Thoughts on the role of power: political versus economic : LUSENET : TB2K spinoff uncensored : One Thread

Here's an interesting essay on power. The author uses the term "liberalism" in the classic sense -- where it emphasizes freedom of the individual, limited government and individual rights.

from Essay

Power and Liberalism (Sept., 1995)

Tibor R. Machan

When the case for human liberty began to be made without reference to morality, in a value-free manner, one prominent feature of liberal societies was to be the diminution of political power. In our day, too, many champion liberal societies on grounds that the power of governments is limited, restricted, minimized, and so forth.

Critics of liberalism have never bought this line of defense. Marx, for example, made clear, in his posthumously published book Grundrisse (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), that this kind of liberty [the free competition of liberal societies] is thus at the same time the most complete suppression of all individual liberty and total subjugation of individuality to social conditions which take the form of material forces--and even of all-powerful objects that are independent of the individuals relating to them.[p. 131] Marx's point was that not only was the legal framework of capitalist societies -- contract and property laws -- a form of power and control over the lives of citizens, but these gave rise to such massive features as technological instruments -- factories, dams, highways, ships, and so forth -- which exert a great deal of influence over people's lives. So, for the critics the difference between liberal and non-liberal societies and their economic systems consist in who has power, not in whether power is exercised. A simple example will make this point clear.

In a free market the labor contract is usually drawn in such a way that the owner of a firm has the power to terminate the employment relationship. This is even referred to in some of the literature on political economy as "employment at will," meaning, of course, the will of the employer. So while government does not have the power to impose employment terms on the labor relationship, the firm does. So while state power may be limited under liberalism, the power of the firm, that is, those who legally own the property that can be improved by hired labor, is plenty extensive. Indeed, for critics of liberalism this power is more insidious because, they argue, the power of the state can be exercised rationally, while that of the unruly property owners cannot. As Marx puts it in the next sentence, "The only rational answer to the deification of free competition by the middle-class prophets, or its diapolisation by the socialists, lies in its own development." That development, of course, will lead to the abolition of capitalism and emergence of socialism.

How can the liberal answer this line of criticism without some recourse to values or moral judgment? It is not possible. The only way to adjudicate this dispute is by means of a discussion of whether the power the state versus that which property owners will exercise is morally or politically justified. In other words, should the state or the property owner have the authority to exercise power?

It is futile to deny that owners have and exercise power of sorts. Power is the ability to make what one wants come about. When a worker wants to keep a job but the owner does not want to employ him or her, the worker loses out, usually. (Of course, if the worker wants to quit, he or she will win, but that is not the usual situation since it is generally true that employers are able to find replacements more readily than workers can find new jobs on their own terms. Even when this is not the case, because of the assumed greater wealth of the employer, the worker's situation is deemed to be more dire.)

What is needed, then, is a determination of whether the property owner or employer has the authority to exercise power or whether this ought to belong to the worker or the state acting in behalf of the worker. May they justly invoke the force the government to back up this authority, thus making it a case of genuine power wielding?

This is where a theory of property rights and the consent to be governed on the basis of authorizing government to protect these rights enter the picture of political economy. If a firm is rightfully, properly owned by the legal owners, if the law of property and the resulting institution and enforcement of contract law are just, then the firm's power is not arbitrary or unjust, even though it is, of course, engaged in the wielding of power (which it may also misuse at times by, for example, firing people it should not). If, however, the law of property of liberal-capitalist societies is wrong, so that not those who in such societies de jure do but, instead, the workers de facto own the firm (because, say, their labor built it up), then the critics of liberalism, especially socialists, are right.

The issue is crucial. And liberalism needs theoretically to extend itself into this area of moral and political philosophy in order to give its political-economic system a chance.

The practical results, too, would be immense. If it could be shown to workers -- who are rational and can deal with the assessment of theories -- that the legal owners rightfully own their property in liberal-capitalist systems, they would not protest. Consider that many of those not obviously involved in capitalist endeavors but who nevertheless clearly benefit economically from their creative achievements, such as artists and scientists, have little difficulty in exercising the power they have over their creations (as when they set terms of trade in trading copyrights). When a Woody Allen protests that his films ought not to be colorized because, well, he does not want them to be, this is deemed to be perfectly OK, since it is, after all, his art that is at stake. Never mind that the broadcasters who would colorize them and the public who apparently prefers color movies to black and white ones, want something else. They lack the power to have their will realized. It is perhaps a little less easy to tell why a beautiful woman should have full authority over the benefits gained from her beauty, given that this beauty is not mostly her achievement. Liberalism needs to demonstrate that such benefits are rightfully owned by those who in law have title to it.

The point here isn't to spell out the answer to why liberal-capitalist ownership rights are justified. It is my view that its justification is akin to that of the justification of a woman's claim to govern the use of her body, even if it is (a) a very much desired body by many over whom she, therefore, has and can exercise some measure of power and (b) is not really fully her achievement to have the body she may have. (I intend nothing dualistic by the use of these terms.) The point is merely to indicate that without such a justification, relying solely on the greater or lesser exercise of power within different systems, the case for liberalism cannot be made. All systems of political-economy witness the exercise of power. The question is, in which system is such power exercised with greater moral authority. If I am the producer of the wealth with which I make an impact on society, then others who can feel this impact have no basis for complaint. If the talents I am born with, or the genetic composition, are indeed mine to use as I judge suitable, then the power I exert by this use is politically justified, even if not always necessarily morally wise. Am I like the influential novelist or painter whose reputation is earned, based on effort, talent and opportunity, even if it does give the author a greater role in shaping society than those possess who have produced or created less? If the author cannot be credited with and deemed to be the rightful owner of what he or she has done, then his or her greater role in shaping society is undeserved and other can belly ache about it endlessly. To whom should such power belong, then, given that it will be a factor in any system?

Tibor R. Machan teaches philosophy at Auburn University, AL.

-- eve (, July 26, 2000

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