I keep hearing that Clinton and Trump are locked in mortal combat to be, and I quote, “the most powerful person in the world.”
I hear it everywhere. On radio, on the interweb, on TV (the few times I watch it), in conversation.
But it’s wrong.
The office of President of the United States grants no special physical powers. When a pipe in the Gulf of Mexico was spewing oil, all the ranting in the Oval Office about “capping the damn well” had precisely zero effect on the well. It continued to flow until plugged by someone who had the power to understand how offshore wells work. It has not the power to move a single drop of recalcitrant oil against the physical laws under which it operates.
And the POTUS’s legitimate powers are only those delegated to it by the people (“We the People…”); POTUS rules legitimately only by the consent of the governed.
So what power does a modern president actually have then ? To put it bluntly, he has the power of physical force. He has the power to compel. He has a bully pulpit to persuade, and guns to back him up when he speaks to the unpersuadable. When used legitimately, to protect rights, great good can flow therefrom. When used illegitimately … well, there’s a reason that creatures like Trump and Clinton are clamouring for the office. Their dance of political power is rather like Salomé's dance of the seven veils, except they both hanker to go all the way. Let's have a brief look at exactly what sort of power these people are after.
To understand the nature of political power, contrast it with economic power. These two kinds of power are too frequently and too dangerously confused. Economic power comes from production and trade, "the ability to produce material values and to offer them for trade." This is the sort of power that in recent years has filled the world with food and fine electronics and made a world in which fewer people in history are living in poverty. By contrast, and in Mao Tse-Tung’s memorable formulation, political power comes from the barrel of a gun. This is the sort of power that fills the world with guns and tanks and planes and drones, and America with trigger-happy policemen and Presidents who enjoy seeing power flowing from surveillance, lies and sundry unconstitutional executive orders.
The great danger in confusing these two separate, distinct and different forms of power is that far too frequently political power is either put in the service of economic power, or it is set dead against it.
Governments have a legal monopoly on the use of force – citizens have no choice but to submit to it. It makes no essential difference that they may have elected the government. Political power is coercive.
Economic 'power,' by contrast, is wielded by producers of goods and services by virtue of the voluntary patronage of their customers – who are free to withdraw or relocate their patronage the moment they become dissatisfied. Economic power is non-coercive.
Comedian George Carlin once suggested the keys to America are the cross, the brew, the dollar and the gun. Economic and political power are represented by the last two: the dollar and the gun respectively. Confusion between what distinguishes them leads to the gun sometimes being put in the service of the dollar, and occasionally the dollar seeking to buy the gun, but the distinction remains. (Harry Binswanger defines the two in an excerpt here.)
'Political power' refers to the power of the government. The special nature of that power is what differentiates government from all other social institutions. That which makes government government, its essential attribute, is its monopoly on the use of physical force. Only a government can make laws—i.e., rules of social conduct backed up by physical force. ...The penalty for breaking the law is fines, imprisonment, and ultimately, death. The symbol of political power is a gun. [Read on here.]
The symbol of political power is the gun. The symbol of economic power is the dollar. Powerful symbols both, but contrasting:
The only power a business has to induce customers to give it money is the value of its products. If a business started to produce an inferior product, it would eventually lose its customers. By contrast, the only power that the government has to offer is a threat: "We'll dictate what businessmen can and cannot do—and businessmen better toe the line or we'll throw them in jail."
This is true, be it noted, even in a free society, where the initiation of force by citizens is illegal, but governments reserve the legal right to use force against those who initiate it. (That is the proper use of political power; it is much more commonly used improperly. See Cue Card Libertarianism: Government.)
Blurring the distinction between the dollar and the gun is a favourite ploy of statists, who use this equivocation to justify the curbing of economic freedom through the extension of political controls. "There is no difference between being dictated to by a politician and by a businessman," fudges the statist, "so what harm is done by giving more to the politician and less to the businessman?" Answer – immeasurable. It places the gun in the service of the dollar.
In the libertarian view, it is essential that the two powers are separated totally and completely and constitutionally. The separation of economy and state is as important as was the separation of church and state, and for the self-same reasons: the abuse of political power without any effective separation of powers.
For their own reasons, neither current candidate is anywhere close to understanding either the distinction between these two powers, or the need for their separation. Trump has been the poster boy for using the state’s (illegitimate) powers of eminent domain to throw people out of their homes so his businesses can benefit, and (among many other brazenly coercive boasts) he proudly proclaims that as president he would shut down media who criticise him and order home American businesses operating overseas. And Clinton has clearly enjoyed every dollar she’s extracted from the levers she’s been able to pull over her last 30 years of pulling the wool over donors, voters and the special prosecutors she’s so far been able to evade.
So barring a miracle, one of them will soon be pulling all the levers of political power that emanate from the Oval Office. In their hands, it will certainly be something of a power to destroy. But of the power to create, to wield political power legitimately or to affect the seas or heavens against the laws that rule them, neither candidate will ever have that power. Or earn it.
MORE READING: Harry Binswanger, 'The Dollar and the Gun'