A Taxonomy of Power

leviathanI have lately found the question of power asserting itself to me with increasingly insistence. This is unfortunate, as I don’t feel any special qualification to answer it.

As a one-time (and still in the eyes of many) libertarian, my understanding of power went from sharply defined (or so I thought) to rather muddled. I read Foucault recently, thinking I might find one of the canonical takes on power of our times, but I was disappointed. As the ignoramus in that particular hermeneutic encounter, it was no doubt more my fault than his. Either way, I didn’t feel like I took too terribly much away that I hadn’t already encountered in conversations beforehand.

As usual, I find I cannot think properly without writing. Since wisdom is to be found in making distinctions, I’ll put together a taxonomy of power as I currently understand it.

The radical incompleteness of human understanding gives all arguments a speculative quality to them, no matter the confidence or competence of the author. In this case, I’ve neither confidence nor competence, so my taxonomy is very speculative indeed. I offer it as part of my own process of thinking this question through, but also in the hope that more knowledgeable people than I will find it, read it, and critique it.

Naked Force

The most obvious sort of power is the literal barrel of the gun, in the moment threat of violence. Libertarians tend to think of it in terms of coercing someone to do something, but of course it could just be exercising force for the pleasure of it, or to send people a message.

I think of the terrible moment in Pan’s Labyrinth when the captain is called to ask how they should handle a suspected rebel, and the captain smashes in the young man’s face with a bottle. The victim’s father has to watch, physically restrained by soldiers while it happens. Both victim and father are completely helpless against the numerical and physical power of the captain and his soldiers. That is naked force.

Less grotesquely, we may think of the mugger who extracts the bystander’s valuables from them at gunpoint. In each case the force is not just implied, but a very present threat, sometimes becoming a realized possibility.

The Implicit Threat of Force

When you’re driving, do you ever feel instinctively nervous when you see a cop car, even if you weren’t speeding? I know I do. When I don’t see any police cars, especially if I’m driving in an area I’m familiar with, I tend to go on mental autopilot to a certain degree. I may not be very attuned to whether I am 10 or 15 MPH over the speed limit. But when I know there is someone around who can fine me, or even jail me, for breaking the law, I suddenly become very focused on how fast I am going and had been going.

Police, by their very role, carry with them an implied threat of force. Those of us who are privileged enough not to have seen it turn into naked force sometimes forget this and risk a very rude shock.

The logic of deterrence demands that naked force be economized, used only to imply to those it is not used on that it can be, if they step out of line. In the law and economics literature, the whole point of the implied threat of force is to increase the expected cost of committing crimes below the expected utility.

Anarcho-capitalists often seem to think that it is possible to create purely voluntary systems without the implied threat of force. But none of the actual, historical systems I’ve seen described by them appears to meet this promise. There is always an implied threat of force, it may just not be from the law maker or the courts; it may be from other groups within the community who you will cease to be protected from, for instance. I’d be happy to be proven wrong but the implicit threat of force seems basic to all societies that have any concept of law or authority.

Libertarians often believe that the implicit threat of force is the only reason that people follow laws. I don’t think that’s the case, but I’ll get to that further down.

Bargaining Power and BATNA

From Mike Munger and our own Sam Wilson, I learned of the concept of Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA). This is the idea of what your next best option is, if an agreement is not arrived at. Disparities in BATNAs can become power disparities, depending on the situation.

This is a powerful way of thinking about, for instance, what many people object to about multinationals employing people in poor countries. When economists point out that such people end up earning several times more than the national average of those countries, this only fuels the argument further. Who is going to have the courage to stand up to an abusive or sexually predatory boss when it means risking a severe drop in income, in a country where a severe drop might mean the difference between a shot at middle class life and the poverty of the rest of the country?

Moreover, the employer is not in such a situation—if they fail to get an employee to comply, they can easily be replaced. Thus, the employer has little to lose from abusing their position and the employee has a lot to lose from resisting.

Munger argues that small BATNA disparities, along with a few other conditions (essentially the classical conditions of voluntary contracts as well as absence of regret) create a “euvoluntary” exchange as opposed to a merely voluntary one, in which power differentials may still play a big role. Nevertheless he argues at length that the merely classically voluntary exchange is still just, and believes that global trade has ultimately been more a force for good than otherwise.

I don’t intend to wade into that particular debate, I just wanted to flesh out the concept of bargaining power.


Most narratives of liberation center around the concept of conformity. Social pressure is seen as an insidious force which represses us, brainwashes us with all sorts of foolish superstitions, and keeps our authentic selves beyond our grasp. Conformism is something we need to be liberated from.

In practice, of course, the liberationists always develop their own norms which they enforce ferociously. Similarly, the Victorians had studied the taboos of tribal cultures, and convinced themselves that their society had overcome such primitive things. Naturally, these days we think of the Victorians as among the most repressed and conformist cultures that come to mind.

I think norm enforcement is deeply tied into the way we pass down and maintain language and other forms of cultural knowledge. I believe that the conventions that are created through norm enforcement are important starting places for any serious understanding of right and wrong. Just as we must become lingual before it is possible to become bilingual and beyond, so too are we unable to develop a moral compass and moral reasoning without first being introduced to a broadly accepted framework.

That is why I think normativity is an ineradicable feature of human nature. When reading Foucault, I could see two ways of reading his take on “the normal”. One was that it was a profoundly new thing, this drive to enforce the normal through power. I think that argument, if it is a correct reading of what he said, is simply incorrect. If all that he meant was that the rise of mass production, mass communication, and modern administrative government had big implications for norm enforcement—well, that’s hard to disagree with.

Nevertheless, I can see more than a few troubling aspects of norm enforcement. When we notice that we have been watched, we begin to think over how we behaved in front of the watcher before we realized they were there. The parallel with the traffic cop is intentional—it’s clear that mere observation has an effect on us, without the observer saying a word or even betraying anything nonverbally. This is why I sought Foucault in the first place, out of interest in his take on Bentham’s Panopticon, where inmates are perpetually under observation. As I said, I didn’t find what I was looking for.

It seems to me that the current online ecosystem is in some ways like a Panopticon in which the inmates are mostly watching one another. I am not the only one who drew that parallel or thought of Foucault, but Foucault was concerned primarily with the relationship between the state and mass society, through the metaphor of the guards and the inmates. Online, however, there are no guards—just random people and groups who occasionally enforce norms with a vengeance.

The online shaming phenomenon goes something like this:

  1. Take something that was said in a specific context, remove it from that context, and tailor it to appear as norm-violating as possible.
  2. Should this go viral, the accused norm-violator will receive a torrent of hatred and threats, as well as the annihilation of their good name in public. Often careers are derailed as a result.
  3. The one who presented them as norm-violator is then able to gain status among certain groups; it is not a general status but status among certain feminist circles, or certain conservative groups, or certain gamers.

Conflict between these groups plays out as a combination of attempting to increase the general status of their group-specific norms, while also attempting to frame rival groups as violating norms that are already broadly held.

Libertarians are, I think, more divided on the question of norms than progressives. A few years ago Adam Ozimek asked if calling for good norms was a libertarian or a conservative idea. I argued that participating in the the constantly shifting face of normativity was a crucial part of what it means to be free.

But there is no doubt that normativity is a kind of power. Unlike naked force and the implied threat of force, or even bargaining power, normativity isn’t about disparities among specific individuals per se. It’s much more distributed than that. Joseph Heath points out that the reason police are able to punish criminals at all is because most people hold conventional values and are largely law-abiding. Such conventional values are transmitted through the mechanisms of normativity, and—according to Heath—most criminals are people who’ve managed to neutralize the bite of norm enforcement where their criminal acts are concerned.

What are the mechanisms of normativity?

Though the distinctions are useful, all of these forms of power are tied together in ways that are hard to separate. Often the hardest bite from normativity comes from a kind of permission—a permission to allow harm to come to those who have broken norms, to look the other way even when the naked force or the implicit threat of it would probably be considered unjust by most people. So long as they aren’t the ones using force or making threats, often people will wash their hands of it through some sort of “well, they should have known better than to break that norm” type logic.

This is, of course, precisely the reason that liberationists deplore norm enforcement, jumping straight for the very idea of it to bullying and lynching.

Everyday norm enforcement is far less serious than that, however. It has more to do with being selective in providing mutual support, or calling someone out in front of one’s peers—even for something as small as mispronouncing a word or misunderstanding its meaning, even for as harmless a “calling out” as light teasing—to give people reasons to try and properly understand norms as well as follow them. In the positive sense, this encourages people to master a language and participate productively in the life of a community. In the negative sense, it punishes outsiders for having funny accents or deviating in other harmless ways.

This all gets at something I think libertarians are often very bad at grasping. When a product is widely adopted, a business model widely successful, and a way of life broadly followed, at stake is what will be supported through the mechanisms of norm enforcement. When critics on the left complain about the growth of the suburbs, or Walmart, or critics on the right complain about the sexualization of modern media, the libertarian answer is “well everyone involved is free to choose where to live or shop or watch. What’s the problem?”

I’m not saying that’s wrong, but I would suggest there’s more to it than that. As Bruce Schneier put it, when everyone adopts Facebook, not being on Facebook can actually be somewhat socially isolating. Depending on how central Facebook becomes to your group of friends, it can be very isolating indeed. You can still chose not to be on Facebook, of course. But that doesn’t mean that Facebook usage’s status as a norm doesn’t have implications beyond whether you merely enjoy the interface or agree with their privacy policies or not.


This is one that my father’s book changed my perspective on. And then of course Gadamer went and changed it further.

The question of authority is a big one, possibly even bigger than the question of power. But I can’t imagine talking about one without at least mentioning the other.

Let’s think narrowly, for a moment, of the authority of the cop. As I said before, libertarians often believe that the cop derives his authority purely from the implicit threat of force, and occasionally making good on that threat. But remember Heath’s point—there are far too many normal citizens, and far too few cops, for that to work if the potential for naked force was all there was to it.

When authority has legitimacy in the eyes of the population at large, this is identical to saying that it is normatively binding. That is, the powers and responsibilities of those with roles of authority is assured in large part through norm enforcement. We believe you should do as cops say, so long as cops are following the law—which we view as legitimate because it was generated democratically.

The permission to do harm to norm violators frequently takes the form of permission to manhandle while making an arrest, to incarcerate, and to inflict the other punishments that modern criminal justice systems still retain.

The use of naked force by authorities, unless done in exactly the right way, often carries with it the risk of eroding their normative standing. Foucault covered this very well in his discussion of the old public executions, in which the desire to send a message was tempered by the risk that a crowd would riot. Such executions were done, then, in such a way to both display the continuing implicit threat of force again any considering committing the same crimes, but also in a way that minimized the likelihood that the crowd would be sympathetic to the criminal.

Someone who wants to maintain their authority thus tries to be prudent in the sort of power they exercise. Since having authority usually gives them the advantage in terms of BATNA disparities, a confident authority can usually afford to bargain in most cases to get what they want rather than threaten. Of course, the implicit threat is always there, but the credulous person who bargains with authority may be aware that acting on that threat isn’t in the authority’s interest, either.

Gadamer was of course mostly interested in authority in the sense of being an authority in one’s field. But, as Habermas emphasized, even here there are implications in terms of power. Consider the established, tenured academic who is in a position to ruin the career of a young associate professor without any clout in the field. It is true that the older professor established themselves by persuading others that they were highly competent and that their contributions to the knowledge in the field is valuable. But that does not make the young professor any less vulnerable to the clout of the older one.

Conclusion For Now

I haven’t much to say in terms of the implications of all of this. As I said, this was all largely a process of thinking it through, more than making any confident assertions. I will say that there seems to me a sense in which narratives of power and narratives of freedom are both true, but I haven’t plumbed nearly deep enough into the depths of that relationship to say anything coherent at this time.

Responses and critiques are, as I mentioned, extremely welcome. As well as suggested reading material.

14 thoughts on “A Taxonomy of Power

  1. edgar lores

    It seems to me that the post is only looking at the negative aspect of power — that of norm enforcement.

    As a citizen when I delegate power to authority, yes, I expect that power to be used for norm enforcement at the very least. But I also expect that power to lift the norm, to improve the quality of life at the communal level. The use of power should be transformational, its greatest use to grant the individual the best milieu for the fulfillment of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

    The difficulty with this ideation is the irreconcilable variability of men’s requisites for happiness. Some prefer to be without chains. Some are not permitted to live without chains. Some prefer to be chained. Some do not even know that chains exist.

      1. Ah, the dynamics of power. I understand. I was just thinking, in connection with the statement that power grows out of the barrel of a gun, that power can also grow out from the petals of a flower. The term “taxonomy” implies comprehensiveness, a coherent classification, which is the reason I raised the positive aspects of power. But please go on, and let’s not get bogged down. I certainly would like to read your elaboration.

    1. valkenburgh

      Also, couldn’t help having “Sam Slime” flashbacks in the middle of this. Did you know Tom is now Ben Carson’s economic advisory? Oh this world; oh our youth.

    2. Thanks! 🙂

      I read OHC last year and my reaction to it was similar to the first time I tried reading Bourgeois Virtues—the feeling that I was looking into something very big but couldn’t quite understand what it was. The last section is the easiest to grasp. But I feel like Oakeshott was drawing on traditions of thought that I have next to no clue about.

      You seemed to get a lot more out of it than that, though. But you probably read it more carefully than I did.

  2. Everyone reads Foucault and says “this looks like complete nonsense to me, but I guess that’s cause I’m an idiot.” Since no one can draw meaning from it, can we admit the possibility that it could be just nonsense? Obscurantism is not a synonym for profundity.

    We’ve already got a term for BATNA, it’s called opportunity cost. Unfortunately, opportunity cost is a misleading term and no one knows that it means BATNA. Here’s my attempt at explaining it: https://azmytheconomics.wordpress.com/2011/09/08/action-and-choice/

    I may comment more later, I’m about halfway through the article right now.

    1. To be fair, the whole reason I read it is because of someone very smart who I respect that has drawn a great deal of insight from Foucault and vouches for him. And when she explains him it definitely sounds insightful. I just didn’t see it in the one book I read.

      Thanks for reading and commenting though, I will definitely read your post to try and get more headway on this subject 🙂

      1. I hope you like it. I consider it one of the best posts I’ve ever written, even if it hardly gets any hits. I try to lay out a fundamental framework for thinking about human action.

        I’ve never had someone able to explain Foucault to me, and have just tried to read it myself without any support, so perhaps I’m missing crucial prerequisites. If there were a reading group or guide, I would be willing to give him another shot.

      2. Might be a case where reading supplementary stuff is better than trying to tackle him directly, at least at first. But in any case there are other thinkers out there, so I’m just gonna give them a look instead for now.

    2. I think you’re missing the point of BATNA, which is not about the cost to the person, but the difference between such costs of each person at the negotiating table. The employer-employee example tried to make that clear; there’s an obvious disparity there.

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