What the Federal budget crisis teaches us about power

Throwing in the monkey wrench
Monkey wrench throwers, unite! (Image from Leasing News.)

Too much has already been said about the shutdown of the United States Federal government and the even bigger crisis that can happen if the debt limit issue isn’t addressed. I also don’t want to add to the chorus of finger-pointing, because there is plenty of blame to go around.

Instead, I’m interested in the power of the individual, especially the power to obstruct. We can think about Senator Ted Cruz’s filibuster or the man who stood in front of the tanks in Tienanmen Square. Depending on how we feel about an issue, we can consider this power to be noble or obnoxious, courageous or egotistical, moral or self-serving. We can’t deny that such exercises show how much power an individual really has.

To look at this power, we should first determine what power truly means. A textbook definition is that power enables us do something or to influence someone. It also means that we have the power to prevent something from being done if we believe it’s wrong.

Power can come from several sources. It can come from your position, such as being a boss, a parent, a teacher, or some other person with formal authority. Power can also be earned through your knowledge, abilities, and influence. A department manager may have power because he has a title and the ability to reward and punish. But the staff member who knows how to use the equipment, find the necessary supplies, and answer questions has power too. In fact, that staff member may have more power because if she quits, the manager might not have the power to get his job done.

Just as power can be gained, it can also be lost. We can lose power when we abuse it, when we misuse it for selfish aims, or fail to use it when needed. We can lose power when we violate people’s trust, when we try to impose on them something they don’t want or prevent them from getting something they need. What we claim as a principled stand may appear quixotic and selfish. As a result, we can lose support and our power.

To preserve our power, we have to use it wisely and for the right reasons. We need to consider the consequences of its use, including the consequences to ourselves.

You may have a strong conviction about healthcare, taxes, and the role of government in society. Is it worth causing 800,000 employees to lose their pay, denying people services that are vital to them, and possibly throwing the global economy into chaos? If you believe it is, are you willing to suffer the consequences of taking your stand? Are you willing to accept the blame when the worst happens? Are you willing to risk losing reelection, damaging your party, and ending your political career? Your answers to these questions determine whether your stand is moral and courageous or petty and self-serving.

This crisis reminds us that we all have power — whether it is assumed because of our position or earned through our actions and experience. How we use this power says a lot about our character. We need to use power wisely and consider the consequences of its use. When we use power in the right way and for the right reasons, we are able to keep it.