Power as influence

We’ve looked at power as the socially embodied ability of some people to compel the behavior of other people. But this isn’t the whole of what we would want to include within the scope of the uses of power. Other important aspects of power are more impersonal, having to do with influencing outcomes rather than controlling behavior. Powerful agents have the ability to set the agenda; to influence the rules of the game (whatever game one is involved in, including the state); to influence the flow of resources; and to make decisions that will have important consequences for other people.

Consider a few examples.

  • A large employer is concerned about rising health care costs. The compensation team lays out several choices: eliminate higher-cost insurance plans; eliminate subsidy for dependents; or shift more costs to employees through a higher premium copay formula. The CEO has the ability to choose one option over others; he/she exercises this authority in favor of option 3. This is an exercise of power.
  • The vice president of the United States wants to see a reduction in the rate of the capital gains tax. He quietly lobbies with legislators to incorporate this provision into upcoming tax legislation. He prevails. This too is an exercise of power — an ability to bend outcomes to the VP’s will. And it proceeds through the ability to influence other decision-makers.
  • The mayor of a small city is in a position to influence which development projects will be permitted. He/she exercises this power to give the nod to A and to deny B. A receives a substantial business benefit and B is left out.
  • A faculty reappointment committee considers the case of Assistant Professor X. It considers his/her dossier of research and teaching in relation to the standards. The case is not clear-cut. The committee has the power to end X’s career at the university. It chooses not to support reappointment. It thereby exercises its power with respect to X’s continuing employment. It emerges that one member had an animus against X and spoke persuasively against X. This member used a private form of power and influence against X and in furtherance of his own wishes.

These examples illustrate much of what C. Wright Mills hoped to capture in his theory of the “power elite” — a relatively compact group of people who are in a position to shape social outcomes to their liking by influencing the agenda, the rules, or the decisions (The Power Elite).

And it goes with this social empowerment of small groups, that the possibilities of self-serving and self-interest arise. When individuals are in a position to determine the way social outcomes will occur, we have to consider the likelihood that they will have favored outcomes that serve their own interests best. So power in this circumstance has a lot to do with distributive outcomes — who wins and who loses. And it had a lot to do with setting the rules of the game in ways that favor some people and disfavor others.

These aspects of power are tremendously important in a complex society. People in positions to influence important decisions — private, corporate, or governmental — have a greatly amplified ability to shape outcomes to their own will. And this in turn permits elites to shape the social environment in ways that best serve their private interests. (Stephen Lukes’s book, Power: A Radical View, is particularly useful.)

And this in turn makes the strongest possible case for democratic transparency. We want the decisions that affect us to be made fairly, with full consideration of the impact they have on everyone affected by them. The decisions that influence everyone’s well-being need to be made within a culture of openness and transparency. But all too often, this expectation is frustrated.


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