How to Arrange Power

Power is something that is always present in everything we do. We deal with peers, bosses, superiors, inferiors, and others who are just lower on the totem pole. And no matter how much we think those totem poles are silly or oppressive, they change our relationships with others. Women speak less when men are present, they also tell less jokes when men are around. Kids speak differently around adults versus their friends. The list is endless.

What I wonder though is why most societies have such a boring and endlessly repeated system of power. In companies, universities, government and on and on, there different rungs of power. People on top make decisions for those on the bottom and power flows downward.

What about an alternate system of organization, one involving competition and the structure of games. Now some businesses are already set up with different department who war over the budget, incoming talent, and TPS reports, but I have something a little more radical in mind.

Start with an example. You’re at the gym waiting to get into a basketball game. You’re not very good, but you’re not bad, and you get in the next game. Many players are better than you, but you’re all working to win and so the better people rise to positions of leaders and start changing the defense up to take advantage of everyone’s strengths (or to hide their weaknesses).

I think the idea of competition can be transferred over to other arrangements for power. Many libertarians and capitalists focus on the efficiencies generated by competition; competition as an incentive structure. But they miss the other points of competition, which is a power arrangement with deeper philosophical implications.

Here’s what I mean. In a hierarchical structure, we know the problems. Bosses become overbearing and there is a certain stultifying type of inequality that pervades office greetings, meetings, and lunches. There’s also the problem of groupthink which begins at the top and can easily infect lower ranks.

But what if there were no bosses, only judges or referees that were assigned to a division of the company temporarily to make decisions after hearing presentations from different teams. These deciders wouldn’t having authority over the members, just authority over the decision that would finally be made. Employees would create value for the company by working on presentations, running the numbers, making charts, and brainstorming ideas, as they normally do, but they would only be at the mercy of their competitive spirit. This would be more fun, and possibly more efficient (or maybe not), but the real point is that the ethos would be different. In games without preassigned leaders, leaders naturally emerge by showing, well, leadership rather than resting on seniority or position, and they have to value their teammates in a stronger and more immediate way.

When I’m the worst player on a team, I usually don’t get insulted or yelled at, but just ignored or even helped. Would this ethos extend to other institutions? I’m not sure, but its a provocative idea to turn the workplace or any institution into a pick up basketball game.


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