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We all know the cliche from numerous comics, cartoons, anime shows, video games, etc: some members of the society are vastly more powerful than others. (These are called 'superheroes', 'wizards', 'martial artists', etc, etc).

Especially some of such works tend to correlate a character's asskicking¹ power with authority. The mightier a character is, the higher they are likely to be put in the social ladder of the work's world.

Is this indeed what would be likely to happen?

Let's assume that, in our fantastic world, for every two people of comparable power there is one that can defeat them both; and for every ten people of comparable power there is one that is ten times more powerful than each of them; and for every 100 people of comparable power there is one who is 100x more powerful than each of them or just as powerful as all of them combined; etc. So, to borrow a term from Dragon Ball, power level is inversely proportional to the number of people possessed of this power level.

On the first glace it would seem such a setting would almost necessarily result in feudalism. Each hero would be able to vassalize those immediately below them; each of their vassals would also vassalize those immediately below them in power; and so on, and so on, until a social ladder in the form of a pyramid is formed, where each answers to the one who is a little stronger than them.

However, it is also important to note that combat prowess is a completely different skill than leadership and administration. A hero, whether trained or not, will most likely be able to defeat those naturally 100x weaker than them; however, whether a hero spends their time training for combat or not may easily decide whether they're able to defeat those of comparable power levels. Thus, it would seem, most people higher up the power chart would spend most of their time training for combat rather than learning administration.

Wouldn't this, contrary to the cliche, result in a situation where people who are weak (combat-wise) but highly skilled in administration would be put in leadership positions, while mighty heroes, one-man armies² would actually respond to those politicians in a similar fashion how modern generals respond to ministers and parliaments?


¹See TV Tropes Rank Scales with Asskicking and Asskicking Leads to Leadership

²See the TV Tropes article One-Man Army

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    $\begingroup$ If I look around in our world, relatively few boxers and MMA fighters are in positions of administrative power, so... $\endgroup$
    – biziclop
    Jun 4, 2023 at 15:23
  • $\begingroup$ Also, and this is just me nitpicking on the numbers, but rather than creating a pyramid, this system would lead to 50% of the population being uniquely powerful because once you reach in your count to that point, there's always going to only be 1 person on that power level (unless you round fractions up). $\endgroup$
    – biziclop
    Jun 4, 2023 at 15:27
  • $\begingroup$ Hitler was short and so were all the people he was trying to kill, ironically to the exact opposite of the premise of this question, which was and still is extant. Didn't work out so well for Neanderthals either. Threaten the human heard and you will be culled. $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Jun 4, 2023 at 19:21
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    $\begingroup$ @biziclop MMA fighters aren't more powerful than 1000 people though. in a world of 8 billion people? that top person would be insanely powerful and wouldn't be on the same level as a "normal" human. $\endgroup$
    – WernerCD
    Jun 4, 2023 at 21:14
  • $\begingroup$ @WernerCD But if it doesn't even work on a smaller scale, why would it be different on a larger one? There are very few scenarios in our world where physical strength or combat prowess is strongly correlated with a leadership position. There are some legendary rulers who were reported to be strong in combat like Attila or Leonidas, but that's why they're legendary. It's not the norm. In fact even in armies, where you'd think combat prowess was the only thing that mattered, officers are almost never exceptional fighters. $\endgroup$
    – biziclop
    Jun 4, 2023 at 21:38

14 Answers 14

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Depends on the all important one who is equal in power to 7 billion others

Unless I have this wrong, there is one person who is equal in power to everyone else combined. That is a property of the strength distribution you've chosen.

If that guy is at all power hungry, he's the boss. If he's a dedicated democrat (lower case d), then you have a democracy. If he's nonchalant, there's one more tier that might be able to establish an oligarchy.

In this universe, Great Man Theory is necessarily the preferred historical interpretative theory.

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  • $\begingroup$ ok, but that one guy cannot be everywhere at the same time. Plus, he's not as powerful as everyone else combined but as 7 bilion Power Leve 1 people; there is 1 Power Level 7B man, two Power Level 3.5 men, etc. $\endgroup$
    – gaazkam
    Jun 4, 2023 at 10:59
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    $\begingroup$ @gaazkam She only needs to mangle a few dozen lesser folks into thinking her way, which pyramids down. $\endgroup$ Jun 5, 2023 at 2:49
  • $\begingroup$ @gaazkam If it's not dictatorship, it's oligarchy. At best, the top 127 people are equal to the next 16383, who are equal to the next 2 million. The ratios may be worse. So as Owen Reynolds says, it'll be pretty easy to pyramid down. $\endgroup$
    – user86462
    Jun 5, 2023 at 6:12
  • $\begingroup$ Any existing power structure just needs to avoid, rather than confront, this individual. The most super-powered person can certainly muscle their way into the Oval Office, but that doesn't make them President. I'm not convinced that a few dozen people with nothing but raw physical power will be able to cleanly seize control of an entire government - if this were the case, I'd expect violent coups to be a lot more common. Limited physical presence doesn't allow you to rule a nation. $\endgroup$ Jun 5, 2023 at 14:21
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    $\begingroup$ @NuclearHoagie They have nuclear weapons on their hands, and there's only a handful of them. Think Pizarro or Cortes with machine guns and fighter jets. It's more lopsided than a school shooting. $\endgroup$
    – user86462
    Jun 5, 2023 at 18:51
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Your analysis is correct.

In real world politic, leading a country is not about kicking people around, but it's more about, to put it in terms used by politicians

cut a pie in equal parts while making everybody believe they got the bigger slice

You can be a Super Sayan $9^{9^9}$ level, or have a bankai super-extra-deluxe-non plus ultra + 1 and free unlimited refill, but if you are in a position of authority your task will involve administration and negotiation. If you neglect those, sooner or later you will be put at (eternal) rest.

Of course the politicians will try their best to sugarcoat what they do so that the big shots don't get too disappointed, but paranoia tends to exhaust people practicing it, and it's not convenient to have many enemies, no matter how weak they are. To quote Michael Corleone

If anything in this life is certain, if history has taught us anything, it is that you can kill anyone.

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It would shake things up.

It might be difficult to work out how things would end, but that's because much depends on the personality of those with power. Let us suppose that the power is wizardry, it stems from study, and the more powerful you are, the more likely you are to be studious and introverted. As long as you have your sanctum where you can study in peace, you are happy. You enforce it with magic. Perhaps the governments wink at how your defenses are frequently disproportionately dangerous to intruders, even maintaining that intruders into your sanctum are obviously after power and so dangerous. Perhaps they wink at your extorting such things as you can not conjure as long as you preserve some proportionality.

If people with powers are disproportionately power-hungry and stupid, they will be a menace like storms and earthquakes. The exceptions will corral them, and they will be imprisoned. Assuming there are enough exceptions, and the exceptions are willing to do the job, because otherwise they produce a breakdown of civilization.

If they are a mix of personalities like those without powers, you have a mix of responses. Those who seek power with any cleverness are likely to get it, because administration merely needs to meet one superpowered person who has no patience with bureaucratic timewasting and a bad temper to have a really bad day. Those who want to live and let live get left alone. Everyone who can be is recruited by someone. Problems really arise when they are recruited by crooks. Problems really arise when a super-powered person decides to stop some problem that all the governments dither about.

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  • $\begingroup$ I don't want to set the world on fire.... $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Jun 4, 2023 at 19:38
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As Ancient Giant Potted Plant points out, with a small number of people who are vastly more powerful, it becomes a question of the preferences of a very few individuals.

However, from History we can draw what generally happens when one person who is unskilled / uninterested in politics and administration has command of dominating military force; the world is, in practice, ruled by the spouse, the chief eunuch who provides and procures, the childhood friends, etc.

Whoever has the ear of the most powerful people can use the threat of his action to dominate everyone else. Historically, we have found this to be a Bad Thing, but it commonly happened.

And then come the tales that, if only you could make the Tsar (or Emperor, King, etc) know how things really are, instead of having him led by corrupt advisors, things would be better.

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Maybe.

In a democracy, leadership candidates have to convince voters to vote for them. We would like to think that voters make a logical decision, judging the proposed policies and their impact on themselves and the whole of society. But that is not the case. Voters decide at least in part emotionally. So being a martial artist or being able to bench-press a tank is going to be a factor.

Someone who can only sway a crowd, and not govern effectively, is going to fail at some point. Depending on the quality of showmanship, that might take quite a while. Reasonable policies are complicated and boring. And it is much easier to spout nonsense than to debunk them. In a media landscape where political journalists see themselves as referees between equally valid sides, and not as seekers of truth, that tilts the playing field against policy experts.

In an autocracy, leadership candidates must survive the political infighting and defeat rivals. The personal ability to break the neck of a rival or to survive a neck-snapping attempt will be critical, because reliable assassins and bodyguards are hard to find in such a climate.

So, on average, one would expect these supers to be higher in the leadership ranking than non-supers, even if their powers are not directly applicable to leadership.

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Authority follows resources

Authority and leadership always follows valuable resources- mines, trees, water, food, or super powered beings. Ambitious people are going to flock to the powerful and offer them rare resources, drugs, slaves, service, leadership, or whatever to get their help.

Any faction which refuses to offer a powerful enough person what they want risks losing them to another faction which does offer them what they want, and is as such inherently unstable.

The most powerful have an immense ability to dictate terms

The 7 billion power person can intimidate anyone less powerful than him into service. Unless everyone gangs up on them, they can just kill or persuade anyone under them into service.

Even if they do gang up on them, unless they can trap them the strongest can simply escape and ambush each individually. Unless their alliance is perfect or they set up a perfect ambush, they're at a huge disadvantage.

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First, it is usually limited to certain fields. I.e., the magical order has an inner hierarchy with the top positions occupied by the most capable wizards. But these positions are usually awarded on experience and merit, not the capability itself, although there is a strong correlation as the more experienced wizards are also more capable because most of the magic is acquirable knowledge, and innate capability alone achieves nothing. Also, this hierarchy rarely translates into power over the general public. Most often order's leader, if it is recognized, is an advisor to the government.

Same with the military: it has its inner hierarchy based on the soldiers' ability to perform their jobs, but the top ranks require a lot of learning and experience, and the military as a whole is subordinated to the government.

Second, it depends on the abilities your heroes are superior in. If it's stamina, allowing them to work hard with little to no sleep, or superior ability to process information, it would help them to learn necessary skills and knowledge and obtain leadership positions.

Last but not least, having a guaranteed position makes people complacent. It results in forfeiting the necessary growth and thus obtaining higher positions, and may also cause them to lose their already existing positions.

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Wouldn't this result in a situation where people who are weak but highly skilled in administration would be put in leadership positions?

No. Well, 'no' if by 'leadership' you mean head of state/government. If you mean being appointed in other administrative positions, it depends.

Election isn't government

Election here should be understood as any process that appoints a leader, whether democratic or otherwise. Government here should be understood as the process of managing the polity, whether a city, region, country, or whole planet.

To put it simply, the qualities necessary to get and stay elected aren't the same qualities than those necessary to govern.

About election

Superpowers may affect who gets elected. If superhumans agree to participate in a fair and balanced democratic process, perhaps the weaker but more knowledgeable of them will win. Or perhaps it will be the person with the strongest supercharisma ability. Always remember it's not the best person who wins, it's the one with the most votes.

But if the strongest decides they want the job anyways, then the stronger wins and that's that. Military junta governments exist as proof that you don't need to know how to run a country to get/stay into power, you just need enough guns.

In a non-democractic system, who leads will be decided by who has the most power and is willing to use it. Effectively whomever has the most power combined gets leadership, and this works for single leaders or groups (although group dynamics certainly complicate things).

About government

Even in non-democratic systems, the leader needs a government. Your average head of government could be qualified economist or military strategist, but they aren't both, and they aren't urban planners, education specialists, agriculture experts, and so on. Even if they were, they can't do everything at the same time. The leader will have a cabinet, government, council, or whatever group of more expert people (who, probably, aren't even experts themselves but delegate to more expert people) to come up with policies to pick and choose from.

And then of course you have to translate those policies into law, enforce them, and adjudicate them. All of which more work that has to be delegated even if you don,t separate powers.

So no matter how one gets elected, it's never going to be a one-man (or woman, or person, or otherwise) show.

About layers of government

It's true some divisions of government in democracies exist for representation and for checks and balances, but even without that, you'd still have layers of government.

When you have to administer a country, you can't worry about the opening hours of the municipal pool in some random village. So there will be various levels of government for the various size of polities.

This doesn't equate to feudalism though.

You could have a feudal-ish system were power level equates to rank in the hierarchy. You could also have not that at all. Ultimately, it depends on which system the leader on top wants and can enforce.

Suppose I'm the most powerful being on the planet, and I pick the best administrator in the world to manage Europe. You could always try to kill them (which might be very easy for you) to take their place. But then you can't kill me, and now I'm a little bit mad at you, so I'll kill you and appoint the (previously) second best person administrator in the world to manage Europe.

This is where being a nerd is helpful. You might not be the most powerful, but if you are competent and have a leader who values that, you can get a high-level job. You just will never be the leader.

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Power can mean many different things. As many of the other answers state, maybe your superhumans are not very interested in the meetings, paperwork, and organizational behavior that make up a world leader's schedule. Instead, your superhumans are the most powerful people in the world of social media.

Greatgal posts daily SnipSnap videos of her beating up bad guys. She and her nemesis Dylan the Villain have been working together to hype up their upcoming battle, sponsored by Croak-a-cola (my beverage of choice). The Splash, who can swim faster than any jet boat, has a new Speedo line coming out. He also brings in quite a bit of cash by making personalized responses to paying fans. There's also a guy made out of meteorite who has a wildly successful lifestyle blog. Lately he's been talking about how to safely recycle batteries and lightbulbs.

Anyway, most of these superfolks are too busy manicuring their public persona to worry about politics. Occasionally one will decide to run for office and actually win, like when the Terminator became the governor of one of the world's largest economies.

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A position of authority and leadership is not necessarily a position that involves a lot of administration. People higher up the power chart who want authority would take positions where they make major policy decisions, and have weak but skilled administrators who handle the tedious details for them.

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Unless you have some superhumans who are super-powered bureaucrats or can somehow directly leverage their power into administrative functions, no.

This is because "rule", like winning wars, is primarily a function of logistics, bureaucracy, and administration. It doesn't matter if your superhuman could take 100 or 1000 people in a direct fight--that wouldn't make them any better at, for example, collecting and distributing taxes or writing domestic policy.

While it is likely that the superhumans could form some sort of power structure, any such structure would almost necessarily be interpersonal in nature. A malevolent super could only feasibly rule over the amount of people that they and their subordinates can effectively threaten or apply fear to, and the global population is just damn big.

Realistically, I think that goverments would end up treating superhumans as our equivalent to WMD's or highly valuable weapons systems: mostly used to counter the opposition's equivalent and treated well/lavished with money to keep them happy.

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Type of power is important

As your question is about power in general, and not a specific kind, I will address as much as possible here. I would also assume "authority" here means "the ability to make a large number of people do what you want"

Nothing beat the direct approach, and mind/perception control powers (psychic, illusion, charisma, deal-making, etc.) are just better for it. In fact, thanks to the structure of modern society, those supers need not even be particularly strong. Many of the readers here may have an anecdote or two about how influencers/propagandists/populists/etc. have gained social power, with zero supernatural power going on.

Next, you would want a super with good... well, power projection. Whether that is achieved by super speed, immense range, AoE, or something more esoteric, like scry-and-die or minionmancy, is up to the story. Again, depending on the type of power as the base, this could be variable. Mind controllers again have the advantage here of their victims (assuming they get to keep their faculty) innately know how to bend the will of another human (with enough/right type of resource). On the other hand, even pure combat supers can get in on the fun too, for a bit more investment on their part.

On a side note, powerful combatants do not always make for good generals and are better off as special forces or soldiers. Not that it should prevent them from amassing authority, as the many political leaders of our world have proven.

Level of power is important, too

Drawing a parallel with the closest thing in real life to a superpower: talent, and wealth, we can sort the supers into different tiers as below:

These are the most populous group in society and are pretty much responsible for keeping the supply chain going so that your story can focus on the "fun" part. Due to the middle management (detailed below), they can still have a shot at the absolute leader as well, though they need to be acutely aware of their capability for that.

These guys are the specialists of the world, responsible for doing stuff no one else could (could be a good thing, could be a bad thing). The problem, of course, is that once they get to that point, any time they have no work is a time they could improve upon their power instead, causing them to be somewhat distant from the general public.

You can actually see this in some of the media as well, with later episodes/seasons focusing more and more on the limited world of their supers. Remind me again, when was the last time Goku go fishing?

The middle managers of this type of world, they can be the glue to mend the two worlds together or the catalyst to tear them apart. If your setting is hopeful enough for Defeat means Friendship, this is where the MC (and by extension, the authority) should be.

John MountainHammer might not have much to care about what Joe McTwig think of him, but Jack CarChucker is just the right level of power to contain him. More importantly, Jack cannot be brushed aside as not knowing anything of the super world (if anything, those two can commiserate over the struggle to hold a burger together without it becoming a smoothie). At the same time, Jack still cares for the plight of people trapped in the subway every time John does his thing (albeit it is just an inconvenience for him, instead of life and death).

By the way, this tier encompasses not just mid-tier supers, but also legitimately strong ones, who deliberately integrate with the wider society at the cost of developing their power further. For example, if the Z-Fighters decide to go public at some point, Bulma (super rich, but riches do not count for much here) and Gohan (not train as much as others to study and get a job like normal people) are effectively the face of the group in-universe.

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Concentration of force ensures that power will determine rulers

The OP made the following comment in another answer that claims that the strongest will rule.

... he's not as powerful as everyone else combined but as 7 billion Power Level 1 people; there is 1 Power Level 7B man, two Power Level 3.5(B) men...

What this comment overlooks is the importance of concentration of force. The only force in the world that can maybe stop the power level 7 billion guy is the 2 level 3.5 billion guys working together. The 4 level 1.25 billion folks would have a dramatically reduced chance, and no one else in the world would be able to perform any meaningful retaliation against him. So, as long as the top guy can keep the next two guys from working together (whether that be by befriending them or killing them both individually), then his power is incontestable.

Consider this, assuming no weapons or formal training is involved:

  • Two average 13 year olds is about a fair fight against the average adult.
  • Two 8 year olds is about a fair fight against a 13 year old.
  • Two 5 year olds is about a fair fight against an 8 year old.

By this measure, it would stand to reason that 8 5 year olds are a fair fight against an adult, but that is not the case. The grownup is simply too tough, too strong for any number of 5 year olds to be able to take down. They can't individually punch or kick hard enough to harm him, and (sorry for any mental imagery this my conjure up), but a grownup can easily kill a 5 year old with his bare hands. In a life-or-death fight, even if all of the 875 million power level guys attacked the 7 billion power level guy together, they could not hurt him at all. He'd just go through killing them one after another until they are all dead because his strength is concentrated into each individual attack, and his toughness is concentrated into each defense.

The other criticism is that

... that one guy cannot be everywhere at the same time...

... this does not matter either. Rulership simply means that what you say goes, and that what other people say over you does not apply. It does not matter if the 20th strongest guy in the world would make a better leader because the strongest guy in the world has and infinite leverage advantage. The strongest guy may ALLOW the 20th strongest guy to rule, but his power level ultimately gives him unlimited veto power over everything... so he's still technically in charge, even if he chooses to not take any responsibility for exercising that authority directly.

Only lower down the food chain you would see merit matter a lot more. A power 1,000,000 level guy might take orders from a level 1,000 guy simply because there are enough people stronger than him who agree that the level 1,000 guy is in charge. But at the top, there is simply no power on Earth that can force compliance, and fear has a way of making people obedient. Fear is how a little man with a funny mustache can force millions of people to comply with his will no matter how horrible it is. Likewise, fear of the 7 billion power guy will be enough to make billions of people willing to do as he says. He does not need to hunt down every single person who goes against him for most people to be too afraid not to do as they are told. So, the loyalty of most people is ensured through fear, no matter how hard he tries to be a benevolent leader.

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The thing is, as Brandon Sanderson says in stormlight, 'a shardbearer can't hold a city' shardbearers being nearly indestructible and able to instantly kill most, despite their power, are defeated by hordes of foes. If you had a population of ~1 billion, you would have ~10 million people of modest power, with nearly 1 billion regular people, and 100 thousand one man armies,then you have the true elite, the 1000 and the 10 who are above all others. One thousand and ten men cannot just force the 1 billion they rely on for food and supplies to work.

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