Sunday, January 17, 2010


One of my favorite quotes about power is from Frank Herbert's Chapterhouse: Dune:

"It is not that power corrupts but that it is magnetic to the corruptible."

This is part of longer passage about the failings of governments:

"All governments suffer a recurring problem: power attracts pathological personalities. It is not that power corrupts but that it is magnetic to the corruptible. Such people have a tendency to become drunk on violence, a condition to which they are quickly addicted."

The theme is repeated elsewhere throughout the book:

"Power attracts the corruptible. Suspect all who seek it."


"We should grant power over affairs only to those who are reluctant to hold it and then only under conditions that increase the reluctance."

I recently read Iain M. Banks new book, Transition, and discovered this particularly eloquent statement of the same basic idea:

"Only people already riddled with the internalised special pleading and self-importance that too much power brings could even start to imagine that this might be in any way sustainable."

It the conclusion of this longer reflection on the problem of life extension and/or immortality for the "wise" and the powerful:

"The old and powerful never want to let go. They always think they're both profoundly indispensable and uniquely right. They are always wrong. Part of the function of ageing and dying is to let the next generation have its say, its time in the sun, to sweep away the mistakes of the previous age while, if they're lucky, retaining the advances made and the benefits accrued. It is an insane conceit. Power always drives to perpetuate itself, but this is a phenomenal extra distillation of idiocy. Only people already riddled with the internalised special pleading and self-importance that too much power brings could even start to imagine that this might be in any way sustainable."

These quotes bring to mind a number of current situations. There are myriad obvious examples of corruption among the powerful, but I'm especially struck by the applicability of these quotes to the appalling lack of term limits for elected officials AND the level of compensation enjoyed by such officials.

In my perfect world higher education would be freely available to all and would be a requirement for eligibility to vote. Those who chose to pursue higher education would also be required to repay their years of education in service work, for which they would receive a decent living wage. Those who serve well would be promoted to higher levels of authority -- some of them to governing positions, as representatives of their peers -- but not to never levels of pay (pay grade during service years would depend on number of dependents in the household). Once their terms of service were complete, they would be returned to the working population and would not be allowed to hold official positions again. If they were particularly passionate or motivated, they would be free to communicate their opinions to their representatives in government; they would have no official say (beyond their vote as an ordinary educated citizen, of course) in matters of state though.

OK. Now, dear readers, please start shooting holes in my utopian scheme so that I can begin work on plugging and repairing them.


Areophany said...

Very thought provoking post… to me coming up with speculative/alternative social systems is even harder than speculating about tech and science. KSR’s Mars trilogy is a grand example of how to do sociological SF right.

I don’t know about poking holes in your post, but here are some thoughts, intended in part to illustrate how my thinking spirals into hyper-complexity when I contemplate speculative social/political systems:

- Is power to be viewed only as a negative force? Can it be deployed for useful, beneficial purposes?

- Can useful distinctions be made among people who hold political power – e.g. are there meaningful differences between FDR and Stalin? Are all political figures simply evil and corrupt, with no distinguishing characteristics between them?

- Are power and hierarchy inherent features of human societies, hard-wired into Homo sapiens sapiens by by their biological evolution as primates? Can scientific findings on this subject provide guidance in the design of political systems, such as telling us which system features are more feasible or advisable than others?

- Is abuse of power confined only to those who hold official, governmental positions? What about accumulations of private economic power that give a few people huge control over the lives of others, and over governments?

- In your scheme, those who do service work to pay for their higher education “would be promoted to higher levels of authority,” some of these levels involving government. Does “would be promoted” mean some people would be given authority over others without an election? Who is doing the promoting, and how? What positions other than those in government might people be promoted to?

- Are you advocating that some or all governmental positions be filled by lottery, much as jury positions are filled in our society?

- Even if everyone eligible to serve in positions of authority or vote for such positions had a university education, no single person can know everything about every topic requiring a governmental decision. What provisions would be made to assure that people in authority in your scheme received quality advice and expertise about a range of subjects from a diversity of viewpoints?

- Wouldn’t term limits make a standing body of experts and record keepers and bureaucrats a necessity, to keep the government functioning as new and inexperienced decision-makers rotated into positions of power (this is pretty much how the executive branch of the U.S. government functions today; a change in presidential administration requires changeover in 3,000+ positions of authority, requiring a standing body of career civil servants to give advice/expertise to the newcomers)? How would one prevent the standing body of experts from accumulating too much power for themselves? Do we need term limits for unelected bureaucrats, too?

- Which positions in your scheme would be popularly elected, and which wouldn’t?

- How would the system you describe deal with the ability of extremely wealthy people and organizations to exert disproportionate control over government and society? Example: should heads of firms be required to stand for election by workers (e.g. the Mondragon Cooperative in Spain), or have term limits imposed on their time as head of the firm? Aren’t firms potentially at least as abusive towards citizens as is the case with governments (just go to a maquilladora in Mexico for an illustration)?

- How would a system such as the one you describe safeguard the non-voting population (those without higher education) against abuse and exploitation, such as violation of human rights that all people inherently possess, regardless of their talent or intelligence or beliefs?

ilorien said...

Areophany -

Thank you! This is exactly what I wanted... a list of problem or at least questions to help me push my thought experiment forward and force me to read up on all sorts of topics about which I know too little.

The follow-up to this post (and the responses to your questions) may take me a while, but I'll enjoy constructing it.

George Berger said...

Hi Ilorien--I am no political theorist, but what you write about holding office is a bit too vague. Will a system of rotation be allowed? According to you, NO. But why not? Well, compare your stuff with the detailed plan given by Edward Bellamy, in his "Looking Backwards." Related ideas were developed by the Dutch Marxist astronomer, A. Pannekoek (=pancake!!) in books that are now translated. I hear he (as a scientist should) developed this in great detail. the collection "Chomsky on Anarchism" has many helpful remarks. Disliking political literature (except in pixel form :) I'm no good as a reference. But see Wiki on Libeertarian Socialism.

ilorien said...

Thank you George. Yes, there are many problems and holes in my little ranting first-draft proposal, so I look forward to checking out the "pancake" and reading more Chomsky. I've read the Wikipedia article to which you refer. Very informative. I hope to return to this topic soon... once I've finished a few less interesting but more pressing projects.