter which way one slices it, the principle of oligarchy is at work. People from such groups may often pander to the concept of democracy, but only as a means to enable oligarchy.

The concept being used here does not strictly apply to governmental institutions. It applies to institutions and power in general, and therefore there are concerns with respect to the concentration of so-called "private" power. The contemporary political left is concerned about the private concentration of power, and in and of itself this is a worthwhile concern, although this concern is often held on the basis or erroneously logic. Furthermore, the solution to the concentration of private power that is often proposed by the contemporary political left is entirely wrong and counterproductive. The error that is made is that the contemporary left advocates concentrating power in the hands of the state in the name of combating private power. This merely shifts the power into different hands. It does not solve the problem at all. It creates new problems. This is one of the fundamental flaws of Marxism as a strategy: it essentially creates a dictatorship in the name of combating private power. What one is left with is an all-powerful government that absorbs the private power into itself. In short, the state itself becomes the monopoly capitalist. Mikhail Bakunin was aware of this problem, which is why he rather sharply critisized Marx.

The contemporary political right faces a bit of a different problem. While they have superficially had anti-government sentiments ingrained into them, they often function as knee-jerk apologists for private concentrations of power. While they may sometimes quite correctly see the problem with governmental concentrations of power, they often overlook the problems with private concentrations of power and the degree to which the two are synergetic. The solution proposed is essentially to artificially empower private institutions. But the political right falls into an inevitable contradiction in doing so, as the only way to do this is through political means, and hence by relying on governmental concentrations of power. The political right also tends to idolize the military. Hence, the conservative's claim to being anti-government is based on a bed of sand. Government is perfectly fine to them, so long as it is in their control, used to stamp out foreign enemies and to empower their allies in the so-called "private" sector. At best, what one is left with is a mixture of the concentration of governmental and private power. But even in the process of pursueing their ends, since they favor political means to those ends, they nonetheless may theoretically empower the state just as much as anyone on the political left would. Even elements within the movement of anarcho-capitalism may fall into the trap of trying to join or infiltrate the state in the name of abolishing it, hence my usage of the term "right-wing marxists" to describe anarcho-capitalists who still favor political strategies.

Political systems usually are some mixture of governmental and private concentrations of power and while the two spheres may superficially be separate they are in patronage with one another and have a high degree of synergy. But this is not really a "balance of power" so much as a conglomeration of power. Merging different power elites together doesn't create a balance. A true "balance of power" would be a social order in accordance with the law of equal freedom - an equilbruim literally between individuals. Such a social order is only possible in the conditions reflected in anarchism. Archism of any sort inherently negates "equality of authority", as Roderick Long describes it. So long as institutions such as the state exist, a true balance of power and equilibrium of liberty is not possible because the very nature of such institutions is that of oligarchy and hence there is an extreme imbalance and inconsistancy in how principles are applied to human beings. Therefore the solution can only be found in anarchism, properly understood.

Published Sat, Jun 7 2008 11:57 AM by Brainpolice


# scottyokim said on 09 June, 2008 04:01 PM

Since individuals naturally have unequal power, oligarchies will grow over time even without "government."  Those naturally more powerful will pool their power (is there a Ricardo's Law for power?) and oligarchies result.  So talking about a "true balance of power" is probably just as academic an exercise as talking about markets in equilibrium.

Is there a "political dual" to Mises's Human Action?

# Nitroadict said on 10 June, 2008 07:03 AM

Since individuals naturally have unequal power, oligarchies will grow over time even without "government."

In the present maybe, but what makes individuals unequal?  Would the lack of knowledge concerning how oligarchies develop make certain individuals less equal than others?  Would not spreading the knowledge, education, & information on said processes enable more individuals to avoid from encouraging such developments?

Or perhaps would you take the argument that because it's always been that way (oligarchies will grow over time even without government, etc.), it will always be that way and there is no point in fighting it; this is more or less what I gathered from your post.

Unequal power needs to be defined in this context, methinks.  

# Brainpolice said on 10 June, 2008 09:20 AM

Scottyokim: even accepting such a premise, such oligarchies then form into governments over time. So why endorse an argument that eventually leads to a legitimization of the rise of the state?

In either case, there is no good reason to suppose that the MASSIVE wealth and power disparaties that we see today is an inevitable "natural order". If it is, we should all give up on this silly liberty thing and become traditional conservatives.

# Nitroadict said on 10 June, 2008 03:48 PM

"Do we crave predictability, or relish surprise?", to quote Virginia Postrel.  

It's absolutely comical to argue that the way things as they are currently will always be that way, otherwise, I don't think we would've arrived at our current attempt at an improvement (representative democracy, albeit, it's still a form of oligarchy).

Why didn't we stick to a tribal society? A caste society?  Or a feudal one, for that matter?  It could be argued we still have such elements (especially with regards to neo-feudalism), but change still occurred, regardless.  

The face-off between stasis & dynamism, in my view, invalidates such an assumption that oligarchies are inevitable, and the interplay between the two throughout history more or less confirms this.

# scottyokim said on 10 June, 2008 07:37 PM

People are born with different capabilities and maybe more importantly, different levels of aggressiveness (ESTJ's, say).  These differences quickly foster great disparities in wealth, power, fame, etc.  In fact, the greater the pool of available capital, the faster these disparities can occur.

Those with the greatest wealth can then find each other (via the fame resulting from their wealth), and pool their wealth to create not only more wealth but also corporations that create situations much like company towns.  (Of course, some company towns might be more benign than others, but it's still control by a few.)

This scenario has played out many times in many places throughout history.  Assuming that human nature is going to remain constant over at least the next hundred years, I presume it will happen many times in the next century.

I'm not making an argument for or against government, I just think disparities in power arise naturally and these disparities will become larger and larger over time.  Just like wealth in an economy.

# nyob said on 01 September, 2008 07:54 AM

coul you like put it in smaller details dang

# Odin said on 24 March, 2009 05:31 AM

I think that the process of concentration of power is indeed natural, but that doesn't mean that it cannot be prevented. All we need to do is learn from history, learn from a state which was best in suppressing the creation of oligarchy, a state which was (or more precisely allegedly was) a precursor to modern political systems.

Athens. If the old Athenians looked at today's states, they would consider them undemocratic. If you think about it, most people today equal democracy with free elections, when in fact nothing could be further from truth. Elections were considered undemocratic, because they naturally supported oligarchy, and in fact proposal to change the political system in Athens to include elections were always struck down as undemocratic.

I think we have much to learn from old Athens ...

For more information please see