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6. Antimarket Ethics: A Praxeological Critique > 11. Power and Coercion

B. Power Over Nature and Power Over Man

It is quite common and even fashionable to discuss market phenomena in terms of “power”—that is, in terms appropriate only to the battlefield. We have seen the fallacy of the “back-to-the-jungle” criticism of the market and we have seen how the fallacious “economic-power” concept has been applied to the exchange economy. Political-power terminology, in fact, often dominates discussions of the market: peaceful businessmen are “economic royalists,” “economic feudalists,” or “robber barons.” Business is called a “system of power,” and firms are “private governments,” and, if they are very large, even “empires.” Less luridly, men have “bargaining power,” and business firms engage in “strategies” and “rivalry” as in military battles. Recently, theories of “games” and strategy have been erroneously applied to market activity, even to the absurd extent of comparing market exchange with a “zero-sum game”—an interrelation in which A's loss is precisely equal to B's gain.

This, of course, is the action of coercive power, of conquest and robbery. There, one man's gain is another man's loss; one man's victory, another's defeat. Only conflict can describe these social relations. But the opposite is true on the free market, where everyone is a “victor” and everyone gains from social relations. The language and concepts of political power are singularly inappropriate in the free-market society.

The fundamental confusion here is the failure to distinguish between two very different concepts: power over nature and power over man.

It is easy to see that an individual's power is his ability to control his environment in order to satisfy his wants. A man with an ax has the power to chop down a tree; a man with a factory has the power, along with other complementary factors, to produce capital goods. A man with a gun has the power to force an unarmed man to do his bidding, provided that the unarmed man chooses not to resist or not to accept death at gunpoint. It should be clear that there is a basic distinction between the two types of power. Power over nature is the sort of power on which civilization must be built; the record of man's history is the record of the advance or attempted advance of that power. Power over men, on the other hand, does not raise the general standard of living or promote the satisfactions of all, as does power over nature. By its very essence, only some men in society can wield power over men. Where power over man exists, some must be the powerful, and others must be objects of power. But every man can and does achieve power over nature.

In fact, if we look at the basic condition of man as he enters the world, it is obvious that the only way to preserve his life and advance himself is to conquer nature—to transform the face of the earth to satisfy his wants. From the point of view of all the members of the human race, it is obvious that only such a conquest is productive and life-sustaining. Power of one man over another cannot contribute to the advance of mankind; it can only bring about a society in which plunder has replaced production, hegemony has supplanted contract, violence and conflict have taken the place of the peaceful order and harmony of the market. Power of one man over another is parasitic rather than creative, for it means that the nature conquerors are subjected to the dictation of those who conquer their fellowman instead. Any society of force—whether ruled by criminal bands or by an organized State—fundamentally means the rule of the jungle, or economic chaos. Furthermore, it would be a jungle, a struggle in the sense of the Social Darwinists, in which the survivors would not really be the “fittest,” for the “fitness” of the victors would consist solely in their ability to prey on producers. They would not be the ones best fitted for advancing the human species: these are the producers, the conquerors of nature.

The libertarian doctrine, then, advocates the maximization of man's power over nature and the eradication of the power of man over man. Statists, in elevating the latter power, often fail to realize that in their system man's power over nature would wither and become negligible.

Albert Jay Nock was aiming at this dichotomy when, in Our Enemy the State, he distinguished between social power and State power.22 Those who properly balk at any terms that seem to anthropomorphize “society” were wary of accepting this terminology. But actually this distinction is a very important one. Nock's “social power” is society's—mankind's—conquest of nature: the power that has helped to produce the abundance that man has been able to wrest from the earth. His “State power” is political power—the use of the political means as against the “economic means” to wealth. State power is the power of man over man—the wielding of coercive violence by one group over another.

Nock used these categories to analyze historical events in brilliant fashion. He saw the history of mankind as a race between social power and State power. Always man—led by the producers—has tried to advance the conquest of his natural environment. And always men—other men—have tried to extend political power in order to seize the fruits of this conquest over nature. History can then be interpreted as a race between social power and State power. In the more abundant periods, e.g., after the Industrial Revolution, social power takes a large spurt ahead of political power, which has not yet had a chance to catch up. The stagnant periods are those in which State power has at last come to extend its control over the newer areas of social power. State power and social power are antithetical, and the former subsists by draining the latter. Clearly, the concepts advanced here—”power over nature” and “power over man”— are generalizations and clarifications of Nock's categories.

One problem may appear puzzling: What is the nature of “purchasing power” on the market? Is this not power over man and yet “social” and on the free market? However, this contradiction is only apparent. Money has “purchasing power” only because other men are willing to accept it in exchange for goods, i.e., because they are eager to exchange. The power to exchange rests—on both sides of the exchange—on production, and this is precisely the conquest of nature that we have been discussing. In fact, it is the exchange process—the division of labor—that permits man's power over nature to extend beyond the primitive level. It was power over nature that the Ford Motor Company had developed in such abundance, and it was this power that the angry job seeker was threatening to seize—by political power—while complaining about Ford's “economic power.”

In sum, political-power terminology should be applied only to those employing violence. The only “private governments” are those people and organizations aggressing against persons and property that are not part of the official State dominating certain territory. These “private States,” or private governments, may either co-operate with the official State, as did the governments of the guilds in the Middle Ages, and as labor unions and cartelists do today, or they may compete with the official State and be designated as “criminals” or “bandits.”

  • 22. Nock, Our Enemy the State.
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