397. Power, dependence, control and trust
Economists shy away from discussions of power, because power should not play a role in supposedly anonymous market forces. Economists do talk of market power as a disturbance of markets by monopolies, oligopolies and firms erecting entry barriers to markets. That is to be fought by competition authorities. But power is more widespread. Power creates dependence. But it can also be positive. Even monopoly can be beneficial.
I use the (customary) definition of power as having influence on the choices of others. It can be positive, in an extension of options for choice, and freedom of choosing from them, or negative, in reducing them.
If for choice one is dependent upon another, than he/she has power over you. One can avoid or reduce that by avoiding him/her or by creating counter-power, by constraining the actions of the other. Trust is leaving room for conduct for others, control is constraining it. Control can result in a vicious circle of accumulating mutual constraint. A danger looms of excessive oversight and control.
What forms and sources of dependence are there? One is that the other has a unique offer, with few adequate alternatives. That is the power of monopoly. Or there is no way out, no exit: you are locked in. That is the power of enforcement. Or there are incentives to submit to power, for the sake of income, position, protection or prestige.
How to deal with power?
One can fight negative power by constraining the room for power play, and punishing it by means of contracts, legal coercion. However, the specification of activities, rights and duties constrains action, and can act as a straightjacket that inhibits innovation. Contracts are also costly and may be difficult to enforce, particularly if it is difficult to monitor the partner’s conduct.
One can also exert direct hierarchical control by taking over the partner, becoming his/her boss. That is a cop-out: one does not face the challenge of collaboration between independent partners.
One can also employ a reputation mechanism, where the partner will not cheat for fear of losing his reputation. Or one can use a hostage, in the form of some commercially sensitive information one has of the partner, with the threat, often implicit, not pronounced, to divulge it when the partner misbehaves. The hostage may also take the form of a package of shares that one has in the partner’s business that one can sell to someone with the intent of a hostile take-over of the partner.
There are also more constructive, benevolent ways of dealing with power.
In relations of collaboration there is the following ‘paradox of specific investments’. To create unique novelties, in innovation, connecting each other’s competences, one typically needs ‘specific investments’, dedicated to the relation, that have no use elsewhere. That makes dependent: if the relation breaks, the investment is rendered useless. If the investment is asymmetric, mostly on one side in the relationship, dependence is one-sided. On the other hand, if the investment makes you special, offering something unique, that gives countervailing power. A monopoly, in fact. This can generate a race not to the bottom but to the top: partners keep investing in themselves to maintain a unique offer.
Another possibility is to demand shared payment and ownership of the specific investment. Yet another is to make the partner dependent in some other way, by offering some other unique benefit, such as access to a market, a brand name, special knowledge, technology, or a patent, or to some other resource (a lobby, perhaps).
One may also rely on other sources of reliability that are not oriented towards control, such as trust based on ethics or personal bonds of friendship, family, clan, or custom.
With the latter, however, one can get caught in systems of paternalism and enforced loyalty that do not allow for exit, thus imposing another constraint from power. Obligatory bonds limit the variety and freedom of outside contacts needed for learning and innovation.
Sometimes there is no alternative to such personal bonding, as in countries where there is no institutional basis outside personal relationships, such as a legal system to support contracts, reputation systems, or a shared ethic and morality. I found that to apply, for example, for different reasons, to Japan and the Ukraine.
In Japan the reason is a strong tradition of family values, which is now weakening. In the Ukraine the reason is widespread corruption and lack of a reliable legal and democratic order and justice.