Have Mercy With the Powerful — A Fog Island Tavern Discussion

– My, Vodçek, you seem to have a great time today – what are you laughing about?

– Ah Sophie, did you hear our friends here complaining about the powers that be – the government, the bosses, the tycoons, the media types – all the powerful folks in the world?

– Yes, part of it, but then I went outside for a while. What was so funny about it?

– Well, then there was this fellow who got kind of obnoxious, don’t ask me what he did or said – but then they asked me – me! — to kick him out…

– Oh, was that the guy who stumbled around the ramp and almost fell into the water getting into his boat? Was he drunk?

– Yes, that’s the one. Drunk? He must have been celebrating before he came in, I served him just one beer. No he was a natural obnoxic.

– Sounds like you did the right thing. But what did that have to do with their rants about power?

– Maybe he was getting on their nerves. And yes,  it got kind of ugly, but nothing worth worrying about yet. But then for them to ask me to be the boss and pull a power decision, it was just too funny, after their complaints about anybody doing that…

– Hey, don’t get things mixed up here, Vodçek – it’s your shop – and don’t tell me you didn’t agree with our complaints…

– Sure, Renfroe, I totally agree there are problems with power, have been for ages. But our friend Wilford here – was that your friend I had to ask to leave? No? – Our mild-mannered Wilford, of all people, starting to call for immediate overthrow of the government and Wall street and the media tycoons, and throwing all the bankers in jail — that was getting a little too – well déja vu; I just couldn’t take it seriously. Sorry, Wilford.

– What do you mean, it’s not serious? Those guys are dangerous; they are hurting us all, the country, the economy, the ecology, our foreign relations – something just has to be done! They are oppressing the people with their enforcement goons, violating all standards of human decency and morals, they are criminals! A revolution is long overdue! Those guys belong in jail or tossed off their highrise towers…

– Okay, okay, Wilford, calm down. We can’t do much from this fogged in-island for now anyway, might as well take a breath and think about it.

– That’s just becoming complicit in their crimes, if you ask me, Bog-Hubert! Well, just as soon as we can get back…

– Okay – let’s say you are right. So you are organizing a revolution, overthrowing the rascals. Then what? Who’s going to run things? How?

– Well, the people, of course! The workers, the powerless folks, the downtrodden…

– Hmm. Haven’t we heard that before, many times? What I know about history, too many such revolutions have been followed in due course by the rise of another set of powerful people, who began to behave just as badly as the folks they threw in jail – or worse. It’s going on right now! The famous Arab Spring revolutions, only a few years ago – what happened to those? So how would you prevent that? Or first, how do you explain it?

– Well, there are always people –- reactionaries – that want to grasp their power back. And of course they must be kept from doing that.

– So how are you going to do that?

– Well, Sophie, you have to watch them, keep them out of positions where they can get powerful again, keep them from agitating to get the old system back. Stands to reason, doesn’t it?

– And because they have been overthrown by force, necessarily, they will assume that if they can assemble some means of force again, they can do the same to the new regime – so you have to make sure that you’ll always have a stronger force available to prevent or put down such attempts … Begins to look very much like the old system all over again, doesn’t it?

– We’ll just have to insist on the democratic, legal protections against power abuse – but if the people are in power, why would they start oppressing themselves?

– That’s the big question, all right. It has happened too many times: Do we really know enough about that? Would it be useful to take a look at this idea of power, try to understand it better – before we start another bloody mess that results in the same thing, all over again?

– You just want us to sit here drinking all night cooking up pipe dreams, don’t you, Vodçek?

– Well I never would allow you to use the terms ‘cooking’ in connection with pipe dreams, Bog-Hubert. And I love to have you keep me company in my tavern, yes. But Sophie here looks like she’d like to give that investigation a try, even though she doesn’t even partake of my bodacious Sonoma Zin… How about it, Sophie?

– Okay – do you have any ideas where to start? Bog-Hubert? Didn’t you discuss this some time ago with Abbé Boulah? Did anything come of that?

– Well now that you mention it, he did have some unusual, almost paradoxical ideas about power.

– Huh? Do you remember any of them?

– Vaguely. It was a dark and stormy night, you know… Well, one part I remember was that he thought the need or desire for power is something almost like a human right.

– You are kidding, aren’t you? Abbé Boulah said that?

– Yes. Well, the way Wilford puts it, isn’t he saying the same thing – just from the lower end up? Empowerment! Power to the people! Freedom means being empowered to do things of your choice, not some bosses or superior’s choice. And you have to be ‘empowered’, have the power, possibility and resources, to do that.

– Oh. Put like that, it almost makes sense. But that isn’t the kind of power we are fighting, is it?

– No, Sophie, but the distinction isn’t always clear enough. What you are worried about is when having power to do things starts to include telling other people what you want them to do. And some of those are even what we want and agree with?

– You’ve got to explain that, Bog-Hubert.

– I’ll try. See, when it comes to things we’d like to do that could affect other people, we sort of agree that the democratic way to deal with that is to talk about it. To turn ‘my plan’ and ‘your plan’ into ‘our plan’ that we both can endorse and support. And the ‘leave our guns outside, sit down and talk’ part, the old parliamentary principle, that’s is what we are trying to improve upon. To make sure the decisions are really based on the merit of what we are talking about – not just overriding half of it with a majority vote. That’s an important task, isn’t it? Especially now that we are faced with increasingly ‘global’ decisions.

– What do you mean by ‘global decisions’?

– Well, take the example of the rules of the road, or oceans, or international flying conventions. Travel and trade rules and conventions. Some are arbitrary – like,  do we drive on the right or left side of the road? But we have to have some agreement about that.

– I see, makes sense. And more complex decisions will take some talking, and better decision-making methods. Okay.

– Yes. But then there are situations for which we need decisions that can’t wait for a long participatory discussion process. On a ship in the ocean that’s suddenly encountering an iceberg, somebody has to make a quick decision whether to pass it to the port or starboard, or stop and back up. That’s what we need the captain for. People in a position of empowerment — power — to make such decisions, on our behalf. And have everybody go along with all the actions needed to carry out the commands.

– Ah, I see what you mean: these are power decisions we expect the captain to make. — And of course he wants to be a captain, wants to be able to make such decisions: they are more significant, more important, than if he were alone in a dinghy to make his own decision.

– Right. And hasn’t history  shown that it’s precisely those kinds of decisions that are the source of the trouble?  They are, in principle, ‘legitimate’ – we expect them to be made for us. But we know they are also addictive. People in such positions of power want more and more ‘responsibility’, for more and more important decisions. Getting power-drunk. Empowerment and freedom – becoming fatally intertwined.

– ‘Fatally’ – sounds ominous. Aren’t there rules, provisions, to keep such decisions ‘legitimate’, orderly?

– Sure; humanity has invented a number of tricks to keep that under control. One of the tricks is the hierarchical organization – of governments and businesses, armies etc. At each level, a person is ‘subordinate’ to the rules and oversight – and directions – from the level above him or her – but has considerable freedom to decide things for the levels below. A kind of control, you agree?

– Ah. Except for the lowest level: the grunts, the slaves, the unskilled workers…

– Yes, Renfroe. And for the highest level… Which is where things become dangerous – in spite of the so-called safeguards against abuse that have been invented for modern governments: elections, time limits, impeachment provisions made possible by sophisticated ‘balance’ of powers of different government branches. Those things are the best we have, but they still don’t seem to work well enough anymore.

– Why?

– Well, there are several reasons why things get mucked up. One is the feature of ‘enforcement’. You made your laws, agreements, according to the clean democratic rules. But then you have to make sure that everybody actually follows and adheres to those rules. Which is why we have ‘enforcement’ institutions – police. The word itself – enforcement — indicates the poverty of the thing: we apparently can’t think of any way of making sure the laws are followed than by threaten violators with force or coercive consequences, and pursuing violators with necessarily greater force and power than any would-be violator. Otherwise it won’t work, right?

– Hmm.  I see where you are going. Now you have an enforcement agency with considerable power – and no greater power to keep it from falling victim to temptations of abusing their power.  So the sheriff – who knows that even the mayor has been recklessly exceeding the speed limit, perhaps even under, shall we say, some influence… but has not taken any enforcement action against Hizzonner, in return for perhaps some generous provisions in next years budget. I know; shocking, shocking. Some forms of power that aren’t on the books. Not even talking about campaign contributions by businesses subject to city regulations… You said there were several such snakes in the grass? The private sector gaining some undue control over government being one?

– You said it. Campaign contributions buying elections, the story is getting old. Another is the military. Sure, we need it, to defend our dear country against all those bad enemies – it must have bigger, badder weapons that anybody else, and nobody bigger to keep it from, well, losing some billions here and there in the fog of war exercises… Now think: any wonder that so many countries end up with a military takeover after a ‘revolution’ or other government screw-up?

– Heavens, it’s a miracle we don’t have bigger problems with all that…

– We do, Sophie, we do. Seems we just don’t see it, or if we do, we are in denial. See, sometimes ‘mistakes are made’. Well, I’m sure it doesn’t happen here – there are those other countries where people in power sometimes make mistakes. Not here, of course. So those mistakes may hurt some people, innocent or not so innocent. But who would now like to get the powerful miscreants out of power. What to do? Well we – the good guys in power, we can’t admit that of course: if those troublemakers would get their way, the ‘enforcement ‘ consequences would be… unpleasant, eh?  So: There are no mistakes made, at least not by anybody you can identify. And those traitorous people, troublemakers, who just claim to have been hurt but are mad or mentally disturbed and equally power-hungry, they must be kept under control. In jail, best, or in mental hospitals, or otherwise discouraged from causing more trouble.  Disappeared? Strange things happen. Some of those people are very careless, you know. Swallowing toxic stuff or getting into accidents…

Now there are smart ways and not so smart ways of doing that: Not so smart is to use police or state power directly, however efficiently and tempting. Much smarter: first, get the media to paint those people with suspicious colors, get enough citizens all worked up over the greedy, treasonous habits of those troublemakers. And then have some folks on hand about whom you have some real evidence of real misdeeds. But you don’t release that evidence, just get these goons to ‘act’ like enraged citizens to drive the fear of the you-know-who into the minds of those people – and of anybody else who might have equally misguided ideas… Of course you don’t have any ideas who those enraged citizens might be. Just patriots…

– You are beginning to really scare us here, Bog-Hubert. Enough to make us believe that a revolution might be necessary after all – if we weren’t too scared of the remedy too. So Abbé Boulah and you, and that buddy of yours up in town, you have no better ideas for how to deal with this? Stormy night not stormy enough for more productive brainstorm?

– Would we be sitting here having to ask Vodçek to get rid of troublemakers if we did? Well, maybe there are some ideas that could at least improve things a little. The power thing is too engrained to be fixed with one kind of magic stroke.

– I remember now – it has to do with that planning discourse platform you guys keep harping on? The kind of discourse contribution reward points you want to give people for meaningful information they enter into the discussion?

– Good guess, Sophie. Yes, it turns out that there are a few, you might say, ‘collateral’ effects of that platform that could be turned into a kind of control of power.

– Okay, enlighten us. I know you talked about that before, but not in connection with the power issue, as I remember it.

– Yes. Well, the basic idea behind that discourse platform is of course to find a better way to connect the final decisions with the merit of the contributions – the questions, ideas and proposals, arguments, and other information people bring into the discussion to be given ‘due consideration’. Actually, if we could achieve just that much, it might lessen the problem that decisions achieved by plain majority voting might be based on entirely different motivations than the sanctimonious promises made by officials in the discussion.

– But do you really need those contribution points for that?

– I think so. In order to develop any ‘measure’ of contribution merit, you have to have something to measure, some entity you ‘count’ and some way to indicate how meritorious that items is. So the first thing we need is some ‘point’ that identifies an original contribution to the discourse hat a participant has made. At first, it’s ‘neutral’ or ‘empty’ – just indicates how many entries a person has made. Good or bad, silly or profound. But later, in the process of evaluating plausibility and importance of that item, that point becomes ‘plausible’ and significant (in the assessment of other participants) or ‘implausible’, without merit, if it turns out to be false, insufficiently supported by further evidence or reasoning.

– I remember that, yes. So how does that help control power?

– Patience. So each participant ends up with an ‘account’ of contribution merit points. Participating in many public projects, over time, that account can become a meaningful indicator of the overall merit of the person’s contribution to public issues. It might become a valuable part of a person’s qualification for public office: an indication of the person’s commitment to public welfare as well as reliable judgment about such issues. Wouldn’t you want the official, the captain, to be able to make sound judgments – especially if they have to be made in a hurry? So that account would be another way to get people of good sound judgment into public office.

– That isn’t a guarantee yet,  that good people won’t fall victim to power temptations though, is it?

– No, or not really enough. Though maybe good judgment may make them less vulnerable? Anyway: here’s where Abbé Boulah makes a real leap. He says: If the need or desire for power is an actual, even legitimate human need, like food, clothing, housing etc. – why shouldn’t it be treated like one of those needs?

– What do you mean – treated like one of those needs?

– Well, what do you have to do to get food, housing? You pay for it. So Abbé Boulah says: let people ‘pay’ for power decisions. But of course you can’t use money as the currency for that, since money hasn’t always been ‘earned’ in quite the same way. So you use the credit point account. Each power decision will require a ‘credit point payment’. If you used up your points, no more power. I’m sure we can devise the technology for implementing that: any power decision will be ‘signed’ only with the appropriate amount of credit points.

– Wait: some officials may have to make decisions that require many more credit points than anybody can have earned in a private account? What about those?

– Good point: If you support an official and want her to be able to make such important decisions, why not transfer some of your own credit points to her account? You can perhaps even specify the precise decisions for which you designate your contribution. That way, you too, become ‘accountable’ for that decision, using y o u r  ‘power’ credit to actually influence decisions. But then you are using up your power credits just like the official.

– Shouldn’t we also be able to withdraw our credit points support from an official who is making some decisions you do not support?

– Good point, Vodçek. Now ‘power to the people’ actually begins to mean something?

– But there must be also be a way to ‘earn’ credits back for having made successful decisions? A ‘return on credit’ investment?

– Brilliant idea. It would take some technical finagling, as I said. But I don’t see why it can’t be done – the opinion polls and advertising big data collectors are dealing with complex data of this kind every day…

– If I remember correctly, wasn’t there some other mechanism having to do with power, that was somehow connected to this whole scheme?

– Yes. It was Abbé Boulah’s rant about learning from mistakes. It may not be connected to the credit points idea though, if I remember correctly.

– Sounds like you guys were having a very good time, Bog-Hubert…

– Who wouldn’t have a good time celebrating brilliant ideas?

– Well, what was the idea?

– It had to do with the fear factor, Sophie. Remember how we said that people make mistakes, and then feel compelled to cover up those mistakes, by shady means, which makes them vulnerable to criticism and unpleasant consequences if they admit to having made them, — if mistakes are ‘punished’ as they usually are. And it’s that fear that escalates the improper use of power to avoid and evade the consequences. Now Abbé Boulah also thought that this was a great loss of a very different kind: the opportunity to learn from mistakes – both our own and others. So he suggested it might be a good idea to reward people who have made mistakes – at least by not punishing them – if they would admit the mistake and give a cogent explanation of what went wrong, what miscalculations were made, — as a kind of valuable discourse contribution. And in the process remove some of the fear – of discovery, of being blamed, and punished for mistakes. The fear of the powerful that now drives many to improper uses of power.

– Mercy on the powerful? That’s a lot of powerful stuff to think about, Bog-Hubert. So what are you going to do about it?

– Good question. Cheers.

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