The Limits of Power

When I first began to study the history of slavery around the world, many years ago, one of the oddities that puzzled me was the practice of paying certain slaves, which existed in ancient Rome and in America’s antebellum South, among other places.

In both places, slave owners or their overseers whipped slaves to force them to work, and in neither place was whipping a slave literally to death likely to bring any serious consequences.

There could hardly be a greater power of one human being over another than the arbitrary power of life and death. Why then was it necessary to pay certain slaves? At the very least, it suggested that there were limits to what could be accomplished by power.

Most slaves performing most tasks were of course not paid, but were simply forced to work by the threat of punishment. That was sufficient for galley slaves or plantation slaves. But there were various kinds of work where that was not sufficient.

Tasks involving judgment or talents were different because no one can know how much judgment or talent someone else has. In short, knowledge is an inherent constraint on power. Payment can bring forth the knowledge or talent by giving those who have it an incentive to reveal it and to develop it.

Payment can vary in amount and in kind. Some slaves, especially eunuchs in the days of the Ottoman Empire, could amass both wealth and power. One reason they could be trusted in positions of power was that they had no incentive to betray the existing rulers and try to establish their own dynasties, which would obviously have been physically impossible for them.

At more mundane levels, such tasks as diving operations in the Carolina swamps required a level of discretion and skill far in excess of that required to pick cotton in the South or cut sugar cane in the tropics. Slaves doing this kind of work had financial incentives and were treated far better. So were slaves working in Virginia’s tobacco factories.

The point of all this is that when even slaves had to be paid to get certain kinds of work done, this shows the limits of what can be accomplished by power alone.

Yet so much of what is said and done by those who rely on the power of government to direct ever more sweeping areas of our life seem to have no sense of the limits of what can be accomplished that way.

Even the totalitarian governments of the 20th century eventually learned the hard way the limits of what could be accomplished by power alone. China still has a totalitarian government today but, after the death of Mao, the Chinese government began to loosen its controls on some parts of the economy, in order to reap the economic benefits of freer markets.

As those benefits became clear in higher rates of economic growth and rising standards of living, more government controls were loosened. But, just as market principles were applied to only certain kinds of slavery, so freedom in China has been allowed in economic activities to a far greater extent than in other realms of the country’s life, where tight control from the top down remains the norm.

Ironically, the United States is moving in the direction of the kind of economy that China has been forced to move away from. China once had complete government control of medical care, but eventually gave it up as the disaster that it was.

The current leadership in Washington operates as if they can just set arbitrary goals, whether “affordable housing” or “universal health care” or anything else — and not concern themselves with the repercussions — since they have the power to simply force individuals, businesses, doctors or anyone else to knuckle under and follow their dictates.

Friedrich Hayek called this mindset “the road to serfdom.” But, even under serfdom and slavery, experience forced those with power to recognize the limits of their power. What this administration — and especially the President — does not have is experience.

Barack Obama had no experience running even the most modest business, and personally paying the consequences of his mistakes, before becoming President of the United States. He can believe that his heady new power is the answer to all things.

  • poptoy


  • cowfy

    oh yes.i have been of this exact opinion for awhile.why would a person of his own free will give up even the slightest freedom?what distinguishment do we possess if any from the beast.what makes a person give over his free choice and say "i believe you,yes take care of me".is this not the slave mentality?

    • Steven Laib

      There are a lot of lazy folks out there who would rather have a government provided half loaf than a whole loaf they earn themselves. For some reason many people are not completely rational.

      • Gary Rumain

        Those on the left?

  • me,

    Man conservatives must love Sowell-"look we got us a gen-yoo-wine nee-groh who says slavery as practiced by good christian white men wasn't so bad." What's up with them upptiy whinin' blacks, anyway?

    • DopeHead

      Good post. Now, would you like to try attacking Sowell's ideas instead of his person?

    • coyote3

      You are a liar, pure and simple. Whether you agree with Sowell or not, he did not say that slavery was not so bad. What he said was that even in the most totalitarian societies, and he included, among these, slave holding societies, the power structure realizes that while they can accomplish a lot with raw power, they must use incentives if they are to continue their society and make it grow. What he said was that this administration seems to be moving toward the power side of this equation, and away from the incentive side. This is interesting, because I remember studying that it is "theoretically" possible to keep people in absolute subserviance, poverty, and degredation. To do so, however, you must never, never, ever give them any concessions, or compassion whatsoever. If you do so, you allow them to believe that maybe things can get better, and the cycle of ever increasing expectations begins. The problem with this, is that, while it is very very interesting, it is also very, very theoretical. That is what happened to the Soviet Union. Indeed, the communists lost the war, when their people saw their first pair of blue jeans.

    • So Cal Mike

      Ass hats are like teenage acne. Ubiquitous, unsightly, factless and hard to get rid of.

  • courtnye

    It isn't just blacks that are caught up in modern day slavery of this government, And as far as that goes, being from the south, there was alot of share cropping whites that were under a MASSAs' thumb. Share cropping was actually worse than being the slave, in alot of cases. Look at the slaves of today, just look around.

  • DopeHead

    Could someone provide some background and relevance of the painting that is attached to this article?

  • Jim Stuart

    The galley slaves are pulling on the oars when the captain comes down the stairs. "I've got some good news and some bad news," he tells them.
    "The good news is I'm giving you a 15 minute break."
    "The bad news is that after that, Caesar wants to water ski".

  • Len Powder

    "He can believe that his heady new power is the answer to all things." It's not just lack of experience which explains Obama's deficits. His monumental ego is a major obstacle, and so is the cumulative effect of this past associations with left-wing radicals. He offers only one thing: eloquence without substance. Hardly enough to run a small business let alone a nation of 300 million people.

  • lovezion

    I like Tom Sowell very much! It takes great courage and integrity to publicize his ideas. I'm sorry that many commenters are so rude and thoughtless.

  • Mac

    Socialism is trying to run a nation like it was one big family who all want the best for one another. Trouble is, Big Bro and Unkie Sammy don't love us. They regard us as "human resources."
    Government registration of Birth Certificates was introduced a little over a hundred years ago. All for the good, of course. But now your BC (or certificate of naturalization) is put up as collateral for the national debt – projected revenue that can be extracted from you during your projected lifetime.
    Like any successful protection racket, the state has to provide protection not only from its own enforcers but from rival protection racketeers and independent robbers. People will not tolerate a mob that won't provide protection from violence. They will throw off one gang and invite (elect) another that they hope will do better.