Power Symmetries and Asymmetries

G. Stolyarov II
Issue CXXXVI - December 29, 2007
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The concept of power has been much maligned as evil in itself – in all of its forms and manifestations – and the desire for power has frequently been characterized as unacceptable in all situations. But this is a simplistic view which fails to pinpoint the genuine problem as far as power is concerned. This a problem not of power per se, but of asymmetrical power.

The Questions to Be Examined

            Understanding power symmetries and asymmetries is crucial to answering the question of why certain human societies and interactions are characterized by freedom, whereas others are burdened by unfreedom – and, furthermore, why certain free human societies over time become increasingly less free, as has occurred in the United States since its founding. Exploring these questions shall lead us to a crucial practical consideration: how to reverse the onslaught of unfreedom – both in a general political setting and in relationships among private individuals.

What Power Is

            Power is the ability to intentionally affect and influence the behaviors of other human beings. The manner of this influence can take a variety of forms. A persuasive rational argument is an instrument of power insofar as it alters the mindsets and behaviors of others. The ability to reward others with one’s property or praise is an instrument of power, as is the ability to punish another by withholding one’s property, displaying one’s displeasure, or using violence or the threat of violence.  It is clear that power as such is neither good nor evil, neither legitimate nor illegitimate; particular exercises and manifestations of power, on the other hand, can be good or evil depending on the nature of the act and the circumstances in which it is carried out.

Soft Power

            Soft power is any form of power that ultimately relies on the genuine consent of the individual on whom the power is exerted. Persuasion is a form of soft power, because the person who hears an argument always has the option to voluntarily accept or reject the argument; if he rejects the argument, the exercise of soft power has failed. Any kind of economic power is also a form of soft power. An individual may attempt to influence another’s behavior by offering particular payments or contributions or by threatening to withhold such payments or contributions. But the recipient ultimately has the choice of rejecting the economic arrangement altogether, if he finds its terms so unsatisfactory as not to perceive an offsetting benefit to adhering to them. If he rejects the economic influence of another, an individual will not by deprived by that other of anything that he already owns; he will remain free to pursue the upkeep of what he already has and the acquisition of more by other means.

            A further form of soft power is acting as a role model to others. A role model acts in particular ways – primarily for himself – but also with the intention that others emulate his example. Once again, whether an individual chooses to emulate another or not is entirely within his control. Role models can be productive or virtuous individuals who inspire others to achieve higher levels of productivity or virtue. But role models can also be value-neutral – such as most fashion designers – or even detrimental to productivity and virtue – such as the idols of the contemporary public-school youth culture.

Hard Power

            Hard power is the ability to deprive another individual of what that individual already has or owns without that individual’s consent. Hard power is therefore the power to harm another in his body, his liberty, or his property. The ability to inflict any kind of physical violence is a form of hard power, as is the ability to expropriate another person – either at gunpoint or through stealth. The threat of harm to a person’s body or property is also an exercise of hard power. When a robber puts a gun to one’s head and says, “Your money or your life,” the victim will lose something he already has, irrespective of which way he chooses. Had the robber not chosen to exercise his hard power, the victim would have had both his money and his life and would not have been forced to surrender the less valuable of the two.

            All forms of government regulation, taxation, intervention, and wealth redistribution are forms of hard power in the sense that they deprive individuals of either their property, their liberty, or – in cases of particularly oppressive governments – their lives without those individuals’ consent. When the government regulates, it forces individuals to choose which liberty they will lose – the liberty to undertake the economic action that is now forbidden or the liberty to remain free from prison. When the government taxes, it forces individuals to choose to retain either their money or their liberty. When the government conscripts, it often forces individuals to choose to either risk losing their lives in war or to lose their lives before execution squads.   

Symmetrical and Asymmetrical Power

            We can speak of symmetrical and asymmetrical power as a relationship that exists among two or more individuals. The issue of power symmetry depends crucially on the ability of individuals to inflict harm on one another.         

            It is essential to note that harm as discussed here is subjectively defined by the individuals in question – because those individuals’ subjective perceptions of what constitutes harm will determine what they see as the constraints of any given situation. For instance, an individual who despises his job and has enough money to sustain himself without it might not consider being dismissed from that job as a substantial harm – whereas another individual who has nothing but that job to support him and fears being unable to find another employment nearly as lucrative will consider a similar dismissal to be a colossal harm. The behaviors of these two individuals will differ accordingly.

            With these considerations addressed, we can now define symmetrical and asymmetrical power.

            Symmetrical power exists among individuals or parties either when no one among them can harm anyone or when everyone among them can harm anyone else to an equal degree. We shall call these two possibilities the no-harm symmetry and the equal-harm symmetry, respectively.

            Asymmetrical power exists among individuals or parties when some among them can harm some others to a greater degree than the others can harm them.  

Examples of No-Harm Power Symmetries

            There exist numerous forms of power – all of them forms of soft power – which do not translate into the ability to inflict harm. When these are the sole forms of power in existence, no-harm power symmetries can readily arise.

            Example 1. A multitude of scholars, each secure in his employment, exhibit a no-harm power symmetry when they engage in debate or any kind of intellectual interaction. None of scholar can deprive another of life, liberty, property, or the ability to work and develop his views in the future.

            Example 2. An exceptionally industrious worker might help others directly through his work or indirectly as a role model to be emulated. Thus, his industry is a form of soft power – but it is not a form of power that can deprive anybody either of property or of opportunities. If there exist several such productive individuals who compete amongst each other solely on the basis of who can produce the most or the best products, there exists a no-harm power symmetry among them. Neither producer can deprive the others of anything they own or of their ability to produce in the future. The less efficient producers might, of course, need to be willing to bear losses or support their work in the given endeavor by means of other work – but this is a choice left entirely up to them. Provided that none of the producers undertakes to actively undermine the work of the others, a no-harm power symmetry holds.

            Example 3. In an ordinary residential neighborhood, most inhabitants are in a no-harm power symmetry with respect to each other. None of them can substantively damage anyone else, and thus, when differences arise, they are settled via harmless forms of soft power, such as discussion and persuasion.

            Example 4. Students at an educational institution are in a no-harm power symmetry with respect to each other. The rules of the educational institution prohibit the students from bearing arms or engaging in physical violence; these rules are often stringently enforced. Furthermore, the educational institution does not permit some students to hold titular privileges over others or to use their superior wealth, intelligence, or academic performance to affect the conduct of other students in a manner not of their choosing. Of course, higher-performing students may often be used as resources by lower-performing students – but such arrangements are always arrived at through mutual consent and on mutually advantageous terms.

            Example 5. At an extensive marketplace or shopping mall, a no-harm power symmetry exists among the buyers and sellers. With numerous buyers and sellers, no single buyer is necessary for a seller’s business to succeed, and no single seller is necessary for a buyer to purchase the products which will satisfy his needs. Thus, a particular buyer’s refusal to buy or a particular seller’s refusal to offer suitable conditions for selling his product will not harm the other party to the transaction that did not occur. After all, on any day in any commercial area, there occur far more instances of consumers who ultimately did not purchase a product after considering it compared to instances of consumers who actually made a purchase. And yet the sellers do not complain and continue to invite buyers to examine their products – even knowing in advance that most of the buyers will purchase little or nothing.  

            The vast majority of human interactions in civilized contemporary Western societies exhibit no-harm power symmetries. Consider: why does a typical person in the West perceive no threat from the majority of people whom he meets on the streets or in the shops and whom he engages in conversation? They simply cannot hurt him to any appreciable degree, even if they wished to. They cannot kill him or rob him or prevent him from leading the life he wants – either because they lack the ability to do this or because their moral considerations prevent them from even viewing such courses of action as an option. No-harm power symmetries enable people to strongly favor only the positive, mutually beneficial interactions they can have and to leave each other alone otherwise. 

The Vulnerability of No-Harm Power Symmetries

            No-harm power symmetries, however, can readily be threatened as soon as any form of potentially harmful power – be it hard or soft power – emerges. The vulnerability of no-harm power symmetries can best be expressed by the following principle.

Power-Symmetry Principle #1. A no-harm power symmetry disappears with the emergence of one individual able and willing to inflict harm.

            For instance, in a school where students are not allowed to carry arms, the moment one student illegally smuggles in a weapon and uses it, a massacre ensues – because the other students have no means of resisting the assault. Violent criminals can inflict a similar amount of damage to residential neighborhoods and shopping centers where most people are unarmed and incapable of defending themselves.

            This is not to say that a no-harm power symmetry is necessarily unstable or will devolve into something else. Whether this occurs depends on the ease with which harm may be inflicted as well as the willingness of individuals in the situation to damage one another. Often it may be extraordinarily difficult to harm another person – especially if he can run faster, hide well, have security devices on his home, and possess enough material resources to shield himself against economic harm. Furthermore, most individuals do not harbor malice toward most others and do not wish to even intentionally harm others for their own benefit. For even the few who are driven by such motivations, internal moral principles may still restrain them from acting to hurt others.

Examples of Equal-Harm Power Symmetries

            All forms of hard power and some forms of soft power entail the ability to inflict harm upon others. Some forms of soft power can be examined in this respect if they entail the ability to inflict harm on individuals in terms of depriving them of opportunities – such as economic rewards, employment, education, and services. But the mere existence of these forms of power is no guarantee that anyone will actually be harmed. With an equal-harm power symmetry, nobody inflicts actual harm on anybody, for fear that harm subjectively perceived to be of an equal degree will be inflicted on the aggressor in return.

            Example 6. Mutually assured destruction between the NATO powers and the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War is a classic example of an equal-harm power symmetry, where each side had the ability to inflict the greatest harm imaginable on the other – and therefore neither side seriously damaged the other. Neither the United States nor the Soviet Union dared to engage in direct conventional war against the other for fear that such a struggle might escalate into a nuclear war that would destroy all of civilization.

            Example 7. A community in which each resident owns and can use a firearm exhibits an equal-harm power symmetry. No individual will dare aggress against any other for fear of losing his life. This has been shown to be one of the most effective arrangements for deterring private crime as well as government aggression – since there is only so much a government can compel people to do before their patience wears out and they refuse to comply further. If the population is extensively armed, then the government cannot simply punish refusal to comply with overwhelming force, for fear that its agents might actually fail in executing the punishment.

            Example 8. A normal employment situation exhibits an equal-harm power symmetry. Both the employee and the employer are bound by a mutual interest; the employee receives money in exchange for services rendered. If the employee is displeased with his compensation, he can choose to leave the firm and deprive the employer of his services. If the employer considers the employee insufficiently skilled or productive, he can dismiss the employee. A symmetrical employment situation is contingent on the availability of alternatives to both the employer and the employee. For an equal-harm power symmetry to exist, the employee needs to be able to find other ways to earn a living – though they do not need to be in even a remotely similar occupation and do not need to compensate him in the same manner and to the same degree as his present employment.  The employer needs to have the ability to find other employees or means of getting done the work he desires – or otherwise to adjust his priorities without substantial harm to himself.

            Example 9. A government characterized by effective checks and balances is in a state of equal-harm power symmetry. Each branch of government can be restrained in some manner by the other branches – and all branches can be restrained by the people, whereas the majority of the people can be restrained by agencies within the government from violating the rights of minorities. This prevents any branch from usurping the entirety of the political power and imposing tyranny on the people; it also prevents an angry mob from disposing of individuals whom it dislikes. Majorities and minorities alike are deterred by checks and balances from inflicting harm on individuals outside of any given group.

            Example 10. A family, established within a proper legal framework, is one of the most effective ways to bring about an equal-harm power symmetry. In a marriage, the conduct of either party could easily destroy the entire relationship, but in a marriage rightly constituted, each party has this power and so neither engages in it.  The good will on one’s spouse is earned by displaying good will in kind – by making it unambiguously known that one will honor all the components of marriage, material and emotional, provided that one’s spouse does the same. Similarly, a proper relationship between parents and their children constitutes a equal-harm power symmetry. The parents provide their children with a material standard of living as well as with an emotional and intellectual upbringing – but they cannot choose to altogether deprive their children of this support, because both the law and their parental sentiments forbid it. They can, however, modify their children’s upbringing and privileges based on the children’s conduct. The children, on the other hand, can choose to be cooperative or rebellious, based on their perception of how their parents treat them. In a proper family relationship, the children will choose to cooperate in exchange for a materially, emotionally, and intellectually fulfilling level of support from their parents.

The Stability of Equal-Harm Power Symmetries

Power-Symmetry Principle #2. Equal-harm power symmetries, once established, tend to remain and to exhibit immunity against disturbances. The stability of an equal-harm power symmetry is directly proportional to the number of parties it involves.

            As long as the balance of power among the parties involved in an equal-harm power symmetry remains the same, no harm will come to any party from any other. Over time, however, it is possible for the power of some to increase and the power of others to diminish. These disturbances, however, can often be addressed by the symmetrical arrangement. If in a community where all individuals distrust one another and own swords, one purchases a gun, the others can respond either by purchasing guns of their own or exercising additional vigilance with regard to the original gun owner. If in a government, one branch appropriates a new power to itself, the other branches might either attempt to exercise a veto over that power or to equip themselves with powers to counterbalance the power in question.

            The more distinct parties partake in the equal-harm power symmetry, the easier it becomes to address the acquisition of additional power by any one. If one party in a power symmetry of fifty acquires a small additional advantage, the other forty-nine parties combined still have more than enough power to prevent harm to themselves. On the other hand, in an equal-harm power symmetry between two parties, a substantial power advantage gained by one may readily destabilize the symmetry. But even here the symmetry is not doomed to devolve, provided that either the second party quickly acquires an equal additional increment of power or the newly empowered party exercises its forbearance out of moral considerations or due to its expectations that its power advantage is temporary and it may likely find itself in the circumstances of its counterparty at some time in the future.

Power Asymmetries

Power-Symmetry Principle #3. The only circumstances in which some individuals actually inflict harm on others are circumstances in which a power asymmetry is present.

            Only if an individual with power to inflict harm believes that the victim of the harm he inflicts cannot retaliate to an equal degree will an actual infliction of harm take place. Power asymmetries are thus the root of all violations of individual liberty – and, furthermore, of all the damage that men have ever inflicted on other men. In a world of completely symmetrical power in all respects, all human beings would live in complete harmony with one another and would only struggle against the threats posed by the natural world.   

            Thus, in our effort to bring about liberty and to render it permanent, as well as to generally free individuals from vulnerability to others’ ability to damage their lives, it is essential to understand the dynamics of asymmetrical power, how it comes about, how it grows, and how it is manifested in the world.

Examples of Power Asymmetries

            We shall first analyze how the ten instances of power symmetries that we described previously could become asymmetrical as well as the damage that could result from such asymmetry. Then we will examine several additional examples of power asymmetries.

            Example 1. The no-harm power symmetry that exists among scholars within a civilized university and scientific community disappears once the basic tenets of academic freedom and toleration for free speech are violated by the university administration or the scientific community at large. If a scholar can be censored or even dismissed on the basis of the content of his ideas, then scholars who disagree with him will be able to wield this power as a club with which he can be either compelled to change his views or lose his livelihood and opportunity to engage in intellectual discourse. Any manner of campus speech codes or attempts to punish “heretics” – be they Giordano Bruno in 1600, Galileo in 1633, or global warming “deniers” in 2007 – create a power asymmetry using which politically favored views can crush their opposition without the need for rational discourse and debate. Indeed, a genuine search for truth cannot persist in the face of a power asymmetry, because the process then becomes rigged  in favor of the side with the greatest ability to damage the people who propagate ideas opposing its own.  

            Example 2. When several producers compete and one of them ceases to attempt to best his rivals by producing more and instead tries to undermine them so that they will produce less, a power asymmetry emerges. Assuming that initially no producer was capable of hurting any other and only one producer obtains this ability, that producer is now able to sabotage, expropriate, and threaten his rivals. How can this be done in the real world? If one producer obtains the favor of government and enshrines his own interests in the form of a regulation, prohibition, or legal monopoly, all the others are prevented from producing to the same extent as they had before. And what are government economic restrictions and grants of special privilege to firms but a veiled undermining of some competitors by others?

            Example 3. In a residential neighborhood where no person has the ability to harm another, the no-harm power symmetry disappears as soon as one individual able and willing to inflict harm manifests himself. This individual will be armed – irrespective of whether the law allows it or not – and he will attempt to exert force on the residents. If none of these peaceful citizens are able to protect themselves, the private criminal clearly wields asymmetrical power over them.

            Example 4. The no-harm power symmetry among students at an educational institution disappears once speech codes and student-managed courts are introduced. These impositions give some students the power to unilaterally harm others, either by claiming to be “offended” by those others’ self-expression or by directly determining whether or not a particular student ought to be punished for some transgression – real or pretend. Student-managed courts have more often than not been kangaroo courts, instruments of vengeance against peers whom the students in control of this “legal” power disliked. They lack both the standards of due process and the presumption of innocence that characterize genuine justice systems.

            Example 5. While a no-harm power symmetry holds among many buyers and sellers, a power asymmetry exists in a genuine monopoly or monopsony situation. Where there are only one buyer and multiple sellers for a particular good or service, each seller is captive to the buyer’s terms. Similarly, the presence of a multitude of buyers and a single seller implies that the seller is able to dictate terms on his customers. Of course, the possibility of either scenario occurring depends on the presence of substitutes for the good or service in question. The power asymmetry of monopoly or monopsony is greatly mitigated or eliminated altogether if there exists a widespread perception that a given product could be replaced by others similar to it. Since perceptions of substitutability are subjective (and substitutability itself is a tremendously broad concept – as two physically unrelated goods may be substitutes because they compete for the consumers’ money), it is possible to escape a monopoly/monopsony power asymmetry by simply reconsidering one’s preferences. Indeed, it has rarely – if ever – happened that a free-market sole producer of a particular good or service has greatly diminished the well-being of consumers.

            On the other hand, if a particular good is a genuine survival necessity – such as water or health care, and a monopoly on the provision of that good exists, then it is impossible to mitigate the effects of such a power asymmetry by changing consumer preferences. But monopolies over necessities never occur in a free market – where necessities, because they are in such high demand, always attract a large number of diverse providers. Indeed, virtually all monopolies over necessities have been either granted or directly assumed by governments. Today, governments in most municipal areas hold monopolies over the vital provision of water, and governments in most Western countries hold monopolies over health care. That is a power asymmetry that cannot be altered without changing the institutional arrangement, for a person cannot wish away his thirst, and a cancer patient does not have access to substitutes for cancer treatment. 

            Example 6. Imagine what would have happened during the Cold War if one side had nuclear weapons and the other did not – all other things equal. The side with nuclear weapons would be able to by that very fact dictate its terms to the other side and insist on unconditional obedience. Presumably, seeking to avoid a nuclear holocaust, the side without nuclear weapons would have consented to the imposition rather than risk hostilities – and the Cold War would have ended, at least in the event that the side with nuclear weapons could ensure that the other side would not obtain them. The power asymmetry would then have resulted in the global hegemony of the side with nuclear weapons.

            Example 7. The equal-harm power symmetry in a community where every resident owns guns will be destroyed if the government begins to forcefully disarm the residents. One of two possible power asymmetries can result when the right to bear arms is infringed. Either the population will become entirely disarmed and the government will not have the resistance of the people as an obstacle to enforcing its impositions, or – as happens more frequently – only a part of the population will become disarmed – namely, the law-abiding part. The people who least respect the law will remain in possession of weapons and will be able to wield asymmetrical power over the honest, law-abiding citizens. Gun control policies make crime more lucrative by establishing a power asymmetry between criminals and everyone else.

            Example 8. The equal-harm power symmetry of normal employment relations disappears when either the employee has no other opportunity open to him but his present job – and the employer knows it – or the employer is somehow prevented from dismissing an employee who fails to deserve his pay. The clear sign of employers wielding asymmetrical power over their employees is any manner of compulsion to work without pay – as happens in certain firms that force their employees to work beyond their scheduled times while failing not only to provide overtime pay but to provide pay in general for the extra time worked, despite contractual stipulations to the contrary. Employees who have any alternatives comparable to the job in question will not long agree to such terms. But if they remain at their current job, they must think that despite the compulsory unpaid work, their current arrangement is superior to anything else they could find. Nonetheless, the power asymmetry enables certain employers to engage in a clear violation of contract – a violation which is unlikely to be redressed, as the legal costs of doing so would far exceed the overtime pay of which the employer deprived his workers.

            For an employee to wield asymmetrical power over an employer, he must be in a position to demand more pay than his work alone merits. Typically, this is obtained by means of labor unions aided by closed-shop and union-shop laws which exclude non-union members from competing with unionized laborers. If they are fully voluntary organizations with whom the employer may choose not to deal, labor unions cannot long protect incompetent employees from dismissal. But because of the disproportionate power of labor unions in today’s legal system, we can readily observe absurdities, such as General Motors’ maintenance of thousands of workers who do absolutely nothing on its payroll – a condition imposed by the union to which these workers belong. 

            Example 9. Any government in which some part is not checked by another part exhibits a power asymmetry that will be increasingly exploited to give some people a vast degree of control over others. While the officials who are privileged by the power asymmetry remain benevolent, tyranny may be postponed for a time – just as a benevolent despot might leave his subjects alone and permit them to prosper for the duration of his reign. But an unchecked government becomes highly lucrative to those who are not benevolent and who would use it to enrich themselves at others’ expense. Thus, over time, detestable characters will assume a disproportionate degree of control over the government – using the latitude given by their offices to exercise arbitrary power over everyone else. 

            The great experiment of the United States Constitution provides the clearest historical demonstration of this tendency. Despite their best intentions, the framers of the Constitution failed to fully check the powers of government. They gave Congress the vague power to “regulate interstate commerce,” which has gradually become construed as a power to regulate anyone and anything. Similarly, the Constitution’s “necessary and proper” clause has been interpreted to justify whatever actions politicians deem expedient for fulfilling their personal goals and priorities. The Constitution also failed to clearly define the powers of the Supreme Court and to impose compelling limitations on its activities. Thus, the decisions of the Supreme Court have increasingly come to be regarded as the final word on any given matter – immune to all challenges by other political branches and by the people themselves. The power of the U. S. government today is greatly asymmetrical to that of any private individual and even the population at large. The government grows and becomes increasingly intrusive, despite most citizens’ clear dislike of these tendencies.

            Moreover, the American Founders’ extreme aversion to democracy as a system inherently hostile to individual liberty has been replaced by a nearly universal reverence for the will of the majority – a kind of “divine right of elected representatives” which posits that any person with the support of 51 percent of the voters can do no wrong. The predominant legal consensus of our times holds that any individual freedom or possession can in principle be voted away by enough people. Without even the recognition of the concept of unalienable individual rights as a restriction on collective action, a vast power asymmetry exists between majorities and individuals.

            Example 10. The way to destroy an equal-harm power symmetry in a family is to enact no-fault divorce laws. No-fault divorce laws give a morally unscrupulous spouse asymmetrical power over his or her partner. Under no-fault divorce, one partner can initiate proceedings against the other without that other’s consent – and judges are not allowed to question the reasons for the divorce. Thus, the partner against whom the proceedings are initiated can be blatantly expropriated without having had any input in the matter. A loving, honorable spouse would never do this, but an exploitative spouse will.

            On the other hand, a prohibition on all divorce likewise creates a power asymmetry in favor of the less moral party in a marriage. If a spouse within a marriage that cannot be dissolved wishes to commit adultery or even physically abuse his or her partner, such treatment may continue with impunity.

            The only institutional approach toward divorce that is compatible with maintaining an equal-harm power symmetry within a marriage is consensual divorce, which allows for the dissolution of a marriage only if there occurs some manner of abuse or breach of contract – or if both parties agree to the divorce of their own free will.

            Likewise, between parents and children, an equal-harm power symmetry is absent whenever the law does not protect the individual rights of children. In past eras of history, when many fathers had the legally recognized power of life or death over their offspring, tremendous power asymmetries existed between generations in a family. Today, mothers hold a similar power of life or death over their unborn children. The legality of abortion renders the unborn child one of the most powerless entities today; such a child can be killed, and no one is permitted to resist the killing. Indeed, the U. S. government funds such killings and protects organizations that actively encourage them.  

Power Asymmetries in Our World

            Example 11: Taxation. The glaring power asymmetry of taxation can be recognized by simply examining what taxation is. The government takes a certain fraction of a person’s income or existing property – and he from whom this money is taken has no ability not to give it. If he refuses to pay, he can be imprisoned or have his property confiscated. He cannot even set conditions on the use of his money. Nor can he – by electing different government officials – substantively reduce his tax burden; often, his only realistic choice is between a candidate who will raise his taxes substantially and a candidate who will raise them by a slightly smaller amount.

            Thus, under taxation, the government decides how much money to take from an individual and what that money will be used for. The individual has no input in the manner, and his only safe choice is to hand over the money. Surely, a government possessing such a tremendously asymmetrical power cannot be expected to restrain itself in other instances. Surely, a different way can be devised to fund the operations of a government without giving the government such grossly asymmetrical power over the very people whose rights it is supposed to defend.

            One way to remedy the power asymmetry of taxation is to render all contributions to government voluntary and give those who contribute a number of votes proportional to their contributions, as I explain in “An Outline and Defense of a Properly Limited Government.” Another approach is to enable the government to accumulate and invest a surplus large enough that the interest on the surplus alone suffices to fund the government’s operations. I describe a means of attaining this goal in “A Plan for Cutting Big Government.”

            Example 12: The Global Warming Scare. Why, despite the findings of hundreds of expert climatologists to the contrary, do panic-level claims regarding the dangers of anthropogenic global warming persist? Because a dramatic power asymmetry exists between those who propagate the global warming alarmism and those who challenge it. The propagators are supported by the influential, well-funded United Nations, numerous politicians such as Al Gore, and a myriad of energy companies who would hope to use the resultant “cap-and-trade” schemes to enrich themselves while anti-global warming environmental regulations create barriers to entry for their potential competitors. The global warming skeptics, however, only have the evidence on their side. But when the funding for scientific research and the popularization of scientific discoveries are controlled by an asymmetrically powerful group with a political agenda, evidence is not enough and the truth does not necessarily win out in the end. Only a comparably powerful network of institutions committed to the defeat of the global warming alarmists’ agenda can avert the damage they would wreak.

            Example 13: Public Schools. In public schools, a severe power asymmetry exists between the parents and the teachers. The teachers’ jobs are typically unionized, and they are protected by their unions against dismissal for virtually any reason. A parent scandalized over what a teacher is doing to his or her children cannot, by complaining, hope to get the teacher dismissed or even to change how the teacher behaves in the classroom. Furthermore, a parent with children in a public school often cannot move his or her children to a private school – since government schooling has crowded private schools for lower and middle income children out of the market, and many parents cannot afford the more expensive upscale private schools.

            On the other hand, public school teachers can and frequently do impose demands on parents of the children they teach. With many young children, public school teachers have threatened to accuse their parents of child abuse unless the parents consented to give the children behavior-altering drugs. In some countries – such as Germany – parents who attempt to home-school their children can be arrested and deprived of custody. The German ban on home-schooling is a clear instance of asymmetrically powerful teachers’ unions using government as a means to protect their jobs from competition by knowledgeable parents.

The Growth of Power Asymmetries

Power-Symmetry Principle #4. An existing power asymmetry will grow over time unless acted on by an outside force.

            Any given level of asymmetrical power is unstable, as a slight power advantage by one party over another is a means for the more powerful party to acquire yet more power – often at the less powerful party’s expense. Without the involvement of yet other external parties, the asymmetry will widen until it leads to complete domination of one party by the other.

            This principle explains the consistent growth of the United States government over the past seventy years – irrespective of who has been in charge or what principles politicians have espoused. The asymmetrically powerful government institutions, especially those established during the New Deal, have used their existing powers to appropriate still others and thereby to ease the task of appropriating yet more powers in the future.

            Clearly, the government has failed to check itself from within, and  businesses – far from  being a counterbalance to the power of government – have increasingly come to feed at the government trough and trade political contributions for regulations, subsidies, exemptions. and competitive barriers in their favor. The government will continue to grow – and to attract the lobbying of special interest groups representing elements of the general population – unless some outside force mitigates the currently severe power asymmetries between the government and private individuals.

The Necessary Outside Force

            The outside force required to halt and reverse the growth of government cannot be found in any institution existing today – as all such institutions are more or less dependent on government favors for their survival. But such an outside force has existed in past eras and acted to balance the power of government. European monarchies did not become totalitarian like Oriental despotisms because a powerful aristocracy existed to check the kings’ power. In England during the 18th century, the power struggle between the king and the Parliament – the aristocracy’s seat of power – placed government in a de facto gridlock, thereby enabling sufficient individual freedom for a commercial and industrial revolution to emerge. Later during the 19th century, the aristocracy – having wrested power from the king – faced a new challenge from a rising class of self-made industrialists. The equal-harm power symmetry arising from the struggle between the aristocracy, represented by the Tory Party, and the industrialists, represented by the Liberal Party, kept Britain economically free until the aristocracy began to impose piecemeal economic regulations – allegedly to protect workers but truly to disempower an emerging group of rivals. It was the political heir of the Tories, the “conservative” Winston Churchill who cemented the victory of the aristocrats in Britain with his establishment of a comprehensive British welfare state.

            The British aristocracy ceased to be a restraining force on government once it itself obtained asymmetrical power over the government. In France, such transformations were even more evident and even more frequent. The bourgeois merchants and industrialists who overthrew Charles X during the July 1830 revolution were quick to impose protectionist measures via which the government shielded their economic interests from competition. When the “bourgeois monarchy” of Louis-Philippe was likewise overthrown during the 1848 revolution, the government of the Second French Republic sought to disempower the bourgeoisie – allegedly in the interests of the workers but truly for the benefit of collectivist economic planners like the socialist Louis Blanc.

            Historical evidence seems to suggest that any group which originally acts as a restraint on government becomes guilty of the very abuses that it had once sought to restrain once it obtains governmental power. The dilemma for preserving liberty, then, becomes one of maintaining a group that permanently checks the government without itself becoming absorbed into the government. For the sake of conciseness, we shall refer to such a group as the counterpower. Obtaining the reins of power, however, is a lucrative temptation, and one that few groups throughout history have been able to resist. Thus, counterpower groups, wherever they have formed, have tended to be short-lived. The political elites of the day have typically been able to forge an alliance with the elites of the counterpower using promises of sharing the coercive power of the state.

The Counterpower of the Future

            To find a lasting counterpower to the government, it is necessary to search for large groups of individuals who would have no reason to seek government favors or to be appeased by promises of coercive power. These individuals would need to be capable of earning a living entirely without government assistance; indeed, they would need to perceive government as only capable of doing harm to their personal economic aspirations. They would find taxation, inflation, and regulation only burdensome – as such government actions would deprive them of wealth and inhibit their attempts to earn more of it.

            There is one means of earning income which can never be benefited by government action – making money on the Internet. The ability to systematically earn money on the Internet is extremely new; only during the past several years have sizable numbers of people been able to substantially supplement their incomes by working online. But the infrastructure for doing so has emerged at an astounding rate, and it can only expand in the future. Governments are seldom able to even predict the form in which opportunities for earning an income online will take – much less to regulate these activities. Furthermore, as entertainment industry associations like the RIAA and the MPAA – today’s equivalent of medieval guilds – are beginning to find out to their despair, even basic copyright regulations are virtually unenforceable online. If some online businessman should try to obtain economic protections from the government in the future, he will find that these protections are mere words on paper, having no practical bearing on Internet commerce. Most online producers – being among the more perceptive members of the population – will quickly recognize the futility of appealing to the government for special favors.

            Once enough people are able to earn a full living online, the structure of American society – and Western societies in general – will undergo a radical transformation. Without relying on working in a particular building or locale, the new online producers will find that they can live anywhere they want, provided that they can maintain access to the Internet. They will naturally drift toward areas where real estate values are low – away from cities, which have become nexi of government power, and into the country, where they can obtain vast houses and comfortable standards of living for a fraction of what they would spend in the cities.

            The effect of first hundreds of thousands and then millions of high-income Americans moving to the country will be to create a meritocratic American landed gentry, with all the virtues of the old aristocracies and none of the vices. Membership in this vast prosperous class will be open to anyone with the skills to earn a living and the desire to lead a comfortable lifestyle detached from the tumult and political controls of metropolitan areas. Thus, this particular aristocracy will not degenerate by placing the circumstances of its members’ birth above their personal merits.

            On the other hand, the high personal standards and cultural tastes of historical aristocracies will be magnified in the new landed gentry. Having cheap access to products of high culture – the arts, the sciences, and sound political and economic education – the new gentry will reject the crude mass-media culture that thrives on individual perceptions of insignificance. Instead, each of the new aristocrats of merit will have his own sizable domain to beautify and form in his image. Seeking to at least appear a good steward of his property, he will endeavor to show good personal taste and considerable autonomy in his beliefs and practices. He will not need the government to educate him, morally improve him, or aid him in managing his affairs. Indeed, he would be gravely insulted at any governmental attempt to interfere in his tightly interwoven economic and personal life. After all, if the government sought to wield its influence in his domain, he would no longer be master of it.  

            The educational influence of government will plummet as the new landed gentry refuse to send their children to the public schools. A vibrant alternative educational network of private schools, tutors, and home-schooling parents will compete with the public school system and cultivate an entirely different set of values: intellectual autonomy instead of conformity and obedience, frugality instead of a focus on consumption, long-term planning instead of living for the moment, and internal discipline instead of external control. Millions of people will be brought up to think that they simply do not need the government to improve their lives, since the government can only inflict harm on them – given their economic situation and means of making a living. Since the government will never be able to engage in effective economic protectionism on the Internet, this perception will remain justified for many generations at least. 

            Besides, who among the new landed gentry would wish to feed at the political trough of government – perhaps hoping for a minor political appointment or an indirect influence on an officeholder – when he could have the powers of a king over his own life and sizable property?

            On the other hand, the new landed class will remain politically active in its vigilance against governmental encroachments. After all, while the government could do the new aristocracy no good, it will still be able to inflict tremendous harm – and this harm will be resisted vigorously with all the extensive resources at the property owners’ disposal. If this counterpower of the future systematically wins its struggle against existing political elites, we will need not fear the emergence of a new political elite. The new aristocrats, having confined the government to its narrow proper role, will withdraw to their estates and live happily without exerting positive political power on anyone. The prestige of holding a government office will diminish dramatically, as senators, representatives, and presidents will come to be seen as little more than police sheriffs today. Government offices will become means of earning a moderate living by protecting basic individual rights; the real money and status will be found in the dynamic, ever-evolving private sector, where ambitious individuals will hope to earn enough money to purchase large estates of their own.

            Thus, a permanent counterpower like the one described above will serve as the outside force necessary to transform the current power asymmetry between government and individuals to a no-harm power symmetry between individuals and government and an equal-harm power symmetry among the population at large – as each of the new estates will have ample security to protect it, while the non-landed citizens will be allowed the full freedom to own and carry arms. 

            Only continued technological progress and the development of the accompanying economic infrastructure are necessary for an effective counterpower to the government to arise. Once this occurs, true liberty will be within reach.

G. Stolyarov II is a science fiction novelist, independent philosophical essayist, poet, amateur mathematician, composer, contributor to Enter Stage Right, Le Quebecois Libre,  Rebirth of Reason, and the Ludwig von Mises Institute, Senior Writer for The Liberal Institute, weekly columnist for GrasstopsUSA.com, and Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator, a magazine championing the principles of reason, rights, and progress. Mr. Stolyarov also publishes his articles on Helium.com and Associated Content to assist the spread of rational ideas. His newest science fiction novel is Eden against the Colossus. His latest non-fiction treatise is A Rational Cosmology. His most recent play is Implied Consent. Mr. Stolyarov can be contacted at gennadystolyarovii@yahoo.com.

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