The illusion of power

The illusion of power

One seemingly universal human trait is that of appealing to a higher authority. When an issue arises, we (as a species) tend to react as follows: we try to solve the problem using our own knowledge; if that doesn’t work, we try to employ someone with more specific knowledge; if that fails, we appeal to someone with more power; if they can’t fix it, we blame them for not being powerful enough. An example grounded in reality: if the lights in your house go out, you’ll first flip the fuse box, then call an electrician, then contact the utility supplier – and if they can’t make it right, you’ll find yourself out of options and probably out of patience.

This eventual appeal to authority has become more apparent recently, although it is perhaps the media coverage that has increased, rather than the number of occurrences. An article, by the FT columnist Janan Ganesh, highlighted that the main reaction to the floods and storms hitting Britain in the past couple of months has been an expectation that the UK government will solve the problem. Mr Ganash makes the point that there is only so much the authorities can do, considering that Britain is rarely troubled by climate extremes or serious natural disasters – ultimately concluding that the UK tends to expect too much from politicians and governments that are limited in their power.

Extending the idea away from politics and the UK, we don’t have to look too hard before coming across a similar pattern on a global scale.

Regional conflicts in the 21st century – whether it is the Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Mali or elsewhere – are trailed on the news with tearful pleas from locals for someone to “do something.” International bodies (UN, NATO etc) duly respond, usually with military force.

Catastrophes of an environmental nature – oil spills, nuclear waste, even climate change – are met with demands that the situation be resolved immediately, that those responsible be punished and that the planet be returned to its former state. In the case of climate change, this means groups of nations agreeing emission targets and consumption limits.

In the financial world, potential crises are passed round the system until they land on the books of someone large enough to take the pain. In ’07-’08, the Federal Reserve and the US Government stepped in to stop banks folding – as did the European Central Bank in the Eurozone in 2011.

Unfortunately, in all of these scenarios we see the same problem, namely the reliance on appealing to a greater power. This removal of individual consideration of consequences is likely to increase risk (as there is nothing the greater power can do), and remove any responsibility for people to solve the problem themselves or to behave in a way that might prevent it occurring in the first place.

With regard to the UK flooding, it might well be that investing in flood defences to protect low-lying houses might not be a good use of government money. In the longer term, perhaps the sensible thing to do would be for individuals to avoid building at sea level, or at least be better prepared for rising water levels by building on raised platforms.

Military intervention is clearly complicated, but it seems that more often than not, international involvement ends up being analysed, criticised and eventually demonised. There may be a case that intervention prolongs conflict and suffering rather than curtailing it. Certainly the Afghan and Iraq invasions of the last decade would seem to suggest that.

Climate change is perhaps the most obvious example of absolving oneself of the obligation to make an effort by moving the duty up the chain of command. While coordination at a global level is important, it could be trumped by everyone, say, recycling 50% of their waste – or even just consuming less. This might even help bloated healthcare budgets – another place where people cry out for ‘someone’ to spend more to make the sick better.

So far in the financial world, the final authority has had enough power to avoid catastrophe. However, this may not always be the case. The actions of central banks have been much discussed over the past few years since the Global Financial Crisis – and here some lessons may well have started to be learnt. It is rare that the financial world is ahead of other industries, but perhaps the magnitude of the crisis was enough to force a change in attitude.

As we stand today, it is widely acknowledged that letting banks get big enough to break the global economy is foolish, and that lending money to people without the income to pay it off is also not sensible. If removing the implicit safety net leads to more care and consideration, this would increase the resilience of the financial system. However, just as banks should be careful lending, the other side of the coin is that individuals should be more careful borrowing – responsibility goes both ways, similar to climate change and recycling.

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