Open Letter to a Supervillain


So I see that your plan to hold the world hostage by threatening to release a genetically-engineered super-virus has failed, and you are now serving a life sentence in a specially-designed maximum security facility.

Since you now appear to have a lot of time on your hands, I thought I would write to you and give you some advice. A critique, if you will.

It was a bad plan.

I’m not going to try and convince you that your plan was evil or despicable, because you’re not the kind of person that concerns themselves with moral judgments. Instead, I’m going to try and persuade you that threatening mass destruction is simply bad strategy. It’s never going to achieve the effect you want.

One man, no matter how smart, cannot outwit a billion people. Especially when they have a powerful incentive to work together to defeat you.

But there’s a more fundamental problem.

You’ve said that you want the power to fix the things you hate about the world, but it’s clear that you don’t really understand the nature of power to begin with.

I realize that one of the most timeworn, hackneyed phrases in superhero comics and movies is when the antagonist says “Now let me show you true power!”. At which point, they unleash some form of large-scale destruction as a demonstration.

At such times, I have to wonder: “Is that the best they can come up with?” This really seems like a failure of imagination — there are far better, and stronger, ways to get power than by simply blowing things up.

In general, I’m not terribly impressed by displays of brute physical force. This even includes “super” abilities such as great strength or agility. Most such abilities are of little consequence. Many are quite banal, in fact.

Go faster than a speeding locomotive? So can I, in a jet plane.

Lift steel bridges? I can do that with a crane.

Burn through steel bars? All I need is a cutting torch.

Most “super” abilities are easily matched by a normal human with the right tool. The fact that the “enhanced” individual carries that tool around with them at all times is merely a convenience.

From the perspective of a medieval human being, all of us are “super”.

Nor are superhuman physical abilities particularly meaningful when it comes to fighting crime. I can’t think of an instance in the last few decades where the police were unable to bring someone to justice because they lacked sufficient firepower.

What is far more interesting is the way in which those abilities violate the known laws of physics, an area which is indeed worthy of the most vigorous scientific research. But that’s a subject for another essay, as are discussions of super abilities that transcend the merely physical, and operate in the realm of information.

Let me show you what true power really is.

I’m not going to make some namby-pamby argument about how power comes from within, that the most powerful are the ones with self-knowledge and introspective wisdom, la la la. Don’t get me wrong, that argument is in fact literally true, but I don’t expect you’d be very receptive to it.

No, my arguments are purely about practicality. About objectively getting what you want. About changing the state of the world.

Let us start by agreeing on the following axiom: that a person with good tactics is more powerful than someone with bad tactics.

The logic is simple: good tactics means that your actions lead to the fulfillment of your goals. Bad tactics means, basically, incompetence — you spend a lot of effort either accomplishing nothing, or end up worse off when you started. Not very powerful.

So what are the best tactics? Well, an indispensable one is the ability to cooperate with others.

In your Introduction to Despotism 101 course you should have learned that “no man rules alone”. That is, every ruler needs followers. Minions, if you will.

Why do you need minions? Because you can’t be everywhere. You’re not a god, just a very smart human being.

Even if you had cameras on every street corner, or psychic clairvoyance, and could spy on every person, you would still need to interpret what you are seeing. Despite the ridiculous Hollywood trope of the mastermind with a hundred computer screens, no human mind can take in the simultaneous activities of thousands of people. To try and construct a meaningful narrative out of all that information is more than any single human brain can accomplish.

In order to rule, you need a network of accomplices who can not only observe, but can analyze and interpret what they are seeing. And then act.

And because you don’t have time to micromanage the decisions of every one of these agents, they also need a certain degree of autonomy — that is, the ability to act based on what they observe, without having to ask permission for every little thing. To take initiative.

You also don’t want minions who are constantly undermining each other, who spend much of their time tearing each other down. We’ve seen how a few misguided CEO’s have tried setting their employees against each other, so that one person or office succeeds at the expense of another, and the results are predictably disastrous.

And most importantly, you want minions who are loyal. If the minions are acting only out of fear of punishment, then there’s a strong incentive for them to lie to you — to tell you what you want to hear instead of what’s true.

The best minions are ones that have their own creativity and insight, and who are happy to use those abilities to support you. Who have a stake in the game. Not slaves, or serfs, but comrades.

And, because you are human, and fallible, there will be times when a minion needs to disobey — out of loyalty to you. There will be situations where they need to act quickly, and they have information that you do not. They will follow the spirit of your orders rather than the letter, and will be willing to suffer the consequences for doing so if needed.

The best minion is the one that lets you know when you’ve made a mistake.

But if you have minions that are that capable and smart, it no longer makes sense to call them minions. A better word for them is citizens.

So, how many minions do you need? A dozen? A hundred? Enough to man the guard stations at your base?

You’re thinking waaaaaay too small.

I’m assuming that you want to enjoy the fruits of a modern, technological civilization, both for your own comfort and health, and also because you might want to build a few super-science gizmos of your own. But to do this, you’re going to need parts and labor.

Take for example, a common object such as a cell phone. How many people does it take to build one? Well, it contains dozens of parts, and each of those parts is created in a factory that employs hundreds of people. But wait, it doesn’t stop there — the people in those factories use hundreds of tools and machines which were created in other factories. They also use raw materials that were produced and refined by yet other workers. And all of those workers need to be fed, housed and educated, which requires even more workers.

And what happens when you get sick? If, for example, you get cancer from too much radiation exposure in your lab, you’re going to want to consult a specialist. But have you considered how many thousands of lifetimes of effort went into producing that specialist?

You are going to need (at minimum) the population of a small country. So simply “eliminating the surplus population” isn’t going to cut it, not unless you like living in a post-apocalyptic ruin. (Trust me, it’s not nearly as fun as it’s depicted in the movies).

So you’re going to have to come up with some way to get along with all the folks you can’t live without.

Would-be tyrants often make bombastic statements about how other people are “weak”, and that they are “strong” because they are willing to do the ruthless things that others are not.

But they have it exactly backwards — their inability to cooperate with others in fact makes them weak. The consequence of their unchecked behavior means that no one trusts them, and thus they lose the benefits of that trust. They spend most of their time looking over their shoulder instead of actually getting shit done.

And when I say “weak” I don’t mean some abstract moralistic judgement — I mean in purely practical terms, these would-be tyrants are failures. Because no one wants to work for them.

So how do you get loyal followers? Certainly not by threatening to kill them. That just gives you cowering slaves, which are frankly worse than useless.

Of course, there was a time in history when rulers did rule by fear. But back then, people didn’t know that there was an alternative. Folks thought that without an authoritarian strongman ruling over everyone, there would be chaos and destruction. They couldn’t imagine anything else.

But now we know better. Yes, with freedom, there’s some chaos, but it’s manageable and sometimes even entertaining. And everyone is much happier now. Most people wouldn’t be willing to go back, even if there were dire consequences. As they say, “Live free or die”.

No, the way to get loyal followers is easy: provide for them. Satisfy their needs.

True power is not the power to destroy.

True power is the power to feed, to clothe, to shelter, to heal, and to entertain.

Destruction is certainly much easier than creation, but in the long run, creation is much more far-reaching and consequential.

So if you want power…be a creator and a giver.