Anarchic Power Relations

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,

  1. I don’t think the existence of hierarchies of power are inconsistent with an equitable distribution of power;
  2. 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.

  • http://twitter.com/JL_Ricon José Luis Ricón

    “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.”

    That’s a question I’ve been pondering for a while: The moral status of a son in relation with his parents. And my view is that you don’t sign a “social-parental contract” with your parents: It’s an offer you cannot refuse. What if you don’t want to help your father do X? Or in the case of childs: What if a child doesn’t want to eat veggies? You cannot morally refuse, unless of course it’s a overtly injust demand. Fun thing is that parents can’t also morally refuse to give their offspring a reasonable set of goods from food to education to healthcare.

    So parents exercise power only in a way such as it’s beneficial to their descendants (Yet there is the problem of defining who determines what ‘beneficial’ is) because it’s moral for parents in that situation to do that. Same reasoning for offspring: It’s a moral obligation to obey (reasonable commands) that arises of the particular context of that particular relation. (And when that relation of ‘extreme’ paternalism ends is not neither clear)

    If it were a contract and you clearly stated (Imagine a 6yr old boy): “I don’t want to live with you anymore” then you are retiring him authority, breaking the contract, and so he can morally negate you welfare and let you die out. (Which would fit Rothbard’s unsettling view of the topic.)

    • http://economicthought.net/blog JCatalan

      It’s hard for me to conceptualize things in terms of morality. I believe in “subjective morality,” or that what we perceive to be wrong or right boils down to beliefs we hold. So I can’t talk about the morality of familial relationships. I do think that much of these relations are regulated; for example, a child under the age of 16 (or whenever a young adult can try to emancipate himself from his parents) doesn’t have the right to abandon his parents, according to U.S law. If these laws were absent, I’d guess that so would the way familial relations unfold, but I’m not sure. I don’t have an educated opinion regarding the status of a child as legally attached to his parents (or legal guardians). I, personally, would find it wrong if a mother dropped her baby in a dumpster, no matter what the law says, but I recognize that not everyone necessarily has to agree with me.

      Sometimes finding solutions which fulfill the moral standards of all those involved is impossible. The law is there to serve as a compromise. Not everyone walks away happy, but it’s a better situation than not having law at all.

      This comment is kind of all over the place. I guess what I’m saying is this: these kinds of topics are difficult and are inherently divisive since they require taking one position over the other. I think a better route than designing the perfect moral system is to have flexible, progressing legal institutions that help mediate heterogeneous moral demands.

      • gcallah

        “I, personally, would find it wrong if a mother dropped her baby in a
        dumpster, no matter what the law says, but I recognize that not everyone
        necessarily has to agree with me.”

        Yeah, and I’m against the Holocaust, but a lot of Nazis disagreed with me, so, hey, what can anyone say?

  • gcallah

    “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.”

    Because something is desirable *given the circumstances* doesn’t mean its fair: the circumstances themselves might be unfair. An example: Settlers arrive and wrest all land from a native population by force. Then they offer the natives the chance to work on the farms they formerly owned. That might be better than any alternative, but it is still unfair.

    • http://economicthought.net/blog JCatalan

      Regarding the Holocaust comment, this is one of those examples that most people would agree is immoral, so is meant to shame me into backing out of my position. But, that most people consider the Holocaust to be the epitome of evil doesn’t make it objectively so. It’s evil because we believe it’s evil. If 99 percent of people thought that it’s okay for a mother to kill a child she doesn’t want then we wouldn’t find these actions to be morally wrong. (The Holocaust is actually a good example, since most people during that era probably didn’t care all that much; no more, at least, than the average American cared about dead Rwandans.) Further, I never said we can’t do anything about it. The development of a legal system is largely the result of people “doing something about it.”

      In the settlers and Indians example what’s unfair is how the circumstances came about, not the offering of the opportunity to work on the settler’s new land. Similarly, most people would consider it wrong for a company to burn a worker’s house down and say, “work for me for free and I’ll give you a shack next to the factory!” What’s wrong is burning the house down to make the worker’s condition worse, not offering that worker a shack.