who’s more powerful, Bill Gates or Kim Jong-il?

This is a silly question, except that it can prompt some serious thinking about the nature of power, the state versus the market, and monopoly.

Let’s say that “power” is the capacity to do things you want to do. Clearly, the Microsoft Chairman and “chief software architect” and the Chairman of North Korea’s National Defense Commission (also known as the country’s dictator) can each do things that the other cannot. Bill Gates can shape the daily experience of, I suppose, billions of human beings. He can influence the flow of global ideas and capital and the creation of new forms of culture. He can employ thousands, and fire any employees he chooses. He cannot, however, order people killed, turn Seoul into a “sea of fire,” or sell nuclear bombs to al-Qaeda that might incinerate Manhattan. Nor can he order people to listen to his six operas, or have a conspicuously weird sex life. Kim Jong-il can do all of the latter things, but he cannot travel freely or have a frank conversation with anyone–or make the North Korean economy prosper while maintaining a totalitarian state.

As Hellmut Lotz (a Maryland graduate student) notes, a dictator cannot retire. Once he loses control of the military and police, he cannot guarantee his own security. He is inevitably a threat to the successor regime, which may decide to destroy him–regardless of any deal he may have struck before exiting power. Augusto Pinochet is just the latest example of an ex-dictator who has paid a serious price for relinquishing control. In contrast, Bill Gates can step down at any time and retain any amount of wealth and influence he likes.

In a perfectly competitive market, Gates’ “power” would be very limited. He would have to produce software that people wanted to buy. He would be constantly maximizing his products’ popularity, at peril of losing his position on top of a publicly-traded corporation. Any discretion that Gates does enjoy results from Microsoft’s quasi-monopoly position. But his monopoly is insecure.

For his part, Kim Jong-il relies on all those guys with guns and bombs in the North Korean security apparatus. If they decide collectively to withdraw support, he’s dead. Fortunately for him, soldiers in a totalitarian regime cannot safely communicate–unlike investors and consumers in a free market.

Bill Gates was part of the “personal computer revolution,” which has certainly changed billions of people’s lives. However, it is not easy to estimate his personal contribution to that revolution. On one theory, he was the very clever (and lucky) guy who capitalized on an inevitable technological development by getting there first. This is not to minimize his intelligence, but it does suggest that he wasn’t very powerful. On the other hand, the discretionary decisions that Gates made early in Microsoft’s history have had enormous and perhaps irreversible affects on the precise way that software works today.

It’s easy to see that Microsoft has been on the side of history over the last 30 years, whereas North Korea is doomed. But that doesn’t by itself show that Bill Gates is more powerful than Kim Jong-il. We don’t say that a dinghy being swept to shore by a strong tide has more power than one battling to stay at sea.