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On Power

Forbes magazine just ranked the world’s 100 most powerful women.

Modern use of the term “power” to describe someone’s influence is far too loose. On one hand, power might be defined as nothing more than the ability to produce some effect. On the other hand, power might be defined as the ability to use legitimized force to bend others to your will.

Political leaders possess especially power of this last sort. Each of us, to some degree, possesses power of the first sort. (For example, I have “power” over my students, persuading them to read the assigned chapters of the textbook in return for an increased probability of earning a higher grade in my course.)

These two meanings of the word “power” ought not be confused; they differ significantly from each other.

In the Forbes ranking, I’m glad to see that the nine most powerful women all possess power that exists because of, and is exercised through, government. It is power of the second sort. But rounding out the top ten on Forbes’s list is Carley Fiorina, Chairman and Chief Executive of Hewlett-Packard.

While unquestionably influential and wealthy, Ms. Fiorina possesses no power of the sort possessed by, say, Wu Yi, China’s vice premier or Senator Hillary Clinton. In her capacity as head of Hewlett-Packard, Ms. Fiorina cannot summon the power of the state to compel others to buy her company’s products; her income does not come from taxes extracted from citizens; if she fails to ensure that Hewlett-Packard satisfies the voluntarily expressed desires of millions of customers and suppliers, she will lose her position.