Democracy, more than anything, is a system designed to balance power, to ensure that no one accumulates too much.

This in turn is a difficult task, because power is a complex phenomenon. This complexity must be grasped if our efforts to manage it are to succeed.

By way of a definition, power encompasses the various means by which we get other people to do and to think what we want. As such, it is a tool of control, and it is disturbing that this definition is essentially the same as dictatorship. Of course, power can be used for the good, but this application is the exception, not the norm. In the real world, power is generally used to accomplish unethical ends.

The problems with power begin with the fact that to want it is natural. If you can increase your power, it improves your and your family’s prospects. However, it has no natural limit. Once people begin to accumulate power, their tendency is to want more and more.

This is seen most readily with government. Government has a clear set of responsibilities, and within reasonable boundaries it should limit its activities to these. But its natural inclination, meaning of our political leaders, is to be involved in – to have power over – everything.

There are different types of power, and it has different sources and uses. There is military power (by force); political (including through force and also other mechanisms, beginning with policy); legal (through the decisions of courts); economic (the buying of power); and also psychological (its acquisition via mental manipulation).

In addition, power varies in scale. Absolute power enables you to kill, and also, via psychological manipulation, to get people to commit suicide. (With the conditioning of Islamic extremism, individuals are persuaded to do both, to become “martyrs” and kill other people in the process of committing suicide.)

This type of manipulation undermines an individual’s free will to such an extent that it counters the instinct to survive, and also the ethic not to cause harm.

Another form of absolute power is to turn people into slaves. If we look around the world, we can see that many people, in a wide variety of circumstances, wield this power. There are still many different types of slavery, and also forms of human sacrifice.

Power is addictive. Once you get some, you never want to give it up. The basic reason for this is also psychological. Power changes your self-image. People with power learn to think of themselves as “important,” as VIPs. It becomes the central component of their identity. If they lose their power, they have to give this up.

One consequence of this is that such individuals, in their desire not to lose power, often become inflexible and intolerant.

A related reason why people do not relinquish power is that they may lose the proceeds of its associated financial corruption, which over a long period of rule could be quite substantial. More generally, power corrupts because it confuses the issue of purpose. Leaders act not only in the service of the public, but in their own self-interest, and this confusion undermines their decision-making.

A final aspect of power is that it is nothing if not used, or at least that is what most of the holders of power believe. If you have it, you have to let everyone else know that you do, and the best way to do this effectively, or so these people believe, is through the application of force.

There is a balance of power in society, between individuals and social institutions. For the public, since everyone is equal, we have, or we should have, equal power. In a democracy this power is channeled to the institution of government through the vote, but it is also manifested through dissent, and in rare cases, where elected leaders renounce democracy and become dictators, even open revolt.

Other institutions have power as well. Religions, corporations and the media all represent concentrations of power. The problems that they cause reflect different ways in which they abuse their power.

But, we do retain the final say. We can vote in new officials, leave a religion, and refuse to buy corporate and media products.

The balance of power in society also depends on two additional principles. The inheritance principle for political power says that political positions should not be passed from father to son. Dynastical monarchies are no longer acceptable, although a few remain from the world of political dictatorship such as the passing of power in North Korea from the “Great Leader” Kim to his son Kim Jong-il.

The second principle, though, the inheritance principle for economic power, is not enforced. This principle says that the children of individuals with great wealth should not be able to inherit the bulk of their parents’ estates. Society has not yet demonstrated the will to impose this prohibition, and this effectively nullifies the first principle as well. Economic power can be used to buy political power. It is an inherently corrupting force. And political power in turn is used to obtain economic. For society to function well, both principles must be followed. Both political and economic power must be restricted, and they need to be completely separated as well.

© Roland O. Watson 2008