Balance of Power: Personal Power

by Sunni Maravillosa

I've been thinking a lot about power lately -- who has it, who's perceived to have it, how individuals get it and lose it -- and it seems to me that our society in general is missing a few crucially important ideas with respect to the concept. Even worse, many libertarians may be among the most blind to these nuances. I present as evidence some quotations commonly found on freedom-oriented web sites:

"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

"Those who have been once intoxicated with power . . . can never willingly abandon it."

"All men having power ought to be mistrusted."

With quotations like that to light the way, it's no surprise that many individuals who hold freedom-affirming principles have an almost automatic aversion to power. In one sense, this is appropriate. But in a broader context, it creates a means of enabling greater problems for (and among) ourselves, as well as difficulties in accurately communicating the value of liberty to others.

My Webster's dictionary has several definitions of power; the first one is, simply, "ability to do, act, or produce". The fourth definition is where things start to get dicey; it is "the ability to control others; authority; sway; influence". I doubt that any reasonable individual would have problems with the first definition; it's that "ability to control others" that creates problems, and thus earns libertarian disdain. But that's a fairly narrow definition of power -- one that could properly be labeled political power (keeping in mind that politics is a much broader concept than the electoral and legislative processes that most often come to mind).

The first -- and most important -- definition is really defining personal power. While there's a lot of overlap between personal and political power, especially under the boots of a state that attempts to act as individuals' parents, personal power is much too important to leave as an afterthought. That's precisely what I think many libertarian thinkers have done. Each fairly mature individual has a wealth of personal power at his command, both in handling himself and his interactions with others. (Personal power also influences political power, of course, but that's a topic I'll save for later.)

Power over yourself

Each person has personal power to exert over him- or herself. While that's obvious, I think many people fail to see the depths of power inherent in that truth. Beyond choosing the clothes one wears, the food one eats, and other fairly mundane things, this sort of power is about making important choices. Choices about how to be, as a person. Choices about how to think, what to feel and value, how to act. It's also about the choice to accept or reject the consequences of those choices.

While it's true that our genes instruct us about how to be, they are best thought of as a blueprint that provides for a range of actual outcomes. To varying degrees those outcomes can be shifted, if a person exercises the power to do so. If a person doesn't like being introverted, she can change that to some degree. Or, a person can choose to try to be more considerate of others -- or not allow himself to be taken advantage of; the list is very long.

Exercising this power to change yourself necessarily involves changing your actions and thoughts. Doing so can be difficult, but the field of self-help psychology is a testament to individuals' desires to do so (and amongst the heaps of sand therein one can find diamonds; those I consider diamonds include Wayne Dyer, Nathaniel Branden, and Albert Ellis). Like it or not, a person chooses to be positive or negative; to be "all talk" or to take action; to do another line of coke; or stay in an unfulfilling relationship.

Habits are nothing more than choices made so often they've become entrenched -- chosen without thought. As such, they can be exceedingly difficult to change, but they can be changed. Even though drug use can have a strong physical pull (a good example being weekend caffeine withdrawal headaches), "addiction" is often nothing more than placing responsibility for one's over-indulgence (meaning use that impedes one's ability to function) on the drug, rather than oneself. Similarly, much of what we think of as someone's personality is a complex interplay of patterns of choices; it's therefore more malleable than many individuals like to think.

To the degree an individual sees himself as a victim -- of another person, of "the system", of forces outside his control -- he has ceded some degree of his personal power and placed it in the hands of others, whether they're real entities or imaginary constructs. In a recent essay on psychological marginalization I touched on some of the unhealthy aspects of victimhood. Even worse is placing one's personal power in others' hands -- especially when those hands are those of an enemy, as the state's agents so very often are.

Victimhood is just one way that personal power influences one's interaction with others. Relationships necessarily involve a balance of power among the individuals comprising them. A refusal or inability to see that one has personal power over another can lead to misunderstandings, or worse. And that's where personal power can get very sticky.

Power in relationships

Meaningful relationships with others are built on complex, sometimes delicate balances of power between individuals. Even casual friendships display this; when one values another's thoughts and company, choices are made that take them into account. One may choose to see a movie one isn't very interested in, because a friend's company is more important than the film choice. Often when a balance of personal power in a friendship shifts toward one party, individuals may speak of a friend being manipulated, used, or taken advantage of.

The English language's typical structure for expressing emotions very curiously places power over one's emotions into another's control. How many times have you heard, or even said, something like, "You make me _____" (happy, angry, sad -- whatever)? It's so entrenched in the way we think that many people -- even individualists -- have never thought about this, much less questioned it. While it will never be as catchy as singing, "You make me so very happy", it would be much more accurate to say, for example, "You enable a lot of joy in my life". Abdicating responsibility for one's emotions -- giving that important personal power to others -- not only allows victimhood, it drastically slims the likelihood of positive change taking place.

Parents obviously have power over their young children, but if they handle the responsibility to raise a child well, he or she will gradually take on more personal power, and wield it more effectively. That is a goal of parenting, although it seems to be rarely thought of in this way. (I have found myself wondering to what degree libertarians who eschew the use of force in their child-rearing methods mistake proper uses of their parental authority for coercion.) While it can be more subtle, it is nonetheless true that at the least from the moment of birth, a child has and exerts some degree of power over his parents. Loving parents therefore enter into what I've come to think of as a "dance of power" with their children. It's a shifting style that may be equal parts flowing waltz and slam dance, but both are necessary for the emergence of a mature, responsible adult.

Even more complicated -- if such a thing is possible -- is the dance of personal power inherent in romantic relationships. By choosing to love another, one is voluntarily placing some personal power in the beloved's hands. If the relationship is mutual and consists of psychologically healthy, mature adults, this is a reciprocal choice and is probably fairly well balanced. However, that doesn't necessarily mean that problems won't arise. A simple misunderstanding, a careless remark, or more seriously, changes in goals or differences in needs or desires can create pain. It's a paradoxical fact of love that being in love necessarily means experiencing pain at some point, because love requires the exchange of personal power. Adding a twist of irony to that paradox, it may be that one gets a true sense of the extent of his love for another in the depths of pain he feels at the possibility of losing that love.

To the degree that individuals don't realize this and fail to treat that gift of personal power with the utmost respect and care it deserves -- as well as uncritically accepting the "you make me" emotional power-shift English plays -- our society will continue to produce individuals incapable of knowing genuine love, much less learning from failures. While I don't have a comprehensive theory of "libertarian love" worked out, it seems to me that the blanket tendency to abhor power most clearly shows its negative repercussions here, as so many freedom-oriented individuals seem to have difficulty with the idea of giving up some control over one's life -- even though it's voluntary, and is essential to love.

If freedom-loving individuals want to create a freer, healthier society, it is imperative that we rethink the reflexive tendency to dismiss power as inherently evil or corrupt. As Rush so aptly put it in their song Something for Nothing, "what you love is your own power". Viewed in the context of personal power wielded in a responsible way, that love isn't only healthy -- it's necessary.

Author's note: I would like to acknowledge the important contributions of a beloved friend who prefers to remain anonymous, whose challenging conversations with me on this and related subjects have greatly clarified my thinking.

published at Endervidualism on  5/4/04

Sunni Maravillosa has a web site with a great blog and many other features, visit it at -