Abuse of Power

by D.J. Webb

The way social power is used is very important in English thought. We have always admired measured used of power and the giving of opportunities to the weak to put their point of view in open judicial and other processes. For example, the judicial review provision of the courts aims to prevent the government from implementing imperious and poorly considered decisions. The government must give evidence of having considered various interests properly before coming to its decisions. While I cannot accept the way judicial review has morphed into judicial striking down of decisions that are properly executive, I do see the reasoning behind the development of judicial review.

The importance of measured use of social power was underlined to me when I saw the BBC’s television dramatisation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel, North and South. That drama is highly recommendable, and shows a lady seeing a “master” (a factory owner) beating his employee later exclaiming:

I saw you beat a defenceless man who is not your equal!

Now I can’t find these words in the book itself. Nevertheless, a traditional view of the way in which relations between the classes ought to be handled is contained therein. Those who have social power are in a position to abuse it, and for that very reason they should exercise the self-restraint required not to abuse it.

Part of the reason why employment legislation exists—legislation that is abused and monopolised by politically correct interest groups to advance their agendas—is lest some low-level managers take it upon themselves to behave in overbearing ways towards their employees. For example, employers are not to use “constructive dismissal” (sly and underhand methods of encouraging people to resign their jobs). The libertarian view on whether such laws are required in a welfare state is for another article. But I am citing this as an example of an area of law that has mushroomed into existence because of the importance in our culture of measured use of power over others.

We may contrast, by way of example, the Chinese culture, where abuse of power is the norm among the governing classes. Until recently, it was the norm for “work unit leaders” to insist on taking the virginity of their female employees as the price of their written permission for their marriages. When I was in China, living in Kunming, I heard of a fuss at Yunnan University, where the foreign teachers all complained to the administration about a university official refusing such a permission unless he could take a young teacher’s virginity himself first. The law has since been changed and Chinese employees are not longer required to get the written permission of their work unit leaders in order to marry. The reason the law was changed was because such abuses had become the norm.

Another example is the Chinese government’s persecution of a blind peasant who became a self-taught lawyer, Chen Guangcheng. He defended the rights of peasants to their land, and was arrested on absurd trumped-up charges of “disrupting the traffic”, something a blind person could hardly do. His case became famous when he fled to the US embassy and was eventually allowed to move to the US. To us in the West, persecuting a blind man appears to be a very low thing to do, the sort of thing no self-respecting ruling class in any country would do.

Clearly, therefore, in the Western culture, being careful how you use social power is an important principle. And yet we seem to be losing sight of this principle as self-serving bureaucracy sets in in English culture. An unpleasant example that came to my notice recently was the case of the “natural home” in Pembrokeshire (see http://naturalhomes.org/save-charlies-house.htm). A home was built by a young man using natural materials, including using tree saplings to form the beams and joists of the house, on his parents’ land. The innovative house cost him £15,000 to build, but Pembrokeshire Council have now decided to bulldoze it, because “benefits of the development do not outweigh the harm to the character and appearance of the countryside”. No one viewing the images of the house at the link could agree with this assessment. But more broadly, this is one of an increasing number of cases of heavyhanded use of power in the UK, something to which I fear we are becoming inured.

Everyone has his own favourite example of this sort of thing. There are numerous reports of people being tasered for no sufficient reason in the UK. The behaviour of the Yorkshire police after the Hillsborough football stadium tragedy—a longrunning saga of deliberate vilification of the dead and a refusal to take responsibility by the police—is a clear example where our rulers no longer feel they have moral constraints on the use of power. High death rates due to neglect by nurses at many hospitals also reflect the invincibility of the public-sector workforce, who know they can do anything they like to their patients.

The cultural revolution on matters racial and sexual seems to be a particular area where abuse of power has become the main way of advancing the political agenda. The case of Emma West, whose children were taken into care after she issued a trenchantly worded lament for England’s plight under multiculturalism in a Tube carriage, has been much-commented on by the Libertarian Alliance. My “favourite”, if that is the right word, was the case where a child was locked alone in a room for referring to “chocolate on the face” of a black schoolmate, while the police were called and the parents warned that social services could become involved if the child did not verbally adhere to the political agenda of the authorities.

It seems to me that moral vilification of opponents of the cultural revolution has been used as a way of justifying abuse of power against them. In turn, fear of extreme reprisals then creates a climate of fear that naturally calls forth compliance with the authorities’ agenda(s) on a number of disputed issues. I think we can go further and see that a greater tendency towards the employment of female officials in the state (and female managers in the private sector) has helped to produce a greater volume of personally invasive, spiteful and vindictive actions by those with power over others. One example is the female official in Rotherham in charge of the abduction of children being fostered by a family believed to support the anti-EU party, UKIP. It seems women speak the language of pretending to care and pretending to be outraged by various things more fluently than men, and so we have an increasingly nasty officialdom to contend with in the UK. This sort of thing is not confined to the public sector, however, but is a cultural shift exhibited by the managerial class as a whole.

Whether it is the officials who authorise a spying campaign on a family who put too much rubbish out for collection—how can there be such a thing as too much rubbish? If something is rubbish, it needs to be disposed of—we are sleepwalking into a culture that has lost its moral bearings. Oddly enough, the state officials use their perception of their moral superiority to justify frankly immoral actions which amount to abuse of the rights of Englishmen. Where there was a clear class distinction between the Establishment and the rest, the privileged few were well aware of the need not to overdo the exercise of power. Nowadays, it is all faux egalitarianism and over-the-top crushing of dissent. I fear it will not be so pleasant in the future to be among the lower orders of the English nation, a population that will be walked over roughshod by an Establishment that feels it is demonstrating its moral credentials by doing so.

This cultural shift poses a problem for libertarians. For where there is no moral compass in society, people naturally call for state intervention to prevent abuses. In the absence of employment legislation, it seems likely, for instance, that “Little Hitler”-like behaviour among managers would become even more widespread in the private-sector workplace. (Workplace dismissals for private political views?) A free society presupposes some commonly accepted cultural notions of the right way of doing things. For this reason, we ought to speak out against high-handed government—while also bearing in mind that high-handed behaviour is not limited to government, and that, as a wider cultural problem, it is found in the private sector too.

13 responses to “Abuse of Power

  1. Mr Webb is writing about power (the use of force) – I do not see why he uses the term “social” power.

    The courts and government are not about civil society (social matters). State and civil society are different things.

    As for a private employer beating an employer – this is Common Law assault and the employer should be arrested and punished (not a “class” thing as, in the industrial revolution, many factory owners were actually from much the same social background as their employees).

    As for a private employer deciding he does not wish to employ you because of your political opinions (or the colour of your eyes) – that is a matter of your contract of employment.

    If a private employer is so foolish as to do himself out of a good worker because he does not like their religious or political opinions – that is his (or her) loss, and other employers will be quick to take advantage if they are ALLOWED to do so (i.e. no “Jim Crow” style regulations).

    W.H. Hutt (“The Economics of the Colour Bar”) , Gary Becker, Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams (and many others) have written about how discrimination on the basis of race is not to the benefit of businessmen – and neither is discrimination on the basis of political opinions.

    However, if an employer wishes to give his competitors a competitive advantage (by turning down employees for non relevant reasons) it is their right to do so. There is no “right to a job” and freedom of contract means what it says. Freedom of association must include the freedom to NOT associate.

    As for the “cultural shift” – this is not really a matter of “social power” it is a matter of real power.

    Education is at it is because of FORCE – government demands that teachers be “trained” and government spending (financed by FORCE ) dominating the education market.

    In the media – the nature of the British BBC is too well known to be worthy of comment (and it is financed by force), but the situation in the United States is not a free market either.

    It is not just a matter of the “Schools of Journalism” producing people with certain political and cultural opinions – although they do (and were intended to do so) there are also specific government regulations at work.

    For example, the situation in American television was transformed by some “minor” changes to FCC regulations in the early 1960s – before the changes any individual or company could pay a television company to broadcast a show (it was a commercial matter), after the changes to the regulations (ironically under the name of “creative freedom”) editorial control of all shows was transferred to a handful of people at ABC, CBS and NBC.

    How many modern American television shows present businessmen (especially big business) as “good guys”? And how many present them as “baddies”? It is the same with people who are (for example) pro and anti abortion and other economic and cultural divides.

    As with Hollywood (where government regulations handed power to the unions long ago) American television entertainment shows tend to have an agenda – and it is a leftist agenda on both economic and cultural matters.

    It is not just a matter of party politics – although is it not disturbing that most of the American media has supported the Democrat candidate for President in every election since 1960? It is a matter of pushing (deliberately pushing – they admit it, there are recorded conversations) a cultural transformation. A transformation from the flawed (very flawed) but “functional” society of 1960 to the radically DYSFUNCTIONAL society of today. The same agenda is followed in other Western countries (including Britain).

    It may be called “social power” but this assault is based on real power – government spending and regulations.

  2. By the way this “the social power of the owner must be limited” stuff is what has helped push the very cultural transformation that Mr Webb deplores (and is right to deplore).

    I watched Zell Miller (the owner of the Chicago Tribune and LA TImes) being interviewed last night.

    He complained (in a wry way) of the utter contempt his employees showed for his political opinions (and for him personally) in what they wrote (in everything from the film reviews to the editorials) – whilst still expecting him to pick up the losses of the newspapers (I almost wrote “their newspapers”).

    It did not seem to occur to him that he could DISMISS these people – and I can understand why not.

    All Hell would break lose if he had done that – not just would union power have been used against him (union power created by government regulations), but he could expect tax audits and the like.

    Jeff B. (the owner of Amazon) has just bought the Washington Post – J.B. opposes high taxes, but the WaPo will continue to support them (and not just in its editorials – in its film reviews and so on as well).

    Owners have been undermined – the transformation depended on undermining them. A fact that Jeff B. (who foolishly supports the cultural side of the transformation) does not seem to grasp.

  3. My apologies – I meant Sam Zell not Zell Miller.

  4. Political bias on American TV?.

    Back in the 70s and 80s American TV shows gave the impression that the US telephone network was kept solvent by all the calls made by rich white businessmen ordering beatings, kidnappings and murders.

  5. An excellent dissertation. Political correctness has indeed infected many of the “lower orders” who are often tyrannical in their application of it.

  6. Nick diPerna

    “A free society presupposes some commonly accepted cultural notions of the right way of doing things. For this reason, we ought to speak out against high-handed government—while also bearing in mind that high-handed behaviour is not limited to government, and that, as a wider cultural problem, it is found in the private sector too.”

    In a controlled economy like ours, private bosses are able to exercise “high handed behaviour” because there is nowhere else for employees to go, and too many regulations/entry costs to set up their own competing businesses or cooperatives.

    Centralisation and democracy teaches ‘zero sum game’ or ‘might is right.’

    Free markets teach ‘positive sum trade.’

    In my own view, we can’t change the system because we ARE the system. Mass movements are created by True Believers, not rational people, and that’s why they degenerate.

    Yes, we certainly ought to speak out against “high-handed behaviour”, but more importantly, practice what we preach… This means applying the non-aggression principle to our own children; replacing force with negotiation, and stop locking them up in authoritarian schools. The promotion of virtue is likely to be a multigenerational struggle with little visible progress in our own lifetimes.

    But in the vein of Charles Murray, another strategy would be to ‘educate the educators’, or ‘shaming the elites’. Ultimately, it’s the cultural elite who set the tone and standards of human behaviour – their smug message is usually something like “do as I say, not as I do”. Youth are particularly sensitive to this glaring hypocrisy and modify their behaviour accordingly…

  7. Yes, Nick. You’re the only one here in the comments to this thread who appears to have read the article! The worrying thing for libertarians is that we are losing the cultural basis for a free society.

  8. Good points dj. The bottom line is as Nick state, the “do as I say, not as I do”. The so called elites [political especially] tend to think of themselves as better and more intelligent than the rest of the masses. They reward fraud and ineffectiveness with huge cash bonuses. They encourage corporate deceit and coercion. They may well be higher educated but I do not think they have shown themselves to be more intelligent, and certainly not wiser, than the masses. As Nick says the effect of this double-standard behaviour is very much seen by the young and they act accordingly. As you state dj, the worrying thing for libertarians is that we are losing the cultural basis for a free society.

  9. Pingback: Abuse of Power | The Libertarian Alliance: BLOG | THINKING: Middle of the road Libertarian? Maybe...

  10. Common Purpose?

  11. Quite so Mr Ecks – and they still do,. My point is that the leftist domination of television does not come from nowhere – it comes from the leftist domination of education (due, in part, to government funding and regulations) and to specific FCC regulations in the early 1960s – which basically handed the entertainment shows to the left on a plate.

    Nick diPerna.

    “Unfair dismissal” and “constructive dismissal” regulations (part of the “controlled economy”) you mention do indeed undermine freedom of contract – but not in the way you imply.

    The sort of “Labour Codes” seen in Southern Europe (Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal – and France) lead to MASS UNEMPLOYMENT these “controlled economies” are not for the benefit of employers – and do not really benefit employees either (being made unemployed is not a good thing).

    I sometimes suspect that Mr Webb misses the central insight of Classical Liberalism – i.e. that the harmony of the long term economic interests between employers and employees,, between “the rich” and “the poor”, Without this central insight a person is NOT a Classical Liberal (let alone a libertarian).

    However, there is a major government policy that does benefit “the rich” at the expense of “the poor” – it is the “cheap money” policy (the policy of monetary expansion and “low interest rates” – i.e. breaking the dependence of borrowing on REAL SAVING).

    Since RIchard Cantillon in the 1700s it has been shown that “boom-bust” events are NOT neutral.

    It is not the case that after the monetary expansion has worked itself out (the bust followed the boom) everything is as it would have been – on the contrary, certain (generally wealthy) people are better off than they would have been, and certain other people (generally poor) are worse off than they otherwise would have been.

    An “easy money” policy is the primary policy that benefits generally wealthy people at the expense of generally poor people – as can be seen (for example) in Latin America (most Latin American countries have followed policies of wild monetary expansion for centuries). However, the policy of monetary expansion (“cheap money”, “low interest rates”) is having a radical effect in both Britain and the United States also.

    For example in New York City (the heart of monetary expansion) some 40 thousand people pay half of the tax – half of the tax of a city of some EIGHT MILLION people.

    This situation in New York City (and in California) is radically unstable and dependent on policies of monetary expansion which are unsustainable.

  12. “Common Purpose” – yes Hugo it is real, and it does seek to use the power of the state to push collectivist polices, such as “Agenda 21”.

    If Mr Webb spent his time fighting real threats to liberty (such as the environmentalist Agenda 21, or the monetary expansion “cheap money” policy) I would not have a problem with him.

    Perhaps (given his dislike of rich people) if it was explained to Mr Webb that one of the leading pushers of Agenda 21 is a Canadian billionaire, he might get interested in the threat.

  13. Your conflation of social power, private/economic power and government power is troubling to say the least. However, you make other, more blatantly problematic points:

    “I saw you beat a defenceless man who is not your equal!”

    We should all be equal in the eyes of the law, so beating anyone is a crime which should be punished. Non-aggression and all that.

    [re: beating] “Those who have social power are in a position to abuse it”

    This is not social power, this is economic power and physical power.

    “Part of the reason why employment legislation exists”

    As a libertarian you should be against employment legislation, no? Companies not given special status by the state would be infinitely more answerable to their owners and so a bad manager would be recognised as such (through complaints, poor performance, high turnover of staff, whatever) and dismissed, or the company would suffer. In a relatively free market there would be plenty of employment opportunities, not least self-employment and any mistreatment would lead to that staff member leaving, possibly influencing others to do so too, hence no need for employment legislation. Incidentally, employment regulation creates barriers to movement within the labour market and strongly discourages employers from taking on staff making it much harder for mistreated staff to move so the problem you think employment legislation fixes is itself caused by labour market legislation.

    [re: taking virginity] “The reason the law was changed was because such abuses had become the norm.”

    Perhaps, but the correct reason, from my perspective, is that it is not the business of work leaders to get involved in the private lives or private contracts of their employees.

    “I think we can go further and see that a greater tendency towards the employment of female officials in the state (and female managers in the private sector) has helped to produce a greater volume of personally invasive, spiteful and vindictive actions by those with power over others.”

    Not without evidence we can’t. Anecdotes don’t cut it in this place I’m afraid. Or they shouldn’t anyway.

    “For where there is no moral compass in society”

    Excluding the idiotic and phenomenally illiberal morality taught by the mainstream religions, from whence does this morality spring? In fact, do you have evidence that it exists, or a coherent definition of it at all?

    The problem with your point, and it is not as bad as this criticism would make it seem, is that the private sector tends to be at least partly self-correcting, bad behaviours tend to be punished economically, whereas in the public sector bad behaviours (bad legislation) tend to be ‘fixed’ by more (bad) legislation, leading in turn to yet more legislation as the unintended consequences of (bad) legislation spiral out of control.