On the relation between freedom and power

A closer look at the relationship between power and freedom, and some suggestions (for discussion) for the control of power. The linkage between power and freedom may be surprising to some, but is almost given by definition (though not often stated): We want freedom, which comes in two versions: freedom to do what we want to do and live the way we prefer; and freedom from experiences and forces we don’t like. Freedom TO engage in an activity requires having the power — being ‘empowered’ — to do so. Power comes in several varieties as well: Power as related to the individual self, power as related to others, and power in relation to nature or the non-human environment. The matrix of these kinds shows six basic reationships, (which may have to be distinguished for the purpose of finding appropriate power controls):

.1 Freedom ‘TO” ; Power as related to
A) Self: – do what we want (pursuit of happiness)
B) Others: – getting others to do what we want;
C) Nature: – use natural resources and processes for our purposes;
.2 Freedom ‘FROM: Power as related to
D) Self: – resisting / avoiding effects of our own temptations, urges, desires; weaknesses;
E) Others: – freedom from others’ attempts to have us do what they (or others ) want;
F) Nature: – avoidance or freedom from effects of undesirable natural forces or events

Freedom ‘TO’: The basic freedom and power to exercise one’s freedom to pursue our happiness, interests, satisfy our needs, (A) is touted as the pure form of freedom, a quintessential human right. The choice aspect has been the dominant feature in the discussion of freedom of this kind; I would add as an essential one the ability to create new choices: new action options, new experience opportunities. It has the drawback that if pursued individually in social isolation, it is not necessarily acknowledged by others. It seems that such acknowledgment, recognition is something we (at least most of us) also seem to crave or need as part of the condition for ‘happiness’.

Pursuit of satisfaction of our needs and desires together with the recognition that others may be better positioned, or in possession of whatever we would like to have or experience, drives us towards (B) trying to gain power over others: the power to get (persuade, trick, force) others to do what we want.

Related to nature, we seek the freedom and power (C) to exploit and use natural resources (food, energy, minerals etc.) for our purposes. (This is sufficiently different from (A) because of the different requirements to pursue it.)

The desire for freedom ‘FROM’ seeks power to avoid being coerced or tempted into doing undesired things by D) one’s own temptations, desires, frailties, weaknesses, or E) other peoples’ demands. Here, we can further distinguish demands, constraints on our freedom, according to whether the demand or coercion is directed in the form of individual demands by another individual or by others (individuals or groups) exercising demands on their own behalf or on behalf of still others — e.g. greater powers.

Finally, the quest for freedom (F) from adverse effects of forces of nature, compels us to acquire power to prevent or protect ourselves from those forces.

It now should become clear that while freedom can be seen as an unqualified basic human right only in the form of (A) and (C) and perhaps (F). As soon as the desire for freedom takes the form of (B) and (E), the potential for conflict arises. If a society wishes to avoid such conflict to be settled by violence (elimination or subjugation of the other party by force and other forms of coercion), rules and agreements will have to be developed: in other words, means to control power. To examine what tools might be developed for each of these combinations, it is helpful to first distinguish the conditions needed and the means we have for gaining, keeping, and increasing power for each cell in the matrix.

(A) Individual power over one’s own actions: The ability to choose among different action options; our skills, dexterity, endurance in carrying out the activities involved: bodily and mental fitness. Many would add a mental and spiritual fitness dimension here.

(B) Power over others is achieved by different means: by force or threat of force, by persuasion (which can range from ‘brainwashing’ and deception to discussion by exchange of arguments); by negotiation and trade: offers of exchanging values (goods, money, experiences) desirable to the other party. These are ‘direct’ power tools than usually come to mind; we should also consider the indirect means of influencing others’ behavior that consist of expanding or reducing the range of opportunities, options available to others to choose from.

(C) The exploitation and use of natural resources and processes requires knowledge, skills, tools, usually some ‘start-up’ resources, and last not least control (possession) of the resources in question (e.g. land, mineral rights: possession in the form of power to exclude others from the opportunity to exploit a resource: ‘property’).

(D) Freedom from the deleterious effects of one’s own flaws and tendencies: weaknesses, drives, instincts etc. may not seem to belong to this discussion, but in fact is the subject of many recommendations for improvement of the human condition: All the recipes for education, self-improvement, exercising and discipline both of body and mind are intended as tools for increasing and maintaining individual freedom and power against the consequences of these internal forces.

(E) Most attempts by other people — even benevolent ones, such as the advice by parents, friends, teachers, leaders of all kinds — can be perceived as infringements on individual freedom (to choose, to behave). The means and tools used to resist such efforts are largely the same as those used to gain and exercise power (B), but used in different ways. Children learn very quickly how they can counteract parental power; even apparently ‘irrational’ means such as temper tantrums are soon found to be very effective power controls…

(F) The efforts to protect ourselves from adverse forces of nature require the same kinds of knowledge and resources as those for (C), but used in modes of either prevention or reaction to natural processes and events.

The table does not show an important further dimension: that of time. The outcomes of freedom/power interactions can be limited to the present, but increasingly. much attention is being devoted especially regarding factors relating to nature, to the ‘sustainability’ of relationships in the long term: How will our actions today affect our ability to secure the same benefits over time?

From this more differentiated perspective, we can now begin to examine how power might be contained or controlled, for those interactions where power interests begin to conflict with freedom and power interests of other individuals and groups. The matrix shows where such conflicts are likely to arise. We know, from history, that power/freedom conflicts can and all too often have been ‘resolved’ by the application of force, resulting in the elimination or subjugation of the ‘losing’ party, reducing or severely constraining its power and freedom. We also know that allowing some groups or individuals to accrue power to the point where it no longer can be restrained from abusing that power in the past has inevitably led to such abuse, situations that could only be rectified by ‘revolutionary‘ use of force by the ‘oppressed’ populations, but in the overwhelming majority of cases leading to the installation of another group in power, one which now sooner or later will be contaminated by the temptations and opportunity to abuse that power. Finally, we see that the tools for resolutions of such conflicts by force have become so destructive that their use not only becomes counterproductive in the short run in terms of costing lives and resources and severely reducing freedoms, quality of life for both ‘winners’ and losers, but more significantly endangers life for the entire planet for the future. This means, in my opinion, that the need for finding better tools for managing the relationship between freedom and power becomes critical.

There has been no shortage of suggestions and arrangements for power controls throughout history. A brief survey of the most common arrangements would include the following:

– Election of leaders to hold power, for limited periods of time; often with provisions for measures of performance that determine whether a leader will be elected to another term;
– Establishment of different ‘branches’ of government (executive, legislative, judicial) and designing a system of rules for maintaining a ‘balance’ of power between them;
– Introduction of rules governing the application of decision-making power in cases of conflict of interest
– Hierarchical structures of organizations, in which each level is subject to oversight and adherence to established ‘rules’, accountable to the next higher level, but given power over the respectively next lower level; the question of limiting the power of the highest level addressed either by elections or by admitting only very elderly people to the highest position (which provides an automatic if not very precisely defined time limit, besides reducing the number of temptations that induce younger people to stretching or breaking rules and agreements).
– From an economic viewpoint, it is often argued that a ‘free market’, undistorted by arbitrary regulations is providing an ‘automatic’ regulatory control device not only for purely economic transactions but for other kinds of social interactions as well. The discussion about whether truly free market are possible, and whether this principle can be applied to such problems as the freedom-power relationship is an important one, but one which exceeds the boundary of this essay.

In the present situation of the dramatic increase of global networks and relationships, information technology, unprecedented accumulation of wealth and power in fewer hands, and increasingly widespread problematic effects of the actions of individuals as well as corporations and governments, and the destructiveness of military weapons for conflict resolution, these historical arrangements appear to have run into limits of their effectiveness. The reasons are not only that their rule systems have become obsolete or too cumbersome to be able to work properly in time to prevent abuse, but also that new groups of players emerge for which the traditional rules are not clear, do not apply, or which extend beyond the borders of jurisdiction of established systems: international financing networks, crime syndicates, terrorism networks, religious organizations and movements are examples of such groups; the military arms of the executive branches even of governments with well-intentioned balance-of power provisions historically have shown a propensity to become a force within and against its own executive, as frequent military coups demonstrate. Another aspect is that many modern arrangements for power management have proven quite effective in controlling everybody’s power to engage in activities that might infringe on others’ freedom and power (especially on the power of the group in power) but quite disastrous in providing and securing basic freedoms and empowerment for the general population: the measures of performance for good governance have been slanted towards ‘law and order’, at the expense of the freedom and opportunities that determine the quality of life and even the economic health of the society.

Efforts to improve the tools for control of power and secure a sustainable balance of freedom and power at all levels might consider the following strategies (submitted here for discussion and expansion by more creative and knowledgeable experts):

1 Development and implementation of better measures of performance, that consider the range, quality and value of freedoms and opportunities at all levels of society — not just overall measures of purely economic performance such as GNP that ignore the distribution of freedoms (opportunities for choosing among different attractive experiences, activities, ways of life) across all levels. The extent to which government should be charged — and its performance measured — not only with ‘protection’ functions and basic infrastructure but actively increasing the range and value of opportunities available to citizens (including opportunities for creating new experiences) deserves discussion.

2 To the extent power can be considered a human ‘need’ (the exact borderline between ‘empowerment’ and ‘power to dominate’ being a matter for discussion), provisions might have to be developed for on the one hand securing a base level of meeting that need for all members of society, but on the other hand — like consumption beyond the basic necessities for life, health, shelter etc. — having power seekers ‘pay’ for meeting more advanced ‘domination-favored’ levels of power.

3 One provision might be to establish a ‘dual’ societal system in which every citizen is, in a sense, a public ‘employee’ who thus can work on common infrastructure provision and maintenance tasks, and is automatically and continually enrolled in basic health care, educational, insurance, retirement programs etc. Everybody can also choose to work in private enterprise entities; both the extent (percentage of public/private work) and scheduling should and can be extremely flexible. Enhancement services for all the above basic programs can be offered by the private sector. This provides individuals the basic security protection against exploitation that is currently threatened by the prospect of losing one’s job. Private enterprise will be freed from bureaucratic burdens of withholding tax, providing health insurance etc.; in times of economic slowdown, the possibility of reducing work time and employees shifting their work percentage to increased work in the public sector not only reduces the need for laying off valuable, experienced employees but reduces the disruption for those employees families resulting from layoffs: moving costs, changing children’s schools etc. Overall, as regards the freedom/power balance, such a system would reduce the frequency and severity of economic crises drastically reducing freedom, opportunity, and well-being of society.

4 The admission to positions of power might be linked to a requirement of candidates for such positions depositing an ‘investment’ — which ideally would be a currency consisting not of money but of credit points earned, say, with work and services in the public work sector (#3 above, in addition to basic life subsistence compensation). These points would be ‘used up’ as investments with each significant power decision or action, and lost if the decision resulted in an unsuccessful or detrimental outcome, but can earn more credit points ‘income’ or profit if successful.

5 With regard to the ‘enforcement’ of agreements and rules at every level of society, the system of enforcement by a bigger, stronger, more powerful agency pursuing and punishing violators should be replaced by a system of ‘automatically activated sanctions that are triggered by the very attempt to violate an agreement, rule, or law. There are some examples of low-level technology already available that demonstrate the principle: the ignition lock for cars that prevent inebriated drives from even starting a vehicle, thus preventing DUI violations entirely.
Sensors in cars could be installed to ‘read’ posted speed limits or red traffic lights and automatically warning the driver as the violation occurs, and automatically subtracts a ‘fine’ in the driver’s account (money or credit point account) for persistent and excessive violations. This would drastically reduce the need for expensive law enforcement manpower and technology (red light cameras, dangerous police chases oftne ending in crashes with innocent parties) with its accompanying growth in power, free law enforcement to focus on more important crime; and avoid the ‘big brother’ effect of having all citizen activities monitored at all times and recorded (which creates the opportunity for abuse): the record would be contained only in the individual citizens ‘credit point account’ and become a matter of interest for others only when a person wants to use that credit for power position ‘investment’ (a kind of performance bond). The technology for such controls for larger entities and international relations obviously requires development but could follow the same principle.

6 Special attention should be devoted to the issue of control of power accumulation through accumulation of money (profit). A general principle to be followed here is one that has long been applied to working wages, from which taxes were subtracted before the net income is disbursed — preventing ‘abuse’ (in the form of overspending in the case of workers) rather than fixing its consequences after the fact. So tools should be considered that would prevent the exorbitant accumulation of profit, rather than taxing it after the fact. For example, the profit rate charged on the sale of products and services might be tied to the overall number of items sold (after due accounting for costs, of course) — a kind of ‘decreasing marginal profit rate’ provision. Another issue calling for reform regulation is that of profit on financial instruments involving resale of loans; but this is probably a topic for the discussion of the design or reformation of the economic system of society, rather than its arrangements for the control of the balance between freedom and power.

7 Finally, it may become necessary to also re-evaluate the role of property in this picture of balancing freedom and power. It was noted that property — being in (exclusive) possession of — the means of production and exploitation of resources is a necessary condition for the freedom to pursue the corresponding freedom. With the accumulation of power through accumulation of money there comes accumulation of property, especially land. And with land being an intrinsically limited commodity, concentrating ownership of land in a limited number of hands will automatically have the effect of reducing the opportunities (and thus freedoms) of everybody who does not own property, as is every new child in the growing global population. The principle of honoring property rights as a vital guarantee for the freedom of the owner, that has been an important cornerstone of modern democratic societies in capitalist economies thus is also an intrinsic and growing constraint on the freedom of the numbers of people who don’t own property. For the design of a satisfactory and sustainable societal and economic system, that must include viable arrangements for the relationship between freedom and power, this issue also requires renewed discussion and creative solutions. As an aside, however, it may be interesting to note that existing property conditions inevitably constitute a significant distortion of the ‘free market’ that many suggest as the solution to these problems.

It is obvious, from this brief exploration, that the issue of an appropriate and sustainable balance between freedom and power is both a more complex as well as a supremely important one, and one that is far from having been adequately discussed (say, in comparison to the issues of renewable energy sources and human impact on climate change) let alone resolved.


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