Forms of Political Power
Given political power arises from the occasional need for society to act in concert, or for disputes to be resolved, or for justice to be dispensed, or for public works to be managed, it may be asked what form this power will take. One answer is that the form in which political power is manifested is dependent the idleness of society, and that the form of political power evolves along with society.
In the least idle societies, where most people are busy most of the time, it must be quite impractical for everyone to be engaged in the governing of society. Instead, in this circumstance, political power devolves upon a single individual, who alone determines what a society should do, and whose commands are unquestionable. In a division of labour, in which one person makes knives, and another makes bread, the task of this king is to make decisions which about the general functioning of society. Kingship is, in some senses, simply another trade. The king relieves his subjects of the burden of considering and deciding matters that concern them all, and for which they have little time and about which little experience. They bake the bread and haul the water, while he steers the ship of society.
In slightly more idle societies, in which people not quite as busy, more people are able to concern themselves with the exercise of political power. Instead of making decisions alone, kings may acquire a court of advisors in which the affairs of state are discussed prior to any final decision. While the king retains the final decisive vote, he is open to suggestion or to debate. He may delegate some tasks to his subordinates in the court. In this manner political power ebbs away from the king into the court surrounding him. The king becomes a chairman of a board of advisors, and a chairman who may be voted out of office. And so political power comes to be exercised not by a single individual with absolute power, but by an oligarchy of individuals each wielding something less than absolute power.
Where a society becomes still more idle, and much larger numbers of people become able to have a say in the running of their society, political power diffuses even more widely. Instead of an oligarchy of a few tens or hundreds of people voting among themselves on matters of state, the vote is extended to thousands or millions of people, perhaps even to every single member of society.
But this wider vote is one which elects the political oligarchy, which in turn may elect its chairman-president-king. The voters do not make the day-to-day decisions, but elect officials to perform these tasks on their behalf.
Direct democracy [?]
In yet more idle societies, in which most people are largely idle, and all are interested in the exercise of political power, it may be supposed that the diffusion of power would continue to widen. Rather than elect officials to act on their behalf, the voting population might gradually begin to make those decisions itself. Elected chambers would vanish, and the entire voting population would itself become able to enact laws, and determine the course of society, with only a few officials supervising the voting.
As social idleness rises, there is an ever-diminishing need for concerted action, for idleness-increasing public works. There is, in short, less and less that needs to be done. In the most perfectly idle societies, in which nobody has to do anything, there would be no need for concerted action, no necessity to resolve disputes, and no need for political power of any sort. Just as in the most perfectly idle societies there would be no bakers or potters, so also there would be no kings or state officials. And in the most perfect diffusion and dilution of political power, everyone would be the absolute master of their own life, with no authority standing above them, and with no authority over anyone else.
And so the political organization of society reflects the idleness of society. In the least idle societies, political power is necessarily concentrated in the hands of a single individual. But as society grows more idle, political power gradually diffuses outwards, first to a few people in an oligarchy, then to many more in a democracy, and finally and anarchically to everybody.
Political power always has the nature of a monopoly. While a society can have any number of bakers and plumbers, it can only have one king, or one government. And because it is a monopoly, it is liable to charge high prices, and deliver shoddy goods. If kings have historically been wealthy as well as powerful, it is because their monopoly on political power gave them many more opportunities to enrich themselves than were open to the average baker or butcher or farmer. And so, while the butcher and the baker resided in humble cottages, the king all too frequently inhabited extensive palaces.
And it was probably as much the possibility of amassing a fortune, rather than exercising power, which first attracted the court around the king. Political power, while concentrated in the hands of a single individual, or a small group, offered a fast track to wealth and idleness.
But as political power diffuses outward, these rewards diminish. And so this motivation must dwindle as a society becomes more idle, and political power more widely diffused in it. Fewer people seek political influence. And fewer voters bother to vote. In some ways, the diffusion of political power that comes with rising idleness is the manner in which the monopoly of political power is broken.
Also, as political power diffuses outwards, it must become increasingly indecisive. A single king can make a decision in a day, and an oligarchy after a week of consultation, and a democracy in a year of campaigning and voting - and an anarchic society can never come to any decision ever.
But it should not be thought that this process of political evolution always proceeds inexorably in one direction. Should the idleness of society fall, political power will devolve upon fewer and fewer people. Dictators or 'strong men' - people who can make quick decisions and get things done - are liable to emerge when social idleness falls.
And so it may be said that no one form of government is inherently superior to another, but rather that different forms of government are appropriate for different degrees of social idleness. It is not that monarchy or democracy or anarchy are competing forms of government, but rather ones that are more or less appropriate to social circumstances. For example, wars usually entail greatly increased exertions and privations, and consequently reduced idleness, and so it is appropriate that during wars single individuals emerge as energetic and decisive commanders. It would be a slow and feeble army whose generals had, democratically, to obtain the agreement of all its soldiers before advancing or retreating or digging in.
Author: Chris Davis
First created: 24 July 2003