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The Three Different Kinds Of Political Power

Paul SÚrusier. Breton Wrestling.
Two hobbits demonstrate the first type of power.
(Paul SÚrusier. Breton Wrestling. Source)

1) Introduction

You probably remember the three different kinds of political power, sometimes referred to as: "mineral, animal and rational". Since (very broadly speaking) political power can be defined as the power to influence men, and since the behavior of men can be influenced in three main "ways", we can distinguish political power according to those three ways.

2) "Mineral Power"

Men have physical bodies, so insofar as physical bodies can have their "behavior" influenced, so can men. For example, if you want a 2x4 wooden stud to stay put, you can nail it down. In the same way, if you want a man to stay put, you can nail him to a cross. I guarantee he won't run away!

For more common examples of such a power to influence human behavior, you can think of a pair of handcuffs for a suspect, or a mother grabbing her child and pulling him away from an incoming car. As you can see, it is not because you treat a man as an inanimate object (a "mineral") that you hate it. We are not passing moral judgment on the types of power at this stage, just listing their various types.

3) "Animal Power"

Men, on top of having a physical body, are also "sentient beings", i.e. animals. Because of this, their behavior can be influenced in another way, the way requiring senses and the ability to feel pleasure and pain. This type of power is often colloquially referred to as "the Carrot and the Stick", i.e. the lure of pleasure or the threat of pain.

As examples of this type of "Animal Power", you can think of speeding fines (a threat of pain, a "stick"), or tax credits if you put money aside for your retirement (the lure of pleasure, a "carrot"), or a father hugging his child because he ate all his veggies, etc.

4) "Rational Power"

As you can imagine, this way of influencing human behavior is specific to men. You can tie a dog to a leash ("Mineral Power"), or train him to roll over for a biscuit ("Animal Power"), but you can never reason your dog into doing something.

As examples of this type of "Rational Power", think of a schoolteacher explaining to her class the disastrous effects of pollution. When one of her students, many years later, decides to avoid buying a gas-guzzling SUV because he remembers what she said, and wants to protect the environment, then his behavior has been influenced by that teacher. Another example is the girl who one day decides to share her dolls with a younger sister, not because she wants to be praised by her Mom, or to avoid punishment, but just because it's the right thing to do.

Of course, it's quite possible to actually be influenced by "Animal Power" even though you assume you're being influenced by "Rational Power". Many ex-couples can testify that, with hindsight, their intentions for being together weren't all "pure", i.e. they were together mostly if not exclusively for the sex, or the money, etc.

5) The various types of power in action

Suppose you're the Government, and you have to influence the behavior of your citizens concerning, let's say, the damage caused by tobacco use. What could you do? In other words, what power does the State have to curb smoking? Let's look at a few possible examples:

5.1) Restraining patients who try to light up inside their oxygen tents. Obviously, this calls for "Mineral Power"! Normally, you can't just grab somebody physically, or search him, but here, any hospital staff would be justified to act very quickly! In this case, the State probably wouldn't enact special laws, but it would refuse to prosecute a nurse or policeman who had physically restrained the patient or searched his personal belongings to take his lighter away. Admittedly, this is somewhat of a contrived example, but it does give you an idea of how the State could use "Mineral Power" to curb smoking.

5.2) Rewarding people who stop smoking. For example, a Government-sponsored program could publish in the newspapers the pictures of persons who had successfully quit smoking, etc.

5.3) Punishing people who smoke. One of the "punishments" which the State can impose is a surtax on the harmful product or service, in order to help citizens change their bad habits. This currently is the case in the Province of Quebec, where tobacco products are highly taxed on purpose.

5.4) Educate citizens about the dangers of tobacco use. Of course, this is using "Rational Power", for example with compulsory courses in publicly-funded schools about the harmful effects of tobacco use, or with ad campaigns encouraging young persons to break the smoking habit, etc.

5.5) Counter-example: Avoid punishing people who stop smoking, and avoid rewarding people who persist in smoking. Sometimes States cause much damage by giving "mixed signals" to citizens. For example, if smoking is not forbidden in public places, people who stop smoking or who have never even started to smoke are punished (by second-hand smoke). Another example is heavy smokers who voluntarily destroy their health, but who then have all their medical bills paid for by the State; in a way, smokers are being "rewarded" for smoking in this case.

6) Considerations on the use of the various types of power

I'm not a politician, but it seems there are many ways to misuse power. The most obvious one is to use power to direct people toward bad behaviors. We won't talk about this case here. We'll just assume that power is being used to direct people toward good behavior. But even if you direct citizens toward good behavior, you can still use the wrong type of power given the circumstances.

Since there are three types of power, we could imagine that there are nine possible situations (broadly speaking):


"Mineral Power" appropriate

"Animal Power" appropriate

"Rational Power" appropriate

"Mineral Power" applied


Behavior is influenced, subject tends toward apathy

Behavior is influenced, subject revolts

"Animal Power" applied

Behavior obviously not influenced


Behavior is influenced, but subject infantilized

"Rational Power" applied

Behavior obviously not influenced

Behavior not influenced, often without realizing it


This matrix is not scientific, but notice at least that there is a "diagonal" in the matrix, where the type of power needed corresponds to the power actually used, and under that diagonal the behavior is never influenced, and above it always influenced, but with negative consequences.

Another consideration is that in real life, the three types of power are often combined, and actually, "Animal" and "Rational" powers are often used together, especially with children who precisely need to be "raised" (literally, "raised" from the level of animals to the level of rational beings).

7) Conclusion

The types of power we've listed are very basic. A more complete list would probably have to add the power of habit. Men, when their behavior is influenced often enough (using the right kind of power), eventually acquire habits. Moreover, these habits can be partially "crystallized" into writing, and "distributed" among various groups according to their function. This leads to the more usual division of powers into the "Judiciary, Legislative and Executive" powers. But I'm just thinking out loud about another article!

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