A politician divides mankind into two classes: tools and enemies. – Friedrich Nietzsche
The love of liberty is the love of others; the love of power is the love of ourselves. – William Hazlitt
Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun. – Mao Zedong
Do you want power? Do you want to control other people? What if you had the opportunity to force people to do what you wanted? Would you take it? Do you think you know better than others about how to spend their money? If so, what if you could take other people’s money? What would you do with it? Would you risk becoming corrupted by it? If you think these things are wrong, why are they right when governments do them? This is the problem of power.
Power and freedom are two sides of the same coin. Power is the extent to which one can control others. Freedom is the extent to which one is able to resist control by someone else. What are the effects of the concentration of power? Not only does power corrupt, as Lord Acton put it. R.J. Rummel, in his book on democide, goes further.
Power kills; absolute power kills absolutely…. The more power a government has, the more it can act arbitrarily according to the whims and desires of the elite, and the more it will make war on others and murder its foreign and domestic subjects. The more constrained the power of governments, the more power is diffused, checked, and balanced, the less it will aggress on others and commit democide.
Mass murder, such as war and genocide, are made possible when power is concentrated. After roughly sketching the atrocities committed by states or state-like actors of the 19th century and earlier, Rummel goes into detail about the incredible slaughters of the 20th. Some things seem different at the beginning of the 21st century. We may have a more compassionate and less violent world, as many suggest. What has not changed, however, is that states have retained the power to kill people en masse. Neither has the average person’s attitude toward the inevitability of the state and war.
Rummel’s conclusions are that democracy is ideal because of the checks on government power it instates. The less power is concentrated, the better, which is why I believe the decentralisation of power, right to the individual level, is in fact the ideal. Whichever of us is right, as governments grow in budget and scope, we should not sit idly by.
What happens to us when we have power?
Through war and genocide, governments killed hundreds of millions of people in the 20th century. Why? Because they stood in the way of the accumulation of power. They may have been urban workers or uppity peasants. They may have been nothing more than scapegoats.
Mainstream political science does not consider much libertarian thought, and rarely considers the abolition of the state. Many political scientists depend on the state for funding, and have no taste for serious criticism of it. Political science also rarely takes what is believed or known about the psychology of power in account.
Who wants power most? Psychologists estimate roughly 1% of the human population is psychopathic. (Others say it is as high as 4%.) In other words, for every hundred people you know, one of them has no conscience, no empathy, no concern for other people, no sense of guilt, no compunction about lying, will use others to gain money and power and will use violence against enemies. And they do not take responsibility for the endless trouble they cause.
Psychopaths could be the people who continually lash out, like serial killers. These people are sometimes easy to identify and should be locked up or killed. But psychopaths might also be very smart, crafty people who do not commit violence themselves. A reasonable fear related to anarchy is, in a free society, these people will form violent or at least smooth-talking groups that attempt to impose their will on others. However, if the people believe no one should impose their will on others, they will unify to resist and perhaps lock up or kill these psychopaths. Statist societies have far more to fear.
At present, there are legal ways to gain power, which means any of these smart psychopaths who want power can attain it, and the people have to do whatever they want. It might seem unlikely that could happen in our society—after all, we live in a democracy, where elections are supposed to weed out the people who are not fit to lead. But elections do not do that. They reward charismatic people, people who look good on television, people who flatter their subjects, people who make all the right promises, and people who know how to use others to get what they want. I often wonder if more people would be anarchists or voluntaryists if they realised how many psychopaths there are, and how much power they have access to.
What professions do you think psychopaths, people who want power over others, are likely to go into? We might hypothesise they would be disproportionately represented in politics, big corporations, the military and the police. Indeed, there is some evidence that is the case. If these institutions had some kind of psycho-detectors, they might be more trustworthy. They do not. Psychopaths rise to the top of powerful organisations, where their influence far outstrips their numbers, and the dangers of their recklessness multiplies. As Jim Kouri, vice president of the National Association of Chiefs of Police, explains, the characteristics of psychopaths, again, charm, lying, no empathy or guilt and so on, are shared by politicians.
[T]hese same traits exist in men and women who are drawn to high-profile and powerful positions in society including political officeholders…. Some of the character traits exhibited by serial killers or criminals may be observed in many within the political arena. While not exhibiting physical violence, many political leaders display varying degrees of anger, feigned outrage and other behaviors. They also lack what most consider a ‘shame’ mechanism. Quite simply, most serial killers and many professional politicians must mimic what they believe are appropriate responses to situations they face such as sadness, empathy, sympathy, and other human responses to outside stimuli.
Psychopaths adopt the attitude that the rules do not apply to them. However, they are likely to set up all manner of very strict rules for everyone else, in order to control others. They may not even set up rules but simply punish people they do not like or anyone as an example to others. They want to set up a climate of dread, the pervasive feeling that we are not safe from them wherever we are.
Often when people say “human nature being what it is” they mean “psychopathy being what it is”. People who say they have a grim view of human nature might ask themselves why they trust a small group to monopolise the means of violence. We might benefit from a system that deals vigilantly with psychopaths; at present we have one that rewards them, handing them the power of the law and paying them handsomely for it. If you are still not convinced the inner circle of the powerful is made up of psychopaths, bear in mind these are the people who sign or initiate orders to imprison, torture and rain fire on any number of innocent people and then sleep soundly in their beds at night—happy, even, that they gain so much from it.
Thus, when we talk about politicians and other powermongers, we are not talking about normal people. They are not like us. Most people in the world care about family and friends, love and happiness. They spend their time working for their families, going out with friends or pursuing harmless interests. But a few very smart people with psychopathic tendencies spend all their time thinking about how to maintain and increase their power. That is why they can so successfully divide and manipulate people.
Why would we be so willing to give them this power? Plato’s aphorism, widely accepted among the politically active, that the price of apathy toward politics is to be ruled by evil men, misses the point. The price of government is to be ruled by evil men.
The desire for power is closely related to the urge to survive. Power is, at least to he or she who wields it, partly or entirely about protecting from the many dangers of the world. The more limited is one’s power, the less protection one has. And when one believes one’s power is not absolute, one is still at risk of losing it. Thus, accumulating power nearly always leads to an attempt to gain more. Many of us already know these things if we realise bullies are, deep down, cowards.
The grip of the situation
Psychopathy is partly genetic but also comes from upbringing. But the right situation can bring out the heart of darkness. There are varying degrees of psychopathy; and of course not everyone who wants power is a psychopath. He might just be some well-meaning person who does not realise the initiation of force is an immoral and counterproductive way to make the world a better place. But power tends to corrupt, as not only Lord Acton’s maxim but research indicates. To be successful politicians, people need to adopt the smooth talk, the lying, the denial of responsibility, the control of their consciences necessary for success in politics. And these things get worse the longer they remain in politics and defend their actions. People in power become more impulsive, more convinced of their greatness and less sympathetic. They also lose certain inhibitions. Power leads to overconfidence. It leads to more risk taking. When an individual without political clout takes risks and fails, they affect him and his family. When a corporate executive takes risks and fails, wealth and jobs are destroyed. When the politically powerful take risks and fail, we get war and economic crisis. They take the biggest risks, cause the biggest avoidable catastrophes and still deny responsibility, pass the blame and avoid punishment. Anarchists and voluntaryists believe we should not enable and reward psychopaths.
People may have the best of intentions when they make the choice to go into politics or big business. The ideal among statists is to use the state to benefit everyone. But how can anyone use the state for good when it is designed and presided over by psychopaths, when one must mix with and act like such people to rise in influence and when one takes on the traits of psychopaths when one spends enough time at the top? As Philip Zimbardo demonstrates in The Lucifer Effect, it is not necessarily about the people and how evil they may or may not be. It is about the situation in which they find themselves. The reason politicians lie and break the law, police use unnecessary violence, and militaries go to war in the absence of a credible threat is they can. They are given enormous amounts of power to do so, along with the incentives that enable them to benefit from lying or using violence, and the state relieves them of responsibility. In modern states, where the amount of power one can acquire is larger than ever, the chance it will turn people bad is great. To say “I am not like that” ignores the fact that, in the right circumstances, I might be.
Saint Bonaventura, a 13th century theologian, once said “the higher a monkey climbs, the more you see of its behind.” In other words, the more power a man amasses, the further he is from social constraints. People want power because it creates, or seems to create, freedom of action, and control of others. But if often brings vanity, worry about how long power will be enjoyed, fantasy about how benign its holder is, and the desire to use that power to gain more. (These are all traits psychopaths possess in abundance.) As Frans de Waal says, “Few people have the discipline to handle this drug.” And winning an election or otherwise forming the government is how to get high.
A natural human weakness and symptom of the abuse of power is obedience. Like with gaining power, obedience has much to do with situational factors. Stanley Milgram’s experiments in obedience found a majority of subjects, men and women, were willing to torture strangers—sometimes to death—if they were given the OK by an official-looking man. His experiments were with US citizens, though they were inspired by the fact that something similar had happened on a nationwide scale in Nazi Germany, Japanese-controlled Asia and Maoist China. Some of the best-intentioned people can be easily manipulated—I’m pretty sure I would be a pawn to a government official. If I joined the bureaucracy, or started working for a politician, or enlisted in the army, or worked in any rigid hierarchy it is hard to disobey, I would likely become an accomplice in acts I disagreed with. I would only want to work somewhere I could follow my conscience all the time.
In order to keep people obeying, authority figures might offer an ideology, such as national security or liberating others. They might tell people they agreed to it, and thus cannot back out. They might allow them some verbal dissent, but tell them to continue following orders. They start the people on a small step that becomes a slippery slope. Psychologists have shown one way to lead people to blind obedience is to show their peers following blindly. Conversely, if we want them to disobey, we show them examples of others disobeying authority.
Accounting for the effects of power
I find it ironic that all democrats I have ever met complain about their governments sometimes or all the time but most believe we just need to reform it. We just need new elections. We just need more people voting, or taking an interest in politics. We need more accountability and the right people in power. They have dreams of incorruptible supermen doing exactly what the people want. Sorry friends: that system and those people do not exist. Almost everyone who gains power could be corrupted by it. And whatever your fantasy of strong, accountable government is, the term is an oxymoron. The stronger government gets, the less accountable it is.
As such, it is also ironic the same people accuse voluntaryists of having a rosy, unrealistic estimation of human nature. After all, they believe, how would we deal with evil men without a central authority? Anarchists and voluntaryists look at the damage done by the state and realise the concentration of power has terrible consequences. They have workable solutions to the problem of violence and ask “why not?” Big government killed and enslaved hundreds of millions of people in the 20th century alone.
If anyone has an unrealistically favourable view of human nature, it is someone who proposes giving people power and thinks elections and the press will force them to do whatever the people want. The argument that a government is just made up of people in the society, and is no better or worse than the people in that society, does not follow. Because power corrupts, people who acquire and need to hold on to and want to expand their power over others can be dangerous, however they may have acted otherwise. More accurately, a government is no worse, and probably not much better, than the restrictions to its power.
Politicians spend virtually all their time trying to accumulate power. In the you-scratch-my-back-I’llscratch-yours world of politics, when powerful groups a politician can reward by doling out public money to or protecting with laws come along with their hands out, they usually get what they want. You, by the way, as a voter, a taxpayer and a civilian, are not powerful. If you are not a member of a well-connected pressure group, you have no voice. In the words of Gordon Gekko, “if you’re not inside, you’re outside.” Insiders have hold of the reins of state, which means they can force you to follow their directives, dictated by their whims, and outsiders have to beg to have them changed.
Power should be widely and evenly distributed, so that no one can force his or her will on others and be
corrupted by the ability to do so. No one should be given power over others—not me, not you and especially not someone who wants it.