The Limits of Power
Or why brute force do not solve things
When I was a child, snakes filled me with dread. I was told of the venomous type that killed with a single bite. The first snake I learned was the cobra with its famous hood.
That was quickly eclipse by the Black Mamba. Their non venomous cousins were no saints as they could kill by constriction. The scary part was how they could swallow their prey whole. The python was even featured in a children’s book.
Except that there were many myths with regarding snakes. Mostly, they are a lot more scare than I expected. Once I started wildlife photography, I discovered that snakes are as rare as a hen’s teeth. Those snakes that I spotted were often slithering away from me. The man killers and man eaters all wanted to stay in their continent or in the jungle. On the rare occasions that the snake was willing to be photographed, the models were clearly “anorexic”.
Once I developed a joy for reading, I found out about the nemesis of the Cobra. The Mongoose. All an animal needed to be was to be faster than the predator. Then it would be have the upper hand and the predator became the prey. That sounded like the ideal defence. The last words in nature’s arms race. It also did not hurt the Mongoose to have a failsafe by being immune to snake venom.
Over time, I discovered the ultimate bane of the animal kingdom. It was the Honey Badger. It could fight off bigger apex predators like lions. It could ignore the quills of the porcupine. It is also almost impervious to spears and arrows. YouTube is full of videos of their exploits. Outsmarting humans or fighting off other animals. The Honey Badger’s other weapon is a literal stink bomb which ensures that its predators do not come out of the encounter smelling like roses.
You and What Army?
So the Honey Badger is pretty indestructible. Yet it is still limited by what it can sink its teeth into. This is the limit of hard power. The ability to coerce others. The power to be a pain in butt. Everybody else learns to stay out of range of the stick (or sharp teeth). Employ more people with sticks? What is stopping people from turning those sticks against you? Even if you persuade all the stick holders to never turn against you, you will still need to feed the army. Found a colony of carrot farmers happy to accept your rulership?
This brings me to the main story. Why power is so limiting. Everybody needs a helping hand. At this point, people intoxicated with power often fantasize about slaves. Leaving aside the moral argument about keeping slaves, there is a constant problem with slaves. Take ants. They are the epitome of both hard work and team work. Yet when they are kept as slaves by other ants, they keep rebelling.
There is a concept called soft power. Instead of using coercion or payment, you merely convince or seduce the other party of your cause. It is how McDonalds has spread around the world without forcing their products down anybody’s throat. Some people have stated that religion is a form of soft power. I beg to differ. Religion often uses its ability to exclude certain groups of people. The main character of soft power is its ability not to arm twist¹. There are no guilt trips or social exclusion.
There are a few downside of using soft power. It takes time. It also requires credibility on the part of the influencer. That is not counting the resources required to keep promoting the idea until it has a life of its own. People had to write articles or even research on that matter. At least that was the traditional way of exercising soft power.
If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.
In 2020, Elon Musk tweeted about how California was not a good place to build cars while suggesting that Texas was better. In 2021, Elon Musk has now tweeted that Texas power grid has reliability issues. If you had followed Elon Musk in 2020 and moved your business into Texas, the current electric crisis would spoiled your day. Elon Musk has made many failed predictions. Yet, his tweets are still as popular as ever.
Today, instant soft power is dependent on wealth. We know more about opinions of business leaders than about political leaders. Until Trump was kicked off Twitter, there were three billionaires that were on the list of top thirty most followed Twitter account. One of the billionaire tweets ran afoul with financial regulators. Another billionaire’s tweets were so problematic that his Twitter account had to be permanently suspended.
Winning a War
Starting a war is easy. Just send an army over the border. If the army is bounded by public opinion, just sway the public opinion with lies. But once the war was started, lies start to wear thin. If the people have not discovered the truth, their enemies will gladly enlighten them. It starts to be harder to cover up the lies.
Oh what a tangled web we weave when at first we start to deceive -Walter Scott in Marmion
It is possible to pay people to continue lie. If the leader is popular, apologists will be ready to step up to explain away the controversies. The public might even give the leader the benefit of the doubt. It is even possible to start a second war just to distract people from the first war. The leader might even be able to find scapegoats.
But soon people will start asking questions about the war that is supposed to be winning. Scapegoats will start becoming rarer. Supporters will soon lose heart.
¹ While I dislike the concept of upselling, the fact that I order using the automated kiosks makes it more difficult to ask me to upsize or if I want a dessert. Or at least do upsell or cross sell with a pleading face.