Should we even seek power?

A question that The 48 Laws of Power does not address is whether you should even seek power – and what lengths you should go to to seek it. Greene assumes that everyone wants power and that more is better. He’s wrong.

Click here to read my detailed summary of The 48 Laws of Power. Or just get the book here: Amazon | Kobo (affiliate links)

What is power?

The word “power” has certain connotations. It readily conjures up an image of a dictator issuing commands and executing those who get in their way. Contrast this with the word “influence”. Influence is more subversive, subtle and indirect. It describes a courtier more than a ruler.

Greene does not define “power” in his book, but he uses the term to refer to both direct and indirect forms of power. He does not clearly distinguish them – for example, he doesn’t explain that some Laws are for direct power while other Laws are for indirect power/influence. Overall, my impression is that he seems to favour the indirect, courtier approach.

In a nutshell, power is simply the ability to get what you want (particularly through other people).

When you put it that way, surely Greene is right when he says that everyone wants power. By definition, we all want what we want, don’t we?

Well, not quite.

Power lies on a spectrum. It’s not like you either “have power” or “have no power”. We all have power over something. None of us have power over everything. So the question isn’t whether you want power. The question is whether you want more power than you currently have.

Gaining power may not be worth the costs

First off, even if we want something, we may not be want to be willing to incur the costs of obtaining it. I may want the new iPhone, but I don’t want it badly enough to pay for it. I may want that promotion, but not enough to screw over my friend to get it.

Greene completely overlooks the costs of obtaining power in his book, which is a major oversight. It leaves the reader with the impression that power is all there is in life, and that it’s worth following any of the 48 “laws” in order to obtain power. How far should one go to obtain power? The answer suggested by the book is “all the way”, which is why I think the book kind of is evil.

Power is not happiness

I doubt that people seriously following the laws in the book will be any happier. Some of the laws (e.g. “Don’t trust friends”) can make for a pretty sad and miserable life. In the Preface, Greene writes about the importance of mastering your emotions, and never letting things like love and affection “influence your plans and strategies in any way”. It’s true that acting out of love and affection will sometimes cause you to lose power. But love and affection will also enrich your life in countless ways that power cannot. It can give you a sense of community belonging.

As pointed out above, power lies on a spectrum. I suspect that, if you plotted power vs happiness, you’d have an upside down U-shape.

My very scientific graph plotting happiness as a function of power
My very scientific graph of power vs happiness

People with absolutely no power are probably quite miserable on average. Some enlightened individuals with complete mastery over their inner worlds may be happy even with no power, but they would be the exception rather than the norm.

Then, as people gain power, they become happier, as they have a greater ability to get what they want. However, past a certain point, happiness likely starts decreasing. Like money and many other things,1There is surely a positive correlation between money and power. Money, by definition, is purchasing power, which is a form of power. And, on the other side, people who have power should be able to use their power to obtain money if they so want. I expect the benefits of power has diminishing returns. After that point, too much power, you become a magnet for power-seekers. You will have to constantly watch your back, which is stressful and not particularly conducive to happiness. It’s also risky – losing power can come with enormous losses (in the past, banishment or execution). Whereas if you don’t have much power in the first place, people will generally leave you alone.

There are more reliable ways to achieve happiness

In a sense, happiness does involve a match between “what we want” and “what we have”. One way to achieve that is to get what we want – and that will involve some degree of power, in the sense that Greene describes. But another way to achieve that match is to change our wants to coincide with what we already have. This involves changing our internal worlds rather than our affecting our external worlds.

The 48 Laws of Power usually talks about power over other people, rather than power over our natural world or power over our internal world. (He does talk about the ability to control your emotions yet, even then, it’s not to obtain inner peace but so that you don’t reveal anything or do anything dumb to worsen your position.) Changing your internal world may be harder to achieve but, in the long run, is a more reliable way of attaining happiness. Once we get what we want, our wants tend to increase – this is the so-called “hedonic treadmill”. Moreover, even if you follow all the laws and are the most Machiavellian person that ever Machiavelli’d, success is not guaranteed. In the external world, luck is always involved.

Power is relevant to individuals who seek to improve the world

Power is probably not that relevant to most people. Particularly in developed countries, the basic standard of living is quite high, even for those who have relatively little power. In such a world, seeking more power may not be worth the candle.

Power dynamics are prevalent of course in the domains of politics and business. Most people don’t really operate in those domains to the degree that power is involved. They may have jobs, sure, but they’re more likely to be Losers in terms of the Gervais principle. They find meaning outside their work, so are largely satisfied with their current levels of power at work and don’t need to participate in power games.

However, power is relevant to those who want to improve the world. Normally, when we think of someone trying to seek power, we assume they are trying to do so for themselves. The image of a selfish, ruthless corporate ladder-climber comes to mind. Of course, it’s true that many people who seek power do so for selfish reasons.

But if you seek to do good in the world, you definitely need some power. The more power you have, the more good you can do. If you’re merely concerned with yourself, you don’t really need much power at all. Getting a good policy passed requires navigating politics and power. Advocating for those who are completely disempowered – such as animals and future generations – requires obtaining and wielding power yourself.

Many ways of gaining power are not good for society

Even if it makes sense to seek power on an individual level, is it what’s best for society? Some of the laws of power are relatively benign. For example, Law 29 (Plan all the way to the end) doesn’t hurt anyone, and society may even be better if everyone abided by this. But certainly many of the laws are zero-sum, in that a person gains only at another’s expense.

So as a society, it would be best if we had institutions and cultures that discourage or neutralise certain types of antisocial (as in, “being bad for society”, not “avoiding people”) power-seeking behaviour. Since many of the laws of power exploit people’s emotions and play on our tendencies to rely on appearances, norms that encourage and reward rationality and transparency may help neutralise some laws. One example may be to implement better ways to reduce noise in decision-making, particularly in our governmental institutions.

Unfortunately, I doubt it will be possible to neutralise all laws. Humans are, after all, still humans.

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Do you think power is worth seeking? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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  • 1
    There is surely a positive correlation between money and power. Money, by definition, is purchasing power, which is a form of power. And, on the other side, people who have power should be able to use their power to obtain money if they so want.

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