On Philosophy

August 3, 2007

Controlling Power

Filed under: Political Philosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

In any political system it is necessary to give some people the power to make laws and to enforce them. For reasons of practicality that power is often given to just a few people. This of course raises the question: how can we restrict the exercise of that power? The people who end up with power are motivated by personal interests as well as the interests of the state, and naturally they will be inclined to use their power to further their personal interests, and not just for the good of the nation. Obviously we can’t just make a law forbidding them from misusing their power, since they have the power such a law is just words on paper, it has no force.

The naïve solution is to trust the people as a collective to prevent a misuse of power. I call this the naïve solution because it works only in very rare cases. A practical problem is that the average person simply doesn’t have the resources to stand up to modern military power (unless you all have been keeping a stash of surface-to-air missiles in your closet without telling me). There are also problems with the idealistic assumption that people care enough about liberty and justice to take up arms if the government violates these principles. People do care about these things to some extent, but they care more about their quality of life. So as long as the government promises to let them keep whatever good things they have, and not to step on their toes, then it can misuse its power as much as it wants. Similarly people will support a misuse of power if they are promised something in return (Caesar’s seizing of power is an example of this). I know I sound cynical for saying this, but it’s my observation that as long as people are happy with their lives then they aren’t bothered by injustice. After all, the American government tortures people now, and there isn’t any rioting in the streets as a result. Various revolutions may sometimes be cited as counterexamples to this principle, but those revolutions share two features. Firstly many of them are an attempt by people to improve their quality of life (they feel that those on top are making life worse than it has to be). And secondly revolutions against foreign powers are motivated primarily by the desire of local authorities to have the power instead of foreign authorities, talk about rights and unjust foreign rule is often just that, talk.

A better solution is to try and divide the power among a number of different people. Ideally they will all have different interests, and thus will pull against each other, so that no one person or group of people is able to take control. This is a better idea, but it too is flawed. One problem is that the balance is never perfect, and so in some systems it is theoretically possible for one person or group to take all the power, even within the constraints of the system. In the American system the presidential pardon is such an imbalance. In theory the president could simply order all the politicians who oppose him assassinated and then simply pardon the assassins. We hope he wouldn’t of course. But even if the balance is perfect there is nothing that stops the people in power from colluding. A balance only works to restrict power if the people the power is divided among really are pulling against each other. If they agree then they can collectively choose to ignore the rules. And things such as political parties only encourage this collusion.

Perhaps most basically we have to wonder why the people at the top simply don’t get together and rewrite the rules whenever the rules get in their way. After all, they have all the power, so they could simply declare any rewrite legal. The primary obstacle is internal. Politicians are people too, and I am a bit of an optimist about human nature; not everyone is evil. The reason politicians simply don’t revise the rules to give themselves unlimited power is because they believe at an almost instinctual level that doing so would be wrong. Of course not everyone in the government is equally restrained, but since most governments do include some kind of mechanism where the power is divided among different people the best and worst tend to balance out. But this doesn’t solve all our problems. The problem with these internal restraints is that they aren’t fixed based on some eternal and unchanging standard, rather they are developed by absorbing the attitudes of those around them about what is and isn’t acceptable behavior for a public figure. So if you call politicians corrupt you will end up with corrupt politicians. Which may lead you to believe that politicians are exceedingly corrupt, which will lead to exceedingly corrupt politicians, and so on (we are caught in such a cycle now I think). You see the internal restraints are based on what people perceive as normal (as people feel uncomfortable deviating from what is seen as normal). So if we all thought of politicians as examples of human perfection then anyone who was a politician would feel that being less than perfect was unacceptable, and they would have to force themselves to cross that line (of course perfection is too high a standard, and would cause its own set of problems, since forcing people to cross that internal line makes them more likely to cross it again). But if we all accept that politicians are corrupt, take bribes, and are swayed by special interests then that is exactly how they will be, because someone who becomes a politician with that attitude that such behavior is normal won’t balk at doing any of those things. (All of this of course rests on the psychological fact that there are strong psychological forces that motive us to act as the majority of people expect us to act. There are also higher level, and thus less instinctual and more intellectual, forces which govern our actions, but they have to work hard to overcome our natural desire to act “normally”, for better or worse.)

Which leaves us with a problem. Given that our politicians are corrupt what can we do? Simply recognizing how corrupt they are makes the problem worse in the future (partly because the next generation sees how much the last one got away with, and then goes a little further than that). But neither can we bury our heads in the sand and pretend that there isn’t a problem, because that will let the people in power feel that they can get away with more (given that their attitudes about how they should act in office are already formed a change in our attitudes won’t immediately change them). Ideally we would clean house and replace them with a better bunch, but as far as I can tell there is no better bunch to replace them with; they all sound equally good on paper and all act equally poorly when in office. Thus we are stuck.


  1. Hello, Peter! Thank you for your banquet!
    I have been reading your blog for some time and I’ve found your essays insightful and interesting. Many times, your texts made me “talk to myself”, criticizing or accepting your point of view. This time, I‘ll take the trouble to let you know my opinion about the “Controlling Power”.

    First of all, I think this text is an indirect answer to one of your important question ‘What is philosophy good at?’ Shortly put, I believe that the philosophical discussions point out not to good solutions, but to complex and difficult problems. By listening or reading philosophy we will learn to be very careful about apparently easy solutions. Philosophy makes you think about a lot of things. It helps you change the perspective. And this definitely makes you more tolerant. That is why, I’m sure that some degree of philosophy is indispensable to make a life worth living (my assumption is, together with Socrate, that “An unexamined life is not worth living”). So, my challenging answer to the initial problem, ‘What is philosophy good at’, is the following: ‘It makes a life worth living’. Or, to put it in other words, a good living presupposes the ability to participate to philosophical discussions. And, if this is true, then the philosophical instruction must be an essential part of every form of education.

    Now, back to “Controlling Power”. You said we are stuck. To use force, to divide the power among a number of different people, to trust the people in power – these are no viable solutions. At the same time, I think you suggest a possible way out: internal obstacles that stop people in power to rewrite the rules whenever they feel like. So, if we are to be effective in limiting power, we (as a whole, as a community) must increase the level of this internal obstacle. The key is education. We must teach our children that “auto-limitation” is a good thing, and everybody must fight, on a daily basis, with his/her natural-born selfishness. It is not an easy way not. But, I strongly believe, that it is not a utopia either.

    We will know when we are on the right track: when the status of being a politician will be close to the status of a teacher or a priest. To be clearer: When most of our politicians will talk to themselves: ‘I cannot take bribe, I am a politician’, like our teachers do think: ‘I cannot take bribe, I am a teacher’.

    Comment by Mihai Scarlat — August 3, 2007 @ 3:09 am

  2. But where we are still stuck is that people learn by example and by the attitudes of other people more than they learn by explicit instruction. So their “instincts” about how to behave in office will be formed most strongly by our current attitude towards politicians. And if we describe the current politicians as corrupt, then the next generation will learn from that to be corrupt politicians themselves.

    Comment by Peter — August 3, 2007 @ 11:27 am

  3. If we are going to debate this, surely we should have regard to the truth. You say:

    “After all, the American government tortures people now, and there isn’t any rioting in the streets as a result.”

    Is this a reference to Abu Ghraib and the “Rumsfeld Rules”?

    Haven’t things changed since then? You are using the present tense.

    I am absolutely clear that torture should not be resorted to by democratic governments. As we have seen, it simply gives moral energy to the enemy.

    One strange point:

    The US government has in the past seemed to sanction torture but not robust intellectual challenge of terrorist detainees. Detainees can keep their Korans – which is what motivates them in the first place.

    I oppose torture, but I think we should confront detainees robustly with the alternatives to their ideology, since breaking their ideological will is the key to stopping them carrying out atrocities. But we should respect their intellectual freedom – because that should be the ground of our own society. So,even if there was a Clockwork Orange drug which would “cure” them of their views, I would not wish to see it dispensed to them.

    Comment by field — August 3, 2007 @ 4:39 pm

  4. for starters: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/10020664/site/newsweek/

    Comment by Peter — August 3, 2007 @ 8:23 pm

  5. This is historical stuff you are issuing. I pointed to the fact that you used the present tense.

    I don’t think there is any evidence that America, in the sense of its government’s soldiers and officials, is still torturing detainees. There is evidence of continued extraordinary rendition which it could be argued amounts to the same thing, if the purpose if to get people into jurisdictions where they can be tortured.

    Comment by field — August 5, 2007 @ 6:19 am

  6. Read them completely. Those “approved methods” haven’t been unapproved.

    Comment by Peter — August 5, 2007 @ 12:20 pm

  7. Yourself and and few of the comments mention the problems of bribery and corruption in modern politics. Is this such a big problem ? Perhaps if we as a population in the West turn a blind eye to these occurances, politicians are better rewarded financially for their endeavours. This may in turn lead to better quality men and women in power. (i.e. attract intellegence from the private sector). I know that this comment might seem outrageous; it’s just that I prefer to philosophise from first principles. No point in trying to explain reality using value judgements as your foundation. You immediately are describing a world that is inaccessable to a large chunk of the population (those like me that are willing to cut a few corners in meeting requirements of the social compact so as to provide a suitable existance to those that matter most; my family).

    Comment by Michael — August 6, 2007 @ 7:06 am

  8. corruption makes a democracy a kind of plutocracy, which is a kind of dictatoship. Such systems rarely act in the best interests of the people living under them, and are thus less than optimal.

    Comment by Peter — August 6, 2007 @ 12:49 pm

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