This article was published in the Summer 1998 issue of Formulations
by the Free Nation Foundation
How to Limit Power And Protect Rights


by Jack W. Coxe

 (to table of contents of FNF archives)

I believe that people have a natural reason to cooperate with each other, and therefore they naturally have many common interests. As a result, I believe that there is always a tendency for routines and procedures to evolve which motivate mutual cooperation. Many of the articles in Formulations show various ways that people naturally tend to cooperate.

A free nation would need to depend on this natural tendency to cooperate, and therefore the founders of a free nation might naturally seek some way to limit power and protect rights—thereby allowing natural cooperation to take place. In this article, I will suggest how and why any attempt by influential people in a society to deliberately place defined limits on power, is self-defeating. And any attempt to define and protect rights, would give influential people the opportunity and therefore the motive to protect "wrongs" and call them "rights." And I will suggest a solution to the problem.

The basic problem is that it takes power to limit power. And in order for any person to have rights, everyone else must be denied any infringement on those rights. This means that no matter what arrangement for protecting rights and limiting power that a society might agree on, there will be opposing interests. Those who seek power to limit power are a potential threat to those who seek to retain their rights. And those who seek to retain their rights are a potential threat to those who seek power to limit power. Opposing views of power result in power struggles which tend to evolve into coercive governments. As you will see, the solution that I propose would give everyone a common motive to avoid offensive action of any kind.

The founders of the American Constitution tried very hard to limit power and protect rights. They tried to establish a power to limit power and to protect rights—a government of diffused powers with built-in checks and balances. They wrote a constitution intending to define what the government had the power to do, meaning that the government could not do anything that the Constitution did not say that it could. And in effort to make extra sure that the government did not abuse its power, it defined a bill of rights which specifically listed things that the government could not do.

But their government was like a boat with a leak in it. The power to limit power was itself a power, and therefore an opportunity for skillful manipulators to find loopholes in the system and to use that power for personal advantage. Their personal advantage in turn enabled them to gain more influence in government policies, thereby enabling them to further manipulate the workings of government to their advantage. Like a leaky boat, the system is gradually sinking with constitutional amendments and reinterpretations which give government more and more power than was originally intended.

Whenever power exists, "right" and "wrong" is determined less by reason and more by the status of the power struggle. Reasonable fairness, instead of being the goal, is used more as a weapon in the power struggle. Logic can be very impressive, but it is no more valid than its assumed premises.

The problem of how to establish the power to limit power might be approached by reasoning as follows:

If you and I disagree on what is right, then at least one of us will be compelled to submit. How can it be determined which of us has the "right"? We might respectfully debate with each other, each of us sincerely seeking common ground—that oneness of Mind which we might reflect—which would enable a true voluntary agreement. But what about the option to coerce? We might both be tempted by it—especially if either of us suspects that the other might resort to coercion. Our sincere debate would be thereby interrupted and put on hold indefinitely while we attempt to counter each other’s temptation to coerce.

Maybe you and I might know and trust each other enough not to worry about the temptation to coerce. But in dealing with other people, suppose maybe one in a thousand people might resort to coercion. One person with a gun could cause a lot of trouble for 999 people who don’t believe in guns. This would especially be true if 10 gun-slingers joined forces against 9990 peace-minded people.

I think that most people find it obvious that there must be some agreed-on procedure for dealing with those who would resort to coercion. But once a procedure has been agreed on, what about the temptation for a person, or an organization of people, to manipulate those procedures for personal gain, at the expense of other people?

For example, the agreed-on procedures for coercion might involve elected officials for making and enforcing laws. Then a skillful, resourceful, and dedicated organization might succeed in getting some of their sympathizers elected, thereby making and enforcing laws which enable the organization to acquire vast amounts of property and influence, which in turn enable them to get more of their people elected and make more laws favorable to themselves. Becoming aware of this possibility, wouldn’t everyone be greatly tempted to organize for self-defense against such manipulation? Wouldn’t the result be a power struggle to manipulate the procedures to coerce? Wouldn’t sincere debate take second place and be used mostly as a weapon in the power struggle?

The problem is the very existence of the option to coerce. As long as that option exists, some people will be tempted to resort to it, thereby giving everyone reason to struggle over the use of it, both in self-defense and for personal gain. And the more centralized and potentially threatening is the option to coerce, the more efforts and resources are diverted away from seeking true right, toward the more immediate and pressing power struggle.

As long as people act like mortals in a material world, there will always be the option to coerce. It can’t be eliminated. But the option to coerce could be made to be unusable. An option is unusable for a person if the person cannot confidently control its result. The option to coerce could be made to be uncontrollable by agreeing on a system which would give every person the standing option to call for coercive arbitration by arbiters who are selected completely at random for each case, and by prohibiting any means of controlling or manipulating the arbiters.

Lacking the ability to make predictable use of the option to coerce, every person would have his own personal pressing reason to avoid coercive arbitration by sincerely seeking true voluntary agreement. A random arbiter system was explained in my article "Natural Government versus Artificial Government" in the Autumn 1997 [Vol.V, No.1] issue of Formulations.

In order avoid the leak which would sink the boat, there must be no door open for anyone to in any way pressure or control the randomly chosen arbiters. Such an open door—another attempt to use power to limit power—would give people opportunity and therefore motivation to find ways to control or manipulate the arbiters. Also, whatever agreed-on procedure was used to define the limits to the power of the arbiters, would be an opportunity for those who would use those procedures to establish more limitations, more procedures, more powers and centers of power, eventually evolving into another coercive government. We who seek a free nation would have to struggle with them. And in a struggle for coercive power, the most skilled and resourceful coercers have the advantage. Our chances would be slim and become slimmer as power became more centralized and the struggle intensified.

Yet, the idea of uncontrollable, randomly chosen arbiters might naturally seem terrifying to anyone who automatically assumes that power cannot be limited without society agreeing on defined limits to that power. Based on this assumption, it would appear that uncontrollable randomly chosen arbiters would have unlimited power. But I challenge this assumption by considering the following distinctions between what might be called "official power" and actual power, and between artificial limits to power and natural limits to power.

In the random arbiter system that I propose, it is true that the randomly chosen arbiters would have unlimited "official power," which means that any panel of randomly chosen arbiters would have the official authority to make any decision that they choose.

But if you can really imagine yourself in the position of being a randomly chosen arbiter—whether you imagine yourself to be intelligent and capable, or whether you imagine yourself to be uneducated and terrified by a responsibility that you know you are not qualified for—all concerned people would have reason to remind you and emphasize the fact that when you are finished with your case, anyone who alleges that you in any way abused your temporary authority, could call for another random arbitration to settle the allegation. And if that happens, you will find yourself on the other side, facing a panel of randomly chosen arbiters with unlimited authority to decide what to do about the alleged abuse of your temporary power.

Imagining yourself in such a position, isn’t it reasonable to conclude that you as an arbiter, would voluntarily limit yourself to taking every available step to assure that the actions you take and the decisions you make could not reasonably be construed to be an abuse of your temporary official power? And wouldn’t you honestly seek that standard of "reason" which is as universally acceptable as possible? These self-imposed limits are based on the natural need for people to avoid offending each other, which is the basis of natural government, and the principle of the random arbiter system.

Could an arbiter have a greater motive than this—the motive to avoid having to face a subsequent panel of uncontrollable arbiters who have unlimited official power to decide what to do about his abuse of his temporary official power? If a random arbiter system would provide anyone in any position, any motive contrary to the natural motive to avoid any kind of offensive action, I would appreciate it very much if someone would explain it to me.

It takes power to limit power. But the trap is the temptation to keep our hands on that power, fearing that without our artificial control and limitations, it might become a terror. Natural limitations are flawless. But they cannot function until and unless we understand and agree to let go of it by eliminating all options for anyone to deliberately control any use of power, whether offensively for personal gain, or defensively to limit an opposing power. The trap is compounded by the fact that opposing power strugglers usually see themselves as the defenders and each other as aggressors. It is very easy for people to disagree on who is the aggressor and who is the defender. The practical effect is that power is power, no matter how it is categorized.

When you learned to ride a bicycle, you had to take both feet off the ground, and then pedal. Similarly, in order to rely on our natural motive to cooperate, we need to take our hands off of both power and the power to limit power, and then deal with the resulting compulsion to survive without coercion. As the system becomes understood, people would lose their fear of each other, knowing that everyone is motivated to avoid any offensive action Everyone could then confidently seek true right, knowing that everyone else has the same predominant motive.

To sum it up, any attempt to define a controllable power to limit power, defeats its purpose by enabling and therefore motivating potential manipulators of that controllable power. All such attempts are artificial counterfeits to the natural limits on power which can function only to the extent that we agree to limit power with power that is completely uncontrollable—power that cannot be countered by some other power, but which can be avoided only by true cooperation. D

Jack Coxe was raised as a Christian Scientist and still considers himself in agreement with what he understands Christian Science to be. He works mostly alone as a cement contractor near Ione, California.

[Web Editor's note:  A reply to this article by Richard Hammer, and a response to that by Jack Coxe is contained in: "Dialog: On a System Which Gives Unlimited Power to Randomly Selected Arbiters," Formulations, Vol. V, No. 4 (this issue)]

 (to table of contents of FNF archives)   (to top of page)