The hard truth about hard power

I have a long form piece in the Ottawa Citizen, about the tendency certain people have to overestimate the effectiveness of physical force, when it comes to achieving social order. It starts with a little conversation:

(For purists, let me just acknowledge that this scene is not in the book, and there’s good reason for that, since Baelish’s end of the conversation is out of character.)

In any case, the point is not to discuss Game of Thrones, but to provide me with an opportunity to revisit some of the amazingly foolish things that were said in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and how they reveal real misunderstanding of some basic facts about how social order is maintained.



The hard truth about hard power — 5 Comments

  1. In which papers and/or articles does Lawrence Sherman lay out his “interpretation of coercion as punishment vs. defiance” theory? Are they available free or only to those with university access to journals?

  2. First, thanks for running this blog — I’m a big fan.

    To explain the distinction between authority and force in a concise way, I like to use the analogy with parenting: If you have to keep beating your kids to get them to do what you want, you’re doing something wrong.

    The Truman-era realists (George F. Kennan, Hans Morgenthau, etc.) are pretty good at explaining this. Louis Halle, “The Cold War as History”, explaining why the US could not have used its atomic monopoly in 1945-1949 to rule the world:

    “… real power is always something far greater than military power alone. A balance of power is not a balance of military power alone: it is, rather, a balance in which military power is one element. Even in its crudest aspect, power represents a subtle and intimate combination of force and consent. No stable government has ever existed, and no empire has ever become established, except with an immensely preponderant measure of consent on the part of those who were its subjects. That consent may be a half-grudging consent; it may be a consent based in part on awe of superior force; it may represent love, or respect, or fear, or a combination of the three. Consent, in any case, is the essential ingredient in stable power–more so than physical force, of which the most efficient and economical use is to increase consent.

    “By using physical force in such a way as alienates consent one constantly increases the requirements of physical force to replace the consent that has been alienated. A vicious spiral develops that, continued, ends in the collapse of power. If the Government in Washington had undertaken to use the atomic bomb to control the world it would surely have ended by incurring the fanatical hostility of the world’s peoples, with incalculable consequences. It would have found itself trying to dominate the world by terror alone; it would have found itself driven to ever greater extremes of ruthlessness; and the requirements of a totally ruthless policy would, at last, have compelled it to establish a tyranny over the American people as well as over the rest of mankind. At some point early in this progress, however, it would have fallen and been replaced.”

    In “Politics Among Nations”, Hans Morgenthau describes the failure to understand this distinction as the error of militarism: “Militarism … is unable to understand the paradox that a maximum of material power does not necessarily mean a maximum of over-all national power. A nation that throws into the scale of international politics the maximum of material power it is capable of mustering will find itself confronted with the maximum effort of all its competitors to equal or surpass its power.”

    dbk: Here’s the Google Scholar listing for Lawrence W. Sherman.

  3. You can get the article on the Milwaukee experiment ungated:

    The article on defiance theory (“Defiance, Deterrence and Irrelevance: A Theory of the Criminal Sanction”) appears to be gated:

    I found one ungated summary for you, it’s a huge pdf, his chapter starts on p. 207 (of the book):

  4. Hi Mr.Heath,

    I just encountered your article in the Citizen, and wondered, upon reading, “we assume that the more severe the punishment, the more likely people will be to stop”, and “it never really occurred to anyone to test the theory”, if you had considered any behaviorist research on punishment, of which there has been plenty available for decades at the very least. In their school of psychology, punishment has been considered to have unpredictable consequences among other things. I thought that to exclusively look at criminology research, or rather to ignore behaviorism and other fields where punishment has been extensively studied, that it severely limited what useful information you could have assessed, and even though I enjoyed the intro the your article, and the spirit of the article, in my opinion it could have greatly benefited from a wider research scope.

    With all due respect,

    Joseph Csaszar

  5. Joseph: I may have been too hasty with that claim (which, come to think of it, I made primarily for rhetorical effect). On the other hand, I thought the behaviorists did rather little in the way of experimentation on humans — focusing more on rats and so forth. You are right of course about them having discovered the limitations of punishment. My favorite negative result is the discovery is that, when an animal exhibits submissive behaviour, you can’t discourage it through punishment — all you do is elicit more submissive behaviour.