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Wednesday, February 9

Power Disorders  

Via I came across this interview with Neal Stephenson at Toward the beginning of the interview, Stephenson is asked about a recent talk he gave during which he cited theologian Walter Wink and Wink's discussion of "domination systems." I've never heard of Wink and must make a note to explore his writings, but I find Stephenson's discussion of the concept of power disorders in response to the question interesting.

Reason: You gave a speech at the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy Conference a few years back in which you suggested that the focus on issues like encryption was too narrow, and that we should give more attention to what theologian Walter Wink calls “domination systems.” This surprised some of the attendees, partly because it reached outside the usual privacy/free speech issue set and partly because, hey, you were citing a theologian. What brought you to Walter Wink, and what other light do you think theologians can shed on our approaches to government?

Stephenson: This probably won’t do anything to endear me or Wink to the typical reason reader, but I was made aware of him by a Jesuit priest of leftish tendencies who had been reading his stuff.

It’s almost always a disaster when a novelist decides to become political. So let me just make a few observations here on a human level — which is within my comfort zone as a novelist — and leave it at that.

It’s clear that the body politic is subject to power disorders. By this I mean events where some person or group suddenly concentrates a lot of power and abuses it. Power disorders frequently come as a surprise, and cause a lot of damage. This has been true since the beginning of human history. Exactly how and why power disorders occur is poorly understood.

We are in a position akin to that of early physicians who could see that people were getting sick but couldn’t do anything about it, because they didn’t understand the underlying causes. They knew of a few tricks that seemed to work. For example, nailing up plague houses tended to limit the spread of plague. But even the smart doctors tended to fall under the sway of pet theories that were wrong, such as the idea that diseases were caused by imbalanced humors or bad air. Once that happened, they ignored evidence that contradicted their theory. They became so invested in that theory that they treated any new ideas as threats. But from time to time you’d see someone like John Snow, who would point out, “Look, everyone who draws water from Well X is getting cholera.” Then he went and removed the pump handle from Well X and people stopped getting cholera. They still didn’t understand germ theory, but they were getting closer.

We can make a loose analogy to the way that people have addressed the problem of power disorders. We don’t really understand them. We know that there are a couple of tricks that seem to help, such as the rule of law and separation of powers. Beyond that, people tend to fall under the sway of this or that pet theory. And so you’ll get perfectly intelligent people saying, “All of our problems would be solved if only the workers controlled the means of production,” or what have you. Once they’ve settled on a totalizing political theory, they see everything through that lens and are hostile to other notions.

What I really need after this is a nice discussion of the Federalist and how Hamilton, Madison & Jay thought the Constitution would attempt to solve the problem of power disorders. Power disorders of a kind remain the defining problem of our politics. The problems we face currently with regard to corrupt officials or invasive laws derive from far worse disorders that existed under a monarchy. And yet any back-bencher in Albany, NY or moderate congressman in D.C. will tell you that the system (and by extension the people) is being abused by a small minority that are in power. Party politics recognizes this issue and, rather than attempt to remedy the situation, seeks simply to put its slate of officials on the throne. There are those of us that would like to reform the system and yet we resemble the early physicians in Stephenson's analogy. Reform movements often wind up playing whack-a-mole with power disorders rather than unplugging the machine.

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