There is a lesson behind this picture. It is a disappointing tale but it must be told. This picture is from Tahrir (“Liberation”) Square in Cairo. The Egyptians who took down the Mubarak regime should be proud of themselves. Yes, they scored a victory for freedom. Yes, they did so by uniting. And most importantly, they showed the world that through uniting to face common problems, we can do anything.
However, the Egyptian Revolution took an unhappy turn. Since Mubarak resigned, what has happened? Hundreds have been killed and far more beaten, shot at and arrested for nothing. Who killed and attacked the people? Who did it before the Revolution? It is not the military. The military is one part of the state. Telling the military to move aside means asking a different set of rulers, still with different priorities from yours, to govern you. It is not one part of the state that represses. It is the state as a whole.
The state is not a humanitarian organisation. It is not a way for people to work together to get things done. And it does not represent the people. It is an institution that forces everyone to comply with the mandates of a few very powerful people who have their own interests at heart. If something needs to be done, why would you want these people to do it for you?
The state comprises far more people than a few elected “representatives”. It means the military, the heads of which will remain influential, rich and unaccountable, powerful businesspeople, police, bureaucrats and everyone who is connected to those in power. Those who have the power to initiate force, to use violence on others, will use it to protect their interests against those who want their freedom. That is true everywhere. Most Egyptians know the state has amassed power and wealth over the past 30 years but seem to think they have tamed it. But you cannot tame the state. You can only injure it temporarily.
Today is election day in Egypt. The electoral contest has divided Egyptians in every way that electoral politics always divides people: by opinion. People are attacked by others who insist that their party and their candidate is the right one to impose his will on 80m people. The greatest tragedy is that Egyptians have been so deeply indoctrinated by thousands of years of despotic rule that they believe the incoming president needs to be “a strong man”: a man who will force everyone to do everything he says. His subjects will have to hope he wants and knows how to get the best for everyone else. Well, it is possible. But it has not happened very often.
Egyptians threaten to protest again—a “second revolution”—if things do not go as they believe it should. But they are fooling themselves. The past 8 months or more have already shown that Egyptians, like everyone else, will be divided by those in power. Those who voted for whoever becomes president will stand by him, and will tell everyone else why they were right. It is simple psychology: if I voted for him, he must be good. I suggest Egyptians put aside their unhealthy craving for big government and consider life without it.
As I said elsewhere, freedom for Egyptians is still possible. Everything the government does you can do yourselves. It means taking responsibility for your community and working together, rather than hoping the state will come along to fix your problems. Here is one idea. Instead of relying on police for security, why not organise neighrbourhood groups that agree to protect each other? If you live in a reasonably wealthy community, you can pay people. When you pay people and can stop paying them if you want, you become their customers, and they do what you want or they lose your money. The government is not like that, because you have to pay. The police are not accountable to you but to their bosses, the politicians. If you do not have the money to pay for people to protect you, you probably need protection from the police more than any other groups. All that is required is some agreement, organisation and cooperation. Together you can solve your own problems in ways that the state will never do for you. That is what free people do.
I know you and your peers can think of other ideas. Remember the Revolution. Unite in the face of repression.
Having lived in Cairo for the past six months, I can honestly say I have come to love it. I love the hundreds of people I know here, and have enjoyed the company of the thousands of wonderful Egyptians I have talked with. I came in April, in the wake of the violence that killed over 800 people, in the hopes that the message of freedom espoused by the protesters that brought down Mubarak would continue, and the people would reap the benefits of having liberated themselves. Unfortunately, the message has grown cold, and Egyptians are still slaves.
The protest movement has lost its unity. When people are unified by a few narrow ideals and goals, they can accomplish amazing things. Unfortunately, they often have the wrong ideas. Revolutions do not always have worthwhile outcomes. They often mean the transfer of power from one group of uncaring elites to another. The French, Cuban and Iranian revolutions, for instance, were popular revolutions for freedom against corrupt dictatorships, but a small group of cunning ideologues surfed the wave of discontent and positioned themselves as the alternative. Being little more than “not the last guy”, they were cheered into power. The people ended up living under regimes that were different but not significant improvements. The reason was, the people themselves had the wrong ideas.
The Egyptian Revolution (if that word is in fact appropriate) is different from the French, Cuban and Iranian revolutions, notwithstanding the possible election of the Muslim Brotherhood to power in the coming elections. In Egypt, the head of the regime was removed but it grew a new head immediately as the military took over. The military stood neutral during the three weeks of violence in January and February; a smart strategic move, as it turned out, because it was able to side with whichever group won the battle. One message of the time was “the people and the army are one hand”. That slogan has become a sad joke, as witnessed by the thousands of military trials for peaceful protesters and the lack of any progress on the revolution’s demands. People are still being locked up for nothing, churches are still being burned with impunity, and the hopes I heard in the voices of those I met when I had just arrived have largely faded. The countless demonstrations against the transitional military government have been in vain. Egypt is still a police state.
In the past twenty years, democracy has become the ideal that all nations are supposed to desire and gravitate toward. The main reason they have done so is that the US has consistently spread its message, and as the winner of the Cold War and the uncontested superpower, was free to do so all around the world for the past two decades. But democracy was supposed to be about advancing freedom, which is why the two words are often spoken in the same breath. It has not advanced freedom. It has brought a veneer of legitimacy to the same rule by elites under whose rule most of the world’s people are still subject. Freedom only comes to those who demand it and take it and defend it. Those who do not appreciate or defend their freedom lose it, slowly but surely. Take the modern United States, a country which many Egyptians seem to hold as ideal. Since the American Revolution, Americans have become complacent, too fat and happy to care what their government does. As a result, government power runs unchecked and the people are no longer free. Hundreds of thousands of people live in prison, many for nothing more than smoking something the state has deemed illegal because it threatens the profits of big corporations. Americans go to jail and get beaten every day for protesting, filming policemen beating people, or feeding the homeless. Is this freedom? No, but it is democracy.
The elites will try to divide you. They will try to divide you by religion, class and political views, and then tell you you need a strong government to protect you from foreign devils. But your fight should not be among yourselves, or with foreigners. The only group with the power and motive to take away your freedom is the state. Do not fall for the lies. Do not succumb to the simplistic divisions they will try to impose on you. Educating yourselves is a vaccine against hatred. Action is antithetical to tyranny.
But freedom is still possible. There are ways to attain it for everyone, but they are not easy, and they take time. Voting will not bring it about, as a vote in an election means supporting a system based on violence. Why give your consent to be ruled by people who only want to take your money and your freedom, people who see you as producers for their own benefit, people who will not care about you, however much support you give them? You do not need rulers. Everything the government does, you can find solutions for yourselves. Work together to solve your own problems. Defy the state and its violence. Expose the bankruptcy of the state’s claims to protect and represent you, like you did in January. Educate yourselves on the philosophy of liberty and the practice of civil disobedience. And most importantly, continue to spread and live the message of freedom.
Egyptians, if you want to be free, take down the whole government, not just its head. Otherwise, in a generation’s time there will be a second metro station called Al Shohadaa (martyrs), and it will be named after your children.
Special interest groups are a major part of where our money goes and where our laws come from. If you think government is the collective will of the people, and the reason we have all these laws and government programmes is because they are what the people as a whole have decided on, or that they are for the good of the people, you are sorely misguided.
Here is how it works. A politician’s incentives are for votes and money. They have the ability to hand out taxpayer money and laws that benefit the few at the expense of the many. If a group has enough voters or enough money, it has what politicians most want. That means it can get what it wants from politicians. Special interests and government form a symbiotic relationship—you help me get reelected or give a bunch of money when I leave office, and I will give you various benefits at the taxpayers’, or consumers’, or small business owners’, expense.
If I take a dollar from you, and then I do it to a million other people, and I give that million dollars to one guy, what will happen? The one guy is really happy, and he is more powerful now, so he has more influence over me. You, on the other hand, will barely notice your missing dollar. Repeat this process about a million times and you will have some idea where your taxes are going.
These subsidies, or favourable laws, or whatever lobbyists demand in return for guaranteeing the stagnant political status quo, do not just hurt your paycheque. The fishing industry, for instance, gets an estimated $20b in handouts every year. Because the politically powerful (as opposed to the friendly fisherman on the fish sticks package) get the money, they fish longer, in larger quantities and farther away than ever before. These subsidies distort market prices for fish, as the reduced fish stocks should mean higher prices, which would reduce demand and probably let fish stocks return to sustainable levels. But the subsidies encourage overfishing, and as a result, fish stocks are collapsing worldwide. (1)
We all agree that special interest groups have too much power. But why do our democratically-elected-and-thus-accountable-to-us politicians never do anything that puts a meaningful dent in that problem? Let’s ask the money what it wants.
Official lobbying spending in the US increased from $1.44b in 1998 to $3.5b in 2010. The number of lobbyists (again, officially) employed tops 14,000. (2) Lobbying members of Congress on behalf of the financial sector has sped up since the 2008 crash. (3) Do you think the lobbyists want protection for the existing players in their industry? Do you think that kind of protection will benefit the consumers? After GM received a $50b government bailout, it increased its lobbying efforts. According to the Wall Street Journal, GM “joined other auto makers in urging the White House to back off a proposal that could require auto makers’ vehicle fleets to get an average 62 miles a gallon by 2025, and to instead adopt less ambitious standards.” (4) A month or two later, the WSJ said the US government is likely to lose billions on the sale of GM stock it purchased when GM was having trouble. (5) But then the White House was never very good at market timing. Whenever you want to know why a massive handout, bailout, nationalisation, strange law (or even an innocuous-sounding one) got passed, you can be sure there is a special interest group behind it.
Some US presidents’ farewell addresses seem to present ideas to future generations that achieve the opposite of their intent. George Washington, for instance, warned entangling alliances, and the US has entangled itself with Israel. (I strongly recommend The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. Feel free to brush aside the cobwebs that they are “anti-semites”: all their data is well documented.) A century and a half later, Dwight Eisenhower warned against the pernicious effects of the military-industrial complex. Did his speech save American democracy? Millions go from the war industry to electoral candidates. (6) No-bid contracts to rebuild warzones shaken up by a US invasion regularly go to well-connected firms (7). The 2010 election was a particularly generous year for defense corporations, giving twice as much as they did only 8 years earlier. The war in Afghanistan continues to rage; drone strikes on Pakistan have increased (the aerospace sector is the biggest defense donor (8); Boeing is practically the right hand of the US air force (9), and in addition to contracts receives billions in subsidies (10)); and now the US is in an open-ended commitment in Libya. Washington’s addiction to war may have several causes, and a all-too happy dealer is clearly one of them.
But even if we cut all those other handouts, surely we shouldn’t do away with farm subsidies, right? Farmers need that to live! Consumers need that to eat! In the US, $15b a year goes from public coffers to farmers. That, like all government spending figures, does not account for the salaries and pensions of bureaucrats employed to administer that money. The top 10% richest farmers got 74% of the benefits, because they are connected to big, corporate farms with major lobbying power (11); and of course, the more money you get, the more lobbying power you have. (Trace some of the tens of millions spent by agribusiness lobbying the US federal government here.) Moreover, the public generally believes that, without farm subsidies, we would run out of food. Do they not realise if there is a market for something, it will get made? Food and land prices are up and rising, which means that farmers will make more money regardless of subsidies. In fact, subsidies can lead to shortages, as those receiving them no longer need to produce anything. People who realise all this, from left to right, believe that we should end such wasteful subsidies. But the government will not listen to a few pundits. Receiving taxpayer money has nothing to do with need and everything to do with power.
US democracy is not the only place representation is hobbled by lobbyists (European governments fund groups so they can lobby for more funding! (12)): it is in the nature of government to take other people’s money and give it to whomever they, in their unquestioned wisdom, see fit.
So we should end government handouts, right? How? You would not get millions of people to a rally to end some specific subsidy or law, because each person would barely feel the difference (and the government would not give the money back to them anyway: it would give it to other interest groups). You could attempt such a rally to end all subsidies in general, but there are too many people getting rich off them who would stand in your way. Politicians rarely have the spines to stand up to special interests because if they alienate one group, they lose a bloc of voters, get smeared in the press and get no benefit from it. They have little incentive to give you back your money.
Politicians are beholden to special interests. It’s another example of the endless cycle of all democratic politics: socialism for the rich. No amount of reform will change it, because if you give people power over other people’s money, they will use it to gain benefits for themselves. The answer is not to let anybody have that power, and not let anybody take your money, because only you can decide what is right to do with it. As long as government is around, that is not an option.
What is government capable of? What does it do that is indispensable? What benefits does it bring? What difference does voting make? If you answered “nothing” or “none” to all of these questions, you might be cynical, but you might be right. To everyone else, you could be a political activist, or you could be a devout political escapist.
As government has grown over the centuries, it has taken control of more and more areas of human life. Everything that is not illegal is regulated and taxed. There is no free market, because there is no area of human life literally free of government intervention. As a result, citizens have come to believe that government can and should solve all of their problems. Climate change? Don’t ask people to change voluntarily: force them to. Crime? Don’t let people own guns; the government will prevent crime. Disease? People cannot prevent anything themselves, so the government must hand out the vaccines. Market crash? The government will bail us out. Natural disasters? Don’t worry: the government will be along soon.
Such thinking is similar to religious faith. Religious faith assumes that something for which there is no evidence exists. Belief that government protects your life, for example, is based on government claims that it does so. Your government protects you from foreign enemies with its military, right? But wars are nearly always initiated by political elites and lobby groups. If not for them, wars would be little more than feuds. Instead, government justifies taking your money and your freedom and provides you with glimpses of submarines and fighter jets in the name of keeping you safe from non-existent enemies.
The religious faith shines when people listen to their favourite politician. They list the issues they are concerned about and then explain how their messiah will come down and resolve them. They watch with rapt attention, they clap and they cry. They rationalise failures and blame everything on their guy’s opponents. Damn Party B! It’s all your fault! Party A would never do anything bad.
Government has not solved any of the problems it has not caused itself, and has perpetuated many more. Governments have no interest in solving problems, because if the agencies and departments and programs created to deal with them end, government control over that part of life ends. Spending would have to decrease as well, reducing the number of reasons governments have for high taxes. There is nothing so permanent as a temporary government program.
Like religion, politics is full of illusions that we swallow because we want to believe. Protection or safety are just the bones thrown by the political class. You pay our salaries, we will throw you the protection bone. Likewise, the middle and lower classes can have an education bone and we will take many times that amount to cover military adventures overseas. Have a health care bone (because only government could possibly provide health care) in return for paying farm lobbyists. Health care is not perfect: it might benefit from more money, so we could cancel farm subsidies and put that money into public health, but not enough people think it would be a good idea, so we do not. The government throws just enough bones that most people shut up and believe in democracy.
The same faulty logic goes into our belief in the ability of politicians or politics to save the economy. There is no doubt that an organisation with trillions of dollars at its disposal affects the incentives in society, but the great illusion is that the downtrodden believe politicians when they promise to get the economy back on track. However, no one, including politicians, can control markets without destroying them (eg. under communism). The evidence is all around. The government contributed to the subprime mortgage crisis by enacting legislation making it easier for Americans to buy homes they could not afford. When the economy went belly up, the brightest economic minds in the land did not save it. They only made the bankers richer.
Like religion, democrats are so keen on their ideology that they want to export and even impose it on others. As soon as there is a crisis in an authoritarian state, some democrats rush in and push for a new government. This place needs to become a democracy, so that we, the ones who possess the revealed truth, can remake this society in our own image. However, when a new government is encouraged, it is sometimes no better than the last. What is needed in these situations is a grassroots political culture of self-reliance, so that government is redundant. Afghanistan is an obvious case of people who reject central government, and do just fine without it, but are having to fight against its imposition on them. Do not expect the bloodshed there to end while democrats are promoting their inappropriate model of coercive, centralised institutions on Afghanis.
The culture war in the US is of particular interest. The so-called liberal, so-called conservative divide is over how to use government power to coerce people into morality. Conservatives believe that government cannot eliminate poverty, discrimination, guns, smoking and drinking. However, when it’s time to fight crime, abortion, drugs, foreign dictators, or anything else Christ would be against, we need more money and we can save the world. When the government fails to deliver, it is because not enough money was allocated for it, or because of too much liberal opposition. Liberals, on the other hand, think it is silly to try to eliminate crime, drugs and dictators with the government; but they are more than happy to use the government to fight poverty, discrimination, gun ownership, etc., etc.
So what is politics good for anymore? It provides money and power for politicians. It helps provide the public with the illusion that caring people are in control of its security. It holds back cultural evolution for a short while. If politicians tell you they are doing anything other than that, they are probably lying.
They are not even capable of agreeing on subjects all of the rest of us believe in. There is a wide consensus in our society that climate change is bad and should be avoided. Yet “leaders” who met in Copenhagen not long ago to fix the climate problem left empty handed. It is shameful, but not surprising. But at least they got a nice vacation out of it.
The great illusions of democracy are that democracy means freedom, elections mean progress, the right candidate will make the world better, governments have to and do take care of you, war is for humanitarian purposes and law protects people rather than the state.
In today’s world, we should look beyond traditional electoral politics as the key to solving problems and start looking at how we can organise ourselves and others to change the things we can. Many people, of course, already realise this, which is why there are so many NGOs. Here we have initiated people who did not wait patiently for politicians to get round to ending poverty.
At least as important, your dollar is your vote. Every dollar you spend goes to someone else. Is that person going to spend your money in a way you approve of? Could your money be better spent if given to someone else? These are the choices we make every day that affect others. If we buy jewelry, we might be perpetuating war in the Congo. If we give money to the food bank, we might be helping people get back on their feet.
I have some suggestions for those who follow politics with baited breath. First, stop voting. If you vote, you encourage the people who are taking away your freedom and giving you illusions in return. They will promise you the moon, take it away from you and then give you a small piece of it back. Meanwhile, your friends and acquaintances will try to convert you to their party, because the more people agree with you, the more right you can think you are. Do not fall for it. Shuffling any number of empty suits around the seats of power only matters if one of them is going to change the system fundamentally, and none of them ever will.
Second, stop reading or watching political news. Either it will get you angry, because your issues are not being addressed in the way you want, or you will receive the false hope that things are getting better; and when they do not, you will be all the more disappointed. Besides, since voting does not matter, the day to day catcalling and empty legislation of party politics is meaningless. If you do hear about a huge spending increase, a tax increase, a deficit increase or a ridiculous new law, think about how it will affect you personally, then laugh it off as typical.
Third, shed the beliefs that politicians–any politicians–are looking out for you. They are looking out for themselves. You are nothing more than tools to help them achieve their dreams of power. Inasmuch as you can, disengage from politics and refuse to support those who would exploit you. We should educate ourselves and each other on the most effective ways we can make a difference in the world around us with our money and our voices.
A guy named Stephen F. Roberts once said “We are all atheists. Some of us just believe in fewer gods than others. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.” I dismiss the god of politics. Become a political atheist and free yourself of the illusions of politics.
Allow me to quote an editorial by the Globe and Mail, one of Canada’s two national newspapers, from April 27, 2011.
We are nearing the end of an unremarkable and disappointing election campaign, marked by petty scandals, policy convergences and a dearth of serious debate. Canadians deserved better. We were not presented with an opportunity to vote for something bigger and bolder, nor has there been an honest recognition of the most critical issues that lie ahead: a volatile economy, ballooning public debts and the unwieldy future of our health-care system.
The real question is, how could we have expected more? History is repeating itself, and has done every election for decades. If you are disappointed, you have not been paying attention.
Citizens of democracies like to feel that they are in charge. After all, every so often they decide who gets to sit in government, and government is in charge of everything. There is little reason to be so cocky.
Most people do not understand politics and government very well. That is simply a fact. How could they? They have other things to do besides study politics, economics, law, philosophy, congressional voting records, campaign contributors, and everything else they would need to make an informed decision. They form strong opinions on things they do not understand. And then they go vote. These are the same people who believe 10% of the US government budget is spent on foreign aid, when in reality it is closer to 1%. (More here on the consequences of the uninformed voter.) Reading the newspapers and listening to candidates speak do NOT make you an informed voter.
Here is something else voters might not know: you as an individual are more likely to die in a car accident on the way to the polling station than you are to make a difference in a federal election. Perhaps the solution is, as many a disappointed democrat stresses, to get more people out to vote. But they would vote for the same people and the same system. Doing so would not address the problems with elections.
To win an election or nomination to the head of a political party, you need to be competitive, ruthless, and know how to play voter ignorance like a violin. If politicians were wise and benevolent, there would be no need for elections. We could trust them to do what is right. But since they consistently do not do what they say they will do, turn out to be corrupt and incompetent, we need elections to vote them out. So we vote out Guy A and vote in Guy B, because Guy B promises change. But then Guy B ends up being just as corrupt and incompetent as Guy A! Am I the only one who considers this an exercise in futility, to say the least?
But people don’t get it. They say things like, “democracy is good because we have choices.” Yes, you have a tiny percentage of a say in which of a few people that you do not know very well will impose his or her policies and taxes on you, in which person’s salary and retirement benefits you are forced to pay for, but you do not have much choice in anything else. The only real choice you have is obey or go to jail.
Elections seem to legitimise democracy because people get a say in politics once in a few years. I argue that elections reveal how meaningless democracy is. Millions get together to vote and nothing changes. The politicians who demand action do nothing. All the same pointless policies get shuffled around. And voters have the same complaints about every government in every election: they don’t listen to us, they don’t do what we want them to do, they don’t solve our problems. It is the same thing every single time. Do you really think this next election will make anything better?
Elections do not force governments to do what the people want them to do. Let’s say there is a broad consensus in the US to end the war in Afghanistan. 75% of Americans from both parties (as if there is much difference between the two) believe it is time to end the war. It does not matter which party you vote for—either one will make their priority the ending of the war in Afghanistan. This is where democracy’s being better than dictatorship as a way to get things done ends. Because, if there is no consensus on the other issues, the government, whichever party forms it, will spend the rest of its time in office rewarding campaign contributors and enriching friends.
As such, the platform you voted for, or begged for, did not mean squat. Whatever politicians say while campaigning does not matter, because they are going to change their minds when they gain power anyway. One reason is that it was never about the electoral platform. The platform is a PR document and little more. Another reason is that politicians are constrained by a host of factors, which remain the same regardless of who is in the White House. They are wined and dined by the same special interest groups, including innumerable business lobbies, lawyers, public and private sector unions, the bureaucracy, the AARP, the Israel lobby, etc. As Will Durant said, “the political machine triumphs because it is a united minority acting against a divided majority.”
Have you ever passed by some pathetic-looking wretch in the street with his hand out? That’s you. Elections are like begging. Please, government, end this war, please change this law, please give me a tax cut. The only difference between voters and beggars is that voters have already given their money, and through voting they are begging for some of it back.
I suggest not voting at all. When you vote, you are encouraging a system of coercion. You are voting to perpetuate the system of violence you live under and have no power over. And no candidate will end that system. (I think George Carlin would have agreed.)
The alternative is to educate oneself and others as to the nature of this system, so that the people will realise it does not work and decide to change it from the bottom up.
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.