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.
Edit edit, 2/7/17: This post no longer reflects what I believe. I am still an anarchist but I have come to understand why anarchists are so opposed to capitalism. Please see this blog’s most recent posts if you are interested in how I think.
Edit, 17/12/13: The post below was written two and a half years ago. My views have changed considerably since then, and I noted these changes in the second edition of my book, available here for free. Unsurprisingly, my opinions have evolved since this last attempt to enshrine them, and I would be glad to discuss them on this blog or on Facebook.
This is the first post of the Rule of Freedom, a blog about why anarchy and voluntarism are preferable alternatives to democracy and statism. This first post is about how I became an anarchist, and some of the reasons why it makes sense to me.
It’s hard to know exactly why we believe what we do, because there are so many large and small influences on our opinions and what we choose to read and believe. But it is possible to trace the trajectory of our beliefs. I have been studying politics and government for about 9 years now. My degree is in political science; I still study it. I had some vaguely socialist tendencies in university, but after a while I started realising that freedom was more important than forced equality. Freedom seems to me the best way to achieve equality of opportunity, and equality of wealth and power is more or less impossible in a world where each individual is so different from the next. I started reading economics, and began to believe that the freer the market, the more fairly goods are distributed. By that time you could have called me a libertarian. But I was still a democrat, which means I still believed we needed government, because I hadn’t been exposed to other ideas.
One day I was on a Facebook forum for libertarians and someone wrote something to the effect that libertarians should look into anarcho-capitalism. I might have just scoffed but the next sentence was something like “Scoff if you like, but you can’t really call yourself open minded until you read about other ideas, can you?” That made sense to me. I wanted to continue to call myself open minded, so I checked it out on Wikipedia. At the bottom of the page it listed a few people I could go to for further reading. One of them was a guy named Stefan Molyneux, a name some readers will be familiar with. I read Stefan’s book Everyday Anarchy, and every page made sense to me. I realised that everything he wrote was the logical extension of what I already knew and believed about politics and government. I came to the conclusion that, not only could we be better off without government, government itself is an inherently immoral institution.
I remember one day in kindergarten, I hit my friend, and my friend started to cry. And my teacher said to me, why would you hit other people? Would you like it if they hit you? No, of course not. Since then, I realised something that I think most people can agree on: that the initiation of force is immoral. Using force in self-defence is understandable and moral, as long as it is just enough to end aggression, but initiating force is immoral. Most anarchists believe what they believe, that government should be replaced with voluntary institutions, because they understand that government is based on force and coercion. That is the most important thing for anyone reading this to understand: government is based on violence. Here’s why.
Governments could not exist without taxation. Taxation is forcing you to pay for whatever it is the government wants to do. You have no choice but to pay. If you do not pay, you go to jail. If you resist going to jail, they shoot you. Taxation is a gun pointed at your head. Similarly, you have to do everything the government tells you to do, like a bad boss at a job you can’t quit. That is called the law. If you do not follow the law, you go to jail. And hey, people who persistently or maliciously hurt others should be locked up somehow. But what about people who do not hurt anyone else with their actions? You can’t sell sex to a willing buyer. The government, in its self-declared wisdom, has decided that you can only have sex if you do not pay for it. As a result, the entire sex industry has been driven underground and it is much harder to prevent violence against the women involved. You can’t do drugs, even though they do not hurt other people. Oh, sorry, I mean, you can’t do those drugs the government has deemed illegal. You can smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol or pop pills as much as you like. If the government made riding your bike illegal, you could go to jail for that too. Whatever this small clique of decision makers decides, you must follow. They know better than you, and if you think otherwise, you’d better be a fast runner.
Now, it is sometimes argued that, despite a few bad laws, the government represents the will of the people. If the purpose of government is to represent the will of the people, how about the people represent themselves? But that is not the point of government. It never has been. The point of government is to consolidate power in the hands of a few, who do not need to listen to all the people, so that the few can control society as they see fit. If that is not true, why do they have to use force for everything? Why can’t they just suggest?
The competitive party system could not possibly represent all the people, because only a few win. An election is when people who think their views are right vie for power in order to impose those views on everyone else. An anarchist will not try to impose his or her views on anyone. An anarchist does not mind what you do with your money and will not try to take it away from you by force and call it taxation. An anarchist will not turn a gun on anyone for smoking some herb that does no one else any harm. He only hopes that you will give him the same respect.
Your life, if you think about it, is mostly anarchic. You do most things without being forced by government. Government doesn’t decide what food you eat, whom you marry or hang out with, which job you take (with some exceptions), which car you buy or whether you should take your bike instead. Now, we are capable of making those decisions without being forced into them. Why would we want the government in on any of them? But statists think that there are many things, like schools, hospitals and our own safety, that we are simply too stupid or selfish or disorganised to decide for ourselves. We must let this other group of people, whom we just have to hope are smart, selfless and efficient, tell us what to do.
Anarchy is really about freedom. Democracy only allows as much freedom as the people on top are willing to give you. Anarchy means you do what you think is right. Freedom brings many more benefits than just the ability to decide your own path. It allows economies and the arts to flourish. It means scientific advances and technological innovation. And it forces responsibility on those able to handle it while still allowing for us to help each other. In a democracy, we help each other, but not as much as we could, because we have less money, because it’s taken away from us, and because we expect and rely on government to take care of people on our behalf. We feel better when we vote for left-wing parties that promise more money for the poor, letting us sweep the poor under the rug of our consciences and pretend government has solved one of society’s problems.
I think most people living in our society can agree it is simply naïve to believe that politicians, bureaucrats, the police and the military are looking after your best interests. They just don’t have to. The only real mechanism for accountability in government is elections, and no matter how many you have, it is really hard to escape the corruption of human beings that comes with power. If you believe that, because you vote, they have to listen to you, I suggest thinking very critically about your beliefs. Has any party or politician you have ever voted for truly represented you? If it has never gained power, it cannot represent you. If it has gained power, did it do what it said it would? My answer is, represent yourself. You don’t need a violent institution that does not care about you.
Government cannot and will not eliminate evil, but it does provide the tools of its perpetuation through the initiation of force, the concentration of power, the taking of other people’s property, opaqueness and secrecy, the ability to dole out favours with someone else’s money, control of education and the ability to make war. We will deal with all of these subjects and more in coming posts on this blog.