How to kill a million people
Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely. – Lord Acton
Power kills. Absolute power kills absolutely. – RJ Rummel
Do you want to know what a sociopath looks like? Think of George W. Bush. Think of all the people he knew were killed due to his policies. Do you think he cared? Did you see him joking about finding weapons of mass destruction in front of the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2004? Do you think he had pangs of guilt later that night? I don’t think so. Sociopaths are people with no conscience. Many of those who have lost their consciences kill them over time by committing, ordering, approving or otherwise knowingly facilitate murder.
Psychopathy and sociopathy (in particular the so-called dark triad of narcissism, Machivellianism and sociopathy) broadly refer to the condition of having little or no conscience, no guilt, no feeling of responsibility, no ability to feel sympathy for others. Sociopaths lie, cheat, manipulate, intimidate, use violence for their own benefit and do not feel as though they have done something wrong. Some of them occupy positions of power in big business, politics, the bureaucracy and security agencies. Do you think that matters?
Are people born without consciences? Some might be, but environmental factors play a major role. Do you think we could reduce or eliminate some of the incentives to put aside one’s conscience? How might we do that?
Well, how did George take on the characteristics of a sociopath? Was he born that way? Possibly. Did his parents and his upbringing contribute? Probably somehow. But people in power usually kill their consciences over long periods. Few people are dropped into positions of considerable power. They climb to them over time. When Little George was still at university, he connected with other powerful people. He spent years in top positions in oil businesses. Did these roles teach him to control his conscience? When running for Governor of Texas he said he approved lowering the age of the death penalty to 14. If he was a full-blown sociopath by then (which he may have been), he could have signed the death warrants of a million 14-year-olds with no pangs of conscience. But even if he wasn’t yet, he had already begun to chip away at his conscience. He could simply tell himself killing teenagers was for the best for Texas, for “society” or for God and remain emotionally detached from any violence.
One reason soldiers commit suicide is because they can’t live with the guilt of killing people. George W. didn’t see a drop of anyone’s blood. He did the killing with strokes of the pen. His job was to shake hands and give speeches, not think. His PR people cultivated a highly likable image that made sense to enough voters. What are politicians but actors? He knew he would be rewarded for doing what other powerful people wanted him to do. If he ever felt ill at ease, he could always tell himself it’s all right, this is for the good either of others or of myself. But any excuse would do.
The more things they do they might otherwise have felt guilty about, the more cuts people make to their consciences. Soon, they simply don’t care about anyone but themselves. Now, consider how many millions of people around the world have power over us, from bureaucrats who can deny us permits and visas, to taxmen seizing what we worked for, to soldiers occupying our countries, to politicians who make it all official. This is the state, people. This is why your world has been so messed up for so long. They weren’t all born to be bad. This system sucked out their consciences like a leech. Its agents go through a process of learning to control any feelings of guilt by finding reasons to justify their decisions.
Actually, all of us justify hurtful actions sometimes. If we tell ourselves we did the right thing, we are more likely to do it again and with less guilt. But not all of us benefit from doing things that make us feel guilty or repressing that guilt. I can lie, but I might lose the trust of those I rely on. I might steal, but I might face all kinds of social penalties if I do, including jail. Having power means not needing to take responsibility. Indeed, unless there is a sufficiently large scandal and perhaps scapegoating (in a democracy) or rebellion, those in power are rewarded with more money and power. The most powerful in today’s world wield their power through the state.
The state is an instrument of concentrated force. The small minority who control the state can use it to build consensus for their plans or simply impose them without asking, but ultimately the choice is theirs. As long as the state and its precursors (pharaohs, kings, popes, and so on) have existed they have been a means of theft, whether by overt plunder, such as ransacking a town or enslaving people, defensive violence such as protecting large estates acquired by overt plunder, or covert plunder, such as taxation or economic policies. Working with the state, including trying to change it from within, inevitably means following the orders of those at the top of the pyramid to plunder the people.
Power feeds all the elements of the dark triad. The admiration and awe that come with power feed narcissism. As expert manipulators and ruthless competitors, Machiavellians benefit most from a competitive system. And sociopaths make decisions on impulse and take no responsibility for any harm they cause. The state’s monopoly on force shields all these people from consequences.
Any of us could walk the path to these disorders. We are not immune to knowingly hurting others for our own benefit, or in the name of some idea whose implications we do not understand but which we invoke to ourselves for the sake of assuaging our consciences. People have trouble resisting taking power over others when it is offered to them, or when they condition themselves to believe it is right. Concentrating and institutionalising power incentivises sociopathic behaviour. If we considered everyone equal and thus not deserving of power over others we could achieve a free society with far less violence and suffering.