"A.J. Rose" (Jonathan) (ajrose93) wrote,
"A.J. Rose" (Jonathan)

rock, paper, scissors


A brief analysis of how power works in the world -- focused here on political power, though the principle arguably holds for, well, everything.* Our model will be the kid's game of our title, and the checks and balances built into its rules: scissors cut paper; paper covers rock; rock breaks scissors. Our basic point: power is never absolutely monolithic, it is a collision of forces -- some stronger, some weaker -- most any of which can attain dominance (become stronger by overbalancing others) under the proper conditions.

The point is worth making because so little understood. Particularly in democracies people tend to believe either that political choice is unlimited ("Blame the voters"), or impossible ("The Man will always be on top"), and either explanation is inadequate: just as the voters are denied an absolute choice of policy (or candidate)**, so too "The Man" is hedged about with a certain measure of limitation -- most countries are not absolute dictatorships, and even in absolute dictatorships there are things the dictator dare not do, thanks to restraints both within his power base, and in the world external to it (his populace, other societies and peoples, the facts of nature, etc.). I assume the implications are fairly obvious, but let me add a few examples.

All societies involve a balance of power, fluid to at least some extent, among basic sectors: force (military-police-intelligence), financial,*** administrative, and popular. Understanding this, the framers of the U.S. Constitution (and, crucially, its Bill of Rights) consciously tried to disperse that power so as to limit abuses: by instituting a system of voting (however limited at first), and setting up organizational checks and balances (formally, executive, legislative, judicial, (themselves divided among state, federal and local entities); plus, less formally, informational, educational, religious, and so forth). Knowing the role of force to be critical, they divided it further -- e.g., only the legislative could declare war, only the executive wage it, with means available to change the occupants of those offices.

As a general thing, societies which keep all these contending forces in balance tend to be efficient; those which keep them in balance by general consent rather than sheer power, successful.****

Final observation: it seems to me that the successful concentration (rather than dispersal) of U.S. power in recent years is breaking up***** -- that contending forces are currently reasserting themselves, with unpredictable results. This too can be good or bad: the Tokugawa shogunate kept the peace for 250 years, at the expense of individual freedom and cultural vitality, and the sloppily divided and frequently belligerent United States did a pretty fair job for its populace (and some others) for the last couple of centuries plus. I happen to share the bias of the Founders for dispersed power, but in any case believe that no entity, political or otherwise, has a monopoly on virtue. I am, today, pessimistic and optimistic by turns...but in any case believe that it's helpful to understand the basic forces at work.

93 93/93 -- AJ

* The atomic, molecular, chemical, biological, individual (e.g. conflicts within one's own will, or the balance of health (organs, etc.) in the body), interpersonal, organizational...up through the international, interspecies, and beyond. Hey, can't fault us for lack of ambition. ;)

** Not least by their sources of information, which tend to restrict which notions they are able to seriously entertain. This is not, by the way, always a bad thing; given the general run of humanity, the notion of an absolute democracy gives me chills.

*** Also not a monolith; see, e.g., Carl Oglesby's classic work on U.S. power struggles, The Yankee and Cowboy War.

**** Not always good things. Nazi Germany was, for a time, highly successful, and long after that still efficient...but run by psychotics and crooks, with results familiar to everyone.

***** Not least thanks to the serial dishonesty of those wielding it. Most people, God bless them, tend to have an inherent dislike of hypocrisy and deception, and an inherent fondness for the truth.

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