Sunday, December 16, 2012

on power

Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power.
~ Abraham Lincoln

Thanks to some stimulating conversation on Speculative Non-Buddhism, I have been thinking a lot about the subject of power.  It seems to me there are three main takes on it.

There are those who view power as intrinsically naughty, as a destructive drive or appetite that, like Nietzsche’s “will to power”, becomes blind and dangerous ambition when left to its own devices.  On this view, power is apt to lead to the ruthless domination and subjugation of others unless it is curbed by an equal and opposing benevolent force like altruism or the “will to love” as in When the power of love overcomes the love of power the world will know peace (Jimi Hendrix).

There are those who, on the contrary, view power as a rather “good” thing but something that, like a natural resource, should be equally apportioned to prevent it becoming concentrated in the hands of a few and lorded over others.  From this perspective, power is not inherently bad; inequalities are.  That is why proponents of this view support the equal distribution of power by administrators who intercede like good parents divvying up the treats and toys equally for all of their children to enjoy.  

Life can be equal and fair, but it can also be equal and unfair.  Take a 5-year old girl that wants a Barbie for Christmas, a 7-year old boy that wants Lego, and parents that can only afford one gift each for their children.  Equality is not fairness.

My own (apparently unpopular) view is that that there are (inevitable) inequalities between us, and that the amount of power we have is just another one.  Of course, power disparities are particular in that they can be exploited and abused, but they are also particular in that they are indispensable to getting certain things done, like parenting.  

Power is only as good or bad as the person who wields it.