Tag Archives: equality

The Foundation of All Ills

Bertrand Russell wrote, in chapter two of his Political Ideals (1917):

Even in times of peace, most men live lives of monotonous labor, most women are condemned to a drudgery which almost kills the possibility of happiness before youth is past, most children are allowed to grow up in ignorance of all that would enlarge their thoughts or stimulate their imagination. The few who are more fortunate are rendered illiberal by their unjust privileges, and oppressive through fear of the awakening indignation of the masses. From the highest to the lowest, almost all men are absorbed in the economic struggle: the struggle to acquire what is their due or to retain what is not their due. Material possessions, in fact or in desire, dominate our outlook, usually to the exclusion of all generous and creative impulses. Possessiveness—the passion to have and to hold—is the ultimate source of war, and the foundation of all the ills from which the political world is suffering. Only by diminishing the strength of this passion and its hold upon our daily lives can new institutions bring permanent benefit to mankind.

Institutions which will diminish the sway of greed are possible, but only through a complete reconstruction of our whole economic system. Capitalism and the wage system must be abolished; they are twin monsters which are eating up the life of the world. In place of them we need a system which will hold in cheek men’s predatory impulses, and will diminish the economic injustice that allows some to be rich in idleness while others are poor in spite of unremitting labor; but above all we need a system which will destroy the tyranny of the employer, by making men at the same time secure against destitution and able to find scope for individual initiative in the control of the industry by which they live. A better system can do all these things, and can be established by the democracy whenever it grows weary of enduring evils which there is no reason to endure.

The Ostrom Equation for Social Power

Kings, queens, supervisors, capitalists, priests: some have more power than others. This is not only political power; even dethroned monarchs have more purchasing power, more influence, and more capacity to alter people’s behavior than the rest of us. Let us call this power “social power”. The concept of “power” is central to any discussion of liberty, equality, and democracy, but the concept remains ill-defined and unmeasurable. If we could provide a precise definition of the power that one person has over another, we could begin to likewise precisely define liberty and equality. Let’s give it a try!

Elinor Ostrom, in Understanding Institutional Diversity, analyzed social institutions into several components, and in the process offhandedly gave an equation that calculates the “power” that any individual would have in an institutional context. First we need those components of social institutions.

Social institutions, according to Ostrom, are composed of their participants occupying certain positions in those institutions. Different positions have different sets of actions that are permitted for the people occupying those positions. We could think of this as like chess: there are many different pieces, and each of them can only move in certain ways. The bishop is one “position” that a piece can have, and the bishop’s permitted actions are making any diagonal move.

In the real world institution of law enforcement, a police officer is permitted to enter and search a person’s home if in possession of a search warrant. The rest of us are not in an institutional position to do the same.

The actions permitted by someone’s position lead to outcomes of varying likelihood. Actions are “linked” to outcomes. The choices that participants make are based on the information they have about how actions are linked to outcomes. To continue the example above, searching a suspect’s home is an action that has a variety of outcomes. If the officer calls in a SWAT team to search the house, the homeowners may respond with violence to the forceful entry of their home. That’s one “action-outcome linkage”. If the officer acquires and presents a search warrant, then the homeowner may peacefully allow the search. That’s a different linkage.

Some outcomes are better than others. Some, like calling in a SWAT team, may be dangerous to the police and the homeowner. Peacefully presenting the search warrant is more likely to produce a better outcome. Each outcome has a value attached to it for each participant, calculated by adding up its benefits and subtracting its costs.

The more values of outcomes (or the greater the range of outcome values) that are available to the participant, the more opportunity the participant has. A police officer is institutionally permitted to kill without punishment in a greater range of situations than the rest of us are. If I kill someone because I was afraid of them, I would probably be locked away. The range of costs and benefits to my action are very limited. But for a police officer, killing may receive a commendation, indifference from the community, or justifiable riots. Thus, the police officer has greater opportunity than most of us in this regard.

Finally, we have the control that the participant has over the outcomes from their actions. The control a participant has is equal to the conditional probability of a given outcome value given the action taken. In other words, the more control one has, the more one can chance one has to change the value of an outcome. Back to our police officer: he has more control over a situation, say a traffic stop, because he has more choices of action than the citizen to produce a beneficial or burdensome outcome.

Ostrom gives the equation this way:

The “power” of an individual in a situation is the value of the opportunity (the range in the outcomes afforded by the situation) times the extent of control.

So, how powerful someone is in a particular situation is a product of how much better or worse they can make the outcome in that situation. Having power means being able to produce a large number of outcomes, or producing outcomes with very different values, or having great control over the outcome, or all of the above.

The powerful person in our example situation is the police officer, obviously. But now we can say why he is more powerful, and just how much more powerful. The position of the police officer creates a set of actions permitted by law in any situation. Let’s say our situation is a traffic stop with a citizen. From that set of actions, the police officer can bring about an outcome that either:

  • has the same value as the status quo (police officer and citizen go their separate ways),
  • a radically bad outcome (the police officer freaks out and kills the citizen),
  • or something in between (a warning, a citation, or an arrest).

The police officer has the additional outcome of being rewarded for meeting an assigned quota for stops or citations. Thus, the citizen has limited opportunity compared to the police officer.

Also, the citizen can do little in that situation that could affect the quality of the outcome, while the police officer has significant discretion. Without police body cameras, it’s the word of the police against the word of a citizen. So the police officer has a great deal of opportunity and control, and thus power. The citizen has little of either, and thus little power.

Ostrom’s equation only provides us with a calculus of relative social power in particular situations, however. To determine the objective social status of individuals, and thus the groups that those individuals compose, we need to calculate the power of individuals across situations. A good start would be to take the value of the power of an individual in separate situations and average across situations and institutions. To find the power of groups of individuals, we can take the average of the power of the individuals in those groups. (Perhaps, as with income, we should take the median, to prevent powerful outliers from skewing the results.)

We can also determine how much power each individual should have. In a democratic republic, people should have equal liberty. If Ostrom’s equation is a good model of power, then we can define equal liberty.

A person is free if and only if the social institutions that person participates in grants as much power as possible (either by having a great deal of opportunity, or a great deal of control, or both).

People are equal if and only if the social institutions those people participate in grant the same value of power. Note that this does not mean that each person must have the same opportunities, or the same extent of control, only that the resulting product is the same.

Thus, people are equally free if and only if the social institutions those people participate in grant the greatest value of power that all those people can have equally.

Nice. Can any readers spot any problems?