The End of Power

[Amazon Link]

I put this book on my virtual TBR pile after reading an excerpt in Reason last year and a glowing review from Nick Gillespie. The good folks at the Unversity Near Here's library requested it from the MIT Dewey Library via the Boston Library Consortium, a service to which I've become addicted.

So: If you look up "conventional wisdom" in the dictionary, you'd think there might be a picture of Moisés Naím attached. His résumé is the epitome of mainstream respectability: he was editor in chief of Foreign Policy, an Executive Director at the World Bank, and Minister of Trade and Industry in Venezuela. You'd think he'd be a bland, non-boat-rocking kind of guy. But here he is, describing a current and ongoing decay in the traditional understanding of the way the world works. Go figure.

Naím methodically breaks down the concept of "power" into four "channels", somewhat glibly titled "The Muscle", "The Code", "The Pitch", and "The Reward". "Muscle", of course, is old-fashioned coercion; "Code" are those tenets of morals, tradition, mores, and expectations to which we subscribe, conciously or not. "Pitch" describes techniques of salesmanship and persuasion (very related to Virgina Postrel's book, The Power of Glamour, that I read awhile back). And "Reward" is refers to (sensibly enough) getting people to do what you want by paying them.

All four channels are declining in their influence; all sorts of "power" are becoming diffuse and decentralized, and the strong of yesterday are turning weak and constrained. Naím (once again, very methodically and somewhat glibly) identifies three forces involved: the "More Revolution", the "Mobility Revolution", and "Mentality Revolution". By "More", he refers to the increasing wealth of the middle/lower classes worldwide, which gives them the ability to avoid traditional barriers to power. "Mobility": more "small" people have acquired the nimbleness to do an end-around old-style power centers. And "Mentality": there's an increasing expectation that power can be defied and defeated. (I.e., people mad as Hell, and they're not gonna take it any more.)

Put it all together, and you have a pretty convincing argument. It's not that Naím is a wild-eyed libertarian (to the extent he reveals his politics, they're pretty much the same as your standard US liberal Democrat), but he's got facts and stats on his side.

The book's style is what I've come to think of as USA Today-ese, gee-whiz and somewhat dumbed down, which can be annoying in large doses. And Naím is convincing enough that he's identified a trend, but can the likely final result really be deemed the "End" of power? Doubtful.. My guess is that (sooner or later) we'll get to a new equilibrium: old-style power will be less, but it will be far from non-zero.