Thomas Sowell / April 20, 2010

The Limits of Power

When I first began to study the history of slavery around the world, many years ago, one of the oddities that puzzled me was the practice of paying certain slaves, which existed in ancient Rome and in America’s antebellum South, among other places. In both places, slave owners or their overseers whipped slaves to force them to work, and in neither place was whipping a slave literally to death likely to bring any serious consequences. There could hardly be a greater power of one human being over another than the arbitrary power of life and death. Why then was it necessary to pay certain slaves? At the very least, it suggested that there were limits to what could be accomplished by power.

When I first began to study the history of slavery around the world, many years ago, one of the oddities that puzzled me was the practice of paying certain slaves, which existed in ancient Rome and in America’s antebellum South, among other places.

In both places, slave owners or their overseers whipped slaves to force them to work, and in neither place was whipping a slave literally to death likely to bring any serious consequences.

There could hardly be a greater power of one human being over another than the arbitrary power of life and death. Why then was it necessary to pay certain slaves? At the very least, it suggested that there were limits to what could be accomplished by power.

Most slaves performing most tasks were of course not paid, but were simply forced to work by the threat of punishment. That was sufficient for galley slaves or plantation slaves. But there were various kinds of work where that was not sufficient.

Tasks involving judgment or talents were different because no one can know how much judgment or talent someone else has. In short, knowledge is an inherent constraint on power. Payment can bring forth the knowledge or talent by giving those who have it an incentive to reveal it and to develop it.

Payment can vary in amount and in kind. Some slaves, especially eunuchs in the days of the Ottoman Empire, could amass both wealth and power. One reason they could be trusted in positions of power was that they had no incentive to betray the existing rulers and try to establish their own dynasties, which would obviously have been physically impossible for them.

At more mundane levels, such tasks as diving operations in the Carolina swamps required a level of discretion and skill far in excess of that required to pick cotton in the South or cut sugar cane in the tropics. Slaves doing this kind of work had financial incentives and were treated far better. So were slaves working in Virginia’s tobacco factories.

The point of all this is that when even slaves had to be paid to get certain kinds of work done, this shows the limits of what can be accomplished by power alone. Yet so much of what is said and done by those who rely on the power of government to direct ever more sweeping areas of our life seem to have no sense of the limits of what can be accomplished that way.

Even the totalitarian governments of the 20th century eventually learned the hard way the limits of what could be accomplished by power alone. China still has a totalitarian government today but, after the death of Mao, the Chinese government began to loosen its controls on some parts of the economy, in order to reap the economic benefits of freer markets.

As those benefits became clear in higher rates of economic growth and rising standards of living, more government controls were loosened. But, just as market principles were applied to only certain kinds of slavery, so freedom in China has been allowed in economic activities to a far greater extent than in other realms of the country’s life, where tight control from the top down remains the norm.

Ironically, the United States is moving in the direction of the kind of economy that China has been forced to move away from. China once had complete government control of medical care, but eventually gave it up as the disaster that it was.

The current leadership in Washington operates as if they can just set arbitrary goals, whether “affordable housing” or “universal health care” or anything else – and not concern themselves with the repercussions – since they have the power to simply force individuals, businesses, doctors or anyone else to knuckle under and follow their dictates.

Friedrich Hayek called this mindset “the road to serfdom.” But, even under serfdom and slavery, experience forced those with power to recognize the limits of their power. What this administration – and especially the President – does not have is experience.

Barack Obama had no experience running even the most modest business, and personally paying the consequences of his mistakes, before becoming President of the United States. He can believe that his heady new power is the answer to all things.

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