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Paradoxes of Power Essays on Failed Leadership and How to Fix It Book Cover

Paradoxes of Power: A Collection of Essays on Failed Leadership and How to Fix It

Introduction by Ben Speggen

This essay – by Carl Hunt, a retired U.S. Army colonel and principal co-author and editor of  Paradoxes of Power, and Lawrence Kuznar, an emeritus professor of anthropology and contributor to the book – is the fourth in a series on leadership and power and how the lessons they observe in their book can be applied at the local level.  

In the first essay, the authors ask a big question: What recommendations could come from a closer study of leadership and power – the successes and failures of each – that might lead to changes in practice at the community level? The second essay turns specific attention to gender and racial biases. The third essay examines leadership and its impact when it comes to nature and the environment.

Here Kuznar and Hunt ponder: What are the paradoxes of justice today and what does our past stand to teach us? What roles do education and economics play? And how can we identify and overcome paradoxes in local politics?

The authors address those questions here. Hunt will follow up with a concluding essay in this installment on “The Future of Power.”

Here is Kuznar and Hunt’s case onHow American Justice Today Creates Injustice.”

By Lawrence A. Kuznar and Carl W. Hunt

When it comes to equal justice under law, size matters. When the Founders created a new nation, fewer than four million people lived in what was about to become the United States of America. While they sensed that educated, engaged citizens at local levels would make the difference and empower the country to grow into a model of self-governance for the rest of the world, they likely didn’t envision it becoming a highly diverse nation of more than 331 million people.

As we discussed in Paradoxes of Power, there are a variety of factors involved in creating today’s nation divided by tribal loyalties. Many of these divisions have grown out of our nation’s earliest days.

From the beginning, we faced quests for dominance in political and government relationships, unequal education across all levels, misapplication of religious principles, blindness to our role in nature, unequal treatment of races and genders, and a general lack of respect for those on the “other side” of the issues we personally embrace. These symptoms of dysfunction now affect cities and towns large and small throughout America, and they occur at every level of power relationships. They create paradox and leadership malfunctions.

Justice, or the lack of it, is one of the root causes of each of these issues. Citizens at every level of community cannot agree on what justice means today. That is at the core of the paradox we face as Americans in 2021. A shared sense of what justice means in America must start at the local level and scale upwards with a focus on politics, education, and economics.

The Paradox of Justice in America

We use justice as the baseline concept to describe power paradoxes for one simple reason: many Americans define justice in different ways. Our views may be based on our upbringing, our experiences, and even the diversity of our personal education.

Developing a common definition of justice in our city, state, and national governments could go a long way towards healing our nation from the rifts we now experience. But how do we arrive at a shared definition?

“It’s important here to define justice, as the U.S. legal system has perverted our sense of it,” writes author Mychal Denzel Smith: “It cannot be punishment or retribution for harm caused. Justice is not revenge. Rather, justice is a proactive commitment to providing each person with the material and social conditions in which they can both survive and thrive as a healthy and self-actualized human being.” Our essayists in Paradoxes of Power also called this kind of justice leadership.

Smith adds that justice “…requires all of us to buy into the idea that we must take responsibility for one another. But it is the only form of a just world.” This is also the essence of good power relationships between leaders and followers, and it must be the bottom line for those who define and enforce justice policy.

Smith’s notion of justice is not a new concept; rather, it is a re-statement of the notion of enlightened self-interest that inspired the Founders’ ideal of a government enabling the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. Enlightened self-interest is recognizing that an individual’s own freedom depends on everyone’s liberty. Using our power to deny others justice is one of the greatest paradoxes we face.

We recently proposed local experiments and policy development to build new ways to protect and defend our environments from harm (here and here) while creating new forms of community and employment.

Now, we similarly suggest that towns and cities are the best place to construct local and national justice in our nation, because they are ideal “laboratories” to propose and test new ways to discover and implement scalable forms of justice nationwide. A forthcoming essay in this series on the “Future of Power” will elaborate on this notion, but it involves revisiting the types of peaceful and productive relationships we all want between each other in our community.

The Many Paradoxes of U.S. Education

Education has historically been viewed as a critical pathway to opportunity. But education has become ironic in many ways, because of academic hubris, politicization, and educational inequality.

We live in a rapidly evolving world, yet academic hubris clings to outdated “tried and true” expertise and pedagogical methods. The consequence has been a decline in enrollments nationwide, especially in the conservative Midwest.

Today, we see education being overtly politicized from both sides of the political spectrum. Consider the recent politicization of critical race theory (CRT). CRT began as a boutique discipline in legal theory that examined how American legal institutions create boundaries to racial inclusion and equality. On one side, some professors have been accused of coercing white students into admitting that they are racists; on the other, CRT has become a bogeyman to rally conservatives who would rather not face the realities of race and politics in American history. In a time when more would benefit to use the moment to assess the legacy of racial politics in a factual and constructive way, the political noise too often drowns out what people can learn from one another, whether in the classroom or elsewhere.

George Packer argues that the U.S. has fractured into four parts, one of which is “Smart America.” Smart America attains educational credentials, pursues white-collar careers, has an inherently international perspective, often has liberal views on race and poverty, yet typically looks down on the uneducated. Furthermore, Smart America parents go to great lengths to ensure that their children likewise pursue higher education, its material benefits, and its attitudes. Ironically, however, their efforts unintentionally exclude disadvantaged youth from higher education due to the competition to get into the best schools, or even to be able to relate to what attaining a higher education degree entails.

The result is the concentration of higher-level knowledge, skills, and abilities in a particular class. Educational inequality persists between Small Town America and Urban America. Smart America generally “embraces capitalism and the principle of meritocracy: the belief that your talent and effort should determine your reward,” as Packer notes. The ideas behind meritocracy have also fallen under closer scrutiny in light of these developments, as meritocracy tends to divide America further between the “educated” and those who are not. Justice in education is the foundation of our future as a nation.

Paradoxes of Economics

The U.S. market economy is based on individual freedom to pursue wealth, unencumbered by excessive taxes or government interference. The nation’s wealth is testimony to what has worked.

But from the earliest years of our fledgling nation, government played a critical role in making long-term investments in the resources and services American businesses would need to flourish. Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana purchase led to western expansion and trade. Federal and state investments in canals and railways expanded production and trade. President Eisenhower’s interstate highway system is a more recent example of government long-term investment that enabled economic prosperity—but it is 60 years in the past.

By connecting far-flung agricultural towns and manufacturing centers to the larger national economy, Small Town America grew. The development of the Internet by the Defense Advanced Projects Agency further connected businesses in these small towns and cities to the world economy. These government-sponsored ventures were largely paradox-free uses of power with noble goals in mind: connect Small Town America to the rest of the nation and to the world.

It has, again, been decades since government has made visionary investments. The results are obvious in crumbling U.S. infrastructure.

Passage of the Senate bipartisan Infrastructure bill in August 2021 is a ray of promise for our nation’s infrastructure. Mayors and other city leaders made a difference in encouraging their Senators to vote for this bill. They must also continue to encourage their House delegations to do the same. Local power has helped attain this national milestone.

To be sure, it was not easy to get there. Politicians fought over what constitutes “infrastructure,” and angled to cast their own parties in a positive light and the opposition in the dark. In the end, they created an infrastructure bill that promises to shore up our nation’s crumbling roads and bridges and that will hopefully expand new infrastructures, such as broadband connectivity. If wise investments are not made, the nation will not prosper, and Small Town America will be hardest hit.

Identifying and Overcoming Paradoxes in Local Politics

In our third essay for the Our Towns Civic Foundation, we introduced the idea of polycentric distributed power (PDP) as a way of enabling small towns and cities to take responsibility for identifying and dealing with climate change and the ensuing environmental damage that has impacted so many small communities. Implementing and embracing PDP is not without challenges, the least of which is coping with so much diversity of thought and innovation, but it is in fact the “bottom-up” way Nature works, as we suggested in that essay.

Many of these challenges arise from power paradoxes in which leaders aren’t really serving for their constituents, but rather to attain and perpetuate their desires for personal power and position. If local leaders are driven by desire for personal achievement above community success, the irony of unqualified governance and policy implementation should be quite visible. The same is true for business leaders, especially at the local level where residents depend on those businesses for livelihood. The question is: What will the community do to overcome these paradoxes?

As one of our chief sources for Essay Three notes, “scientific interest in the power dynamics of polycentric governance is only now emerging as an important field in its own right.” Polycentrism in government is a relatively new field of study, but it offers distinctive opportunities for small town and city mayors and city councils to study and orient to failures of leadership and power within their communities because in fact they are small and observable. The complexity of comprehending how politics and policy-making work is much easier to digest at the local level. This is a special “power” that local leaders can master and wield on behalf of all their citizens.

In an insightful essay, author Michael Hendrix recently wrote, “(p)eople are the ultimate source of power in this country, and municipalities exercise their power closest to the people. In contrast to the top-down, centralized authorities higher up in the governmental food chain, local governments are decentralized bottom-up polities.” This demonstrates the critical nature of local politics and governance and suggests how fundamental good paradox-free leadership and exercise of power are the only meaningful way in which local leaders can best take care of their people. Alexis de Tocqueville seconded that notion in Chapter Five of his 1835 Volume I of Democracy in America.

If local leaders don’t care for and lead their people, who will? The local level is the bedrock for all justice in our nation. And, at the end of the day, justice is what holds us together.

Lawrence A. Kuznar is emeritus professor of anthropology, Purdue University Fort Wayne, and currently chief cultural sciences officer for National Security Innovations, Inc. He has worked in the national security realm for fifteen years, developing computational models of conflict and applying complexity thinking to national security challenges. Dr. Kuznar is also a major contributor to Paradoxes of Power.

Carl W. Hunt is a retired US Army officer and graduate of the National Defense University’s National War College. He devoted the final half of his 30-year military career to the study and practice of the sciences of complex systems within military and government settings. Hunt is the principal co-author and editor of Paradoxes of Power, Amazon, 2020.