Just a quick thought that springs out of yesterday’s discussion of democracy. In a comment responding to Roberto, I wrote that I see anarchy is a significant increase in the degree of pluralism over democracy and that such a system of governance would achieve a more equitable distribution of power. What does this imply with regards to power relations? Two points,
- I don’t think the existence of hierarchies of power are inconsistent with an equitable distribution of power;
- That power can be equally distributed doesn’t mean that an equal distribution necessarily prevails.
In his article “The Problem of Social Cost,” Ronald Coase suggests treating property rights as goods that can be bought and sold. This was his way of conceptualizing the idea of bargaining to resolve property disputes, when the costs of bargaining were low enough to make it possible. I think we can talk about power in the same way. Power influences the ability constrain another person’s range of choices. An equitable distribution of power implies that the playing field is level, or that everyone has equal ability to skew others’ range of choices — this might mean only that you can protect yourself from others’ attempts to limit your choices. But, an equal share of power isn’t always desirable.
Someone might want to sell power in return for something else. Wage workers do this when they sign contracts with their employers, giving the latter the power to use the former in ways stipulated in the contract. These are voluntary power relations. It doesn’t make sense to see these as “unfair,” since they come about because they’re desirable given the conditions of that time and place. The same is often true within families. When I lived with my dad I didn’t enjoy him bossing me around, but I essentially sold him that right to exercise power in return for his welfare. The distribution of power between me and him was unequal, but I found this situation “ideal” nonetheless.
I can’t think of a short, accurate way of summing up my point. Maybe this will do: broader distributions of power imply more equitable access to power, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that society will distribute it equally between themselves — oftentimes, people sell power in return for goods they attach greater value to.