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A Balance of Power – October 8, 2017

Balanced rocks

In matters of politics and economics, I do not believe that any one side of an argument or a proposition possesses the ultimate truth, holds exclusive bargaining rights, represents final authority, or has been gifted with the other attributes and artifacts of power. Yes, I believe that truth, rights, and authority all exist, but they must be established, weighed, and tested on a case-by-case basis. No one has uncontested power by virtue of his or her personal beliefs, political stance, or past actions and achievements.1

But it would seem that our current political situation and its effect upon our economic situation has devolved into a philosophical fight over who should have the ultimate power to decide where the truth lies in any discussion and how society should be organized and maintained. The conflict eventually comes down to who shall have the right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness—and who should be shunned, shouted down, and ultimately hunted through the woods with dogs.

In this fight, some people prefer to give power and the weight of defining truth and making decisions to those who were either elected or, in most cases, appointed and hired into government positions. Adherents of this statist philosophy view these elected representatives and appointed or hired civil servants as high-minded, selfless, and incorruptible. They believe these government people should have authority over others because, first, they are bound to be fair and impartial through having no vested interest in the outcome of the decisions made in their sphere and, second, they possess the training and experience to make the best decisions based on the latest scientific, psychological, and sociopolitical thinking. The adherents have taken to heart Plato’s ideal, expressed most notably in The Republic, that society should be ordered and maintained by a cadre of philosopher-kings.

At the same time, other people would prefer to leave power and the burden of defining truth and making decisions in the hands of individual citizens. Yes, some decisions must be made for the common good by governors, legislators, judges, and their supporting departments—but these decisions should be in strictly designated areas like providing military defense and maintaining the borders; building community infrastructure such as roads, harbors, and water supplies; and offering police and judicial services for personal protection and redress of grievances. But for the rest of the social structure, the common people should have the freedom to decide what is right for themselves as individuals and spend their time, energy, and money obtaining the goods and services that they believe will best serve their needs. And others should be free to invest in the production, trade, and distribution of goods and the offer of services in an open market to fulfill those individual needs as they see them.

Those who advocate state control consider the free market, capitalist finance, and participation based on self-interest as rewarding greed, selfishness, and intentionally hurtful action. While those who advocate personal freedom of choice see an overclass of scientific and psychological expert administrators as an invitation to inertia, laziness, pride, and corruption of power.

But even the most libertarian advocate of free-market capitalism will admit that sometimes market forces under the principles of supply and demand, value paid for value received, and other effects of letting intelligent shoppers act according to rational principles will sometimes leave one side of the transaction in a position of advantage while the other suffers disadvantage and damage. Speculation and hoarding in times of crisis, market dominance and monopoly power are examples. In these cases the government needs to set some economic ground rules, and the courts must be available to render judgments and exact penalties.

And even the most progressive advocate of state control will admit that some functions of daily living are inappropriate for government to supply or control. Making personal decisions about whom you will love and take into your life, what values to teach your children and how to discipline them, where and how you choose to live, what career and pastimes to pursue, and what foods you like to eat or avoid are all subject to personal choice. Of course, some extreme advocates of state control—such as doctrinaire Communists and their totalitarian cohort—would insist that any personal element is a political illusion which should be discouraged and stamped out if possible. They believe that no individual choice or action is free from its ultimate effects on other members of society, and so every element of daily life should be guided by moral and scientific experts—or removed from the human psyche altogether.

These discussions are all about to whom you want to give the power in society.

For my part, I believe that any power structure is made up of people, and people in the aggregate and as individuals are not all one thing or the other. Some are greedy, some lazy, some dedicated and conscientious, and some are fools. Whether they work in a government office or a corporate headquarters, work out in the field with a state agriculture or transportation agency, or on the front lines as a customer service representative of a large corporation—they are still people with all their strengths and weaknesses, foibles and phantasies. But, with all of this said, I still believe that most people try to do a good job as they see it and as it has been defined for them in their work environment. Most people consider themselves to be basically good and well intentioned. Only a very few people wake up in the morning and think, “Now I will be an evil bastard.”

And most positions in the power structure, whether in a government or corporate setting, offer few opportunities for personal greed, laziness, and corruption. Every government has its code of ethics, as does every business organization. They have rules, personal and departmental goals, and internal audits. The people who run either organization, public or private, know that the population has its usual share—small in most cases—of connivers and criminals. The organization wants to give good service—even the Department of Motor Vehicles has service goals—and keeps an eye on how its employees are treating the public it serves.

In almost every political and economic situation, I believe in achieving a balance of power: between citizens and their government, between consumers and providers, between workers and management, between any two or more conflicting or competing groups. When one side of the equation has complete control, the other side is bound to suffer. Being a little-D democrat, I believe in the value of reaching agreements—each side gives something and in turn gets something—if not actual consensus among conflicting intentions and interests. This is only a matter of fairness because, really, while some people may be smarter, more experienced, more learned, and more level-headed than others, no one possesses the ultimate truth, the final word, or the all-seeing eye.

This means that any group which obtains prominence and power in a situation must remember Thomas’s Law: “The catbird seat2 is a wobbly perch and tends to dump you.” No one stays up forever. The wheel of karma grinds slowly but inexorably.

If you want an example of this, consider the current situation in academia. For most of my professional lifetime, university professors have enjoyed a position of both power and security in our society. With tenure generally available, they had economic situations that were assured against administrative removal for their holding controversial views or entertaining absurd or noxious ideas. Within the closed environment of the faculty lounge, they had a life of relative ease and congeniality, even with the imperative of “publish or perish.” And as shapers of the minds of future generations, they exercised as much control over our society’s values as any Hollywood or Madison Avenue mogul. The catbird seat. But now, with widely available student loans pushing up tuition, while declining educational standards and curriculum offerings push down the economic value of a basic college diploma—coupled with widely available learning options in the form of online and for-profit education—the secure position of tenured professors is rapidly dwindling. Soon they will have to “root, hog, or die” along with the rest of us.

For another example, consider the position of the Soviet nomenklatura at the top of Russian society. For seventy years, they were in positions of extreme power so long as they could toe the Party line and avoid the backstabbing of political competitors. But in the 1990s that all changed as the system that had nurtured and fed them collapsed of its own incompetence to raise the average Russian out of a third-world existence in an economy that lagged behind every other example in the developed West.

The catbird seat is a nice perch, if you can get it. And for some—like the last crop of university professors or a couple of generations in the nomenklatura—it might last until the holder is dead and gone and beyond caring. But without a balance of power, without a commitment to agreement and consensus, these niches have a relatively short half-life. Eventually, the perch wobbles and dumps you.

1. As always with a blanket statement like this, some exceptions apply. All individuals—except those previously shown to be irresponsible, such as the mentally incapacitated or convicted felons—have a right to life, bodily integrity, and freedom of person. Those who fall into the irresponsible category may give up some degree of freedom but still have a right to life and bodily integrity. Similarly, persons shown to be in possession of property in accordance with the laws of their society have a right to the use and disposition of that property under the law. Persons may be elected, appointed, or hired into positions of decision-making authority over other citizens—such as magistrates, judges, and legislators—but they hold that authority only in the sphere and under the terms of their service. With all that said, no one has a claim on ultimate truth—not even eye witnesses to the birth of creation.

2. See The Catbird Seat from September 29, 2013.