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Why the Wolves Rule

July 25, 2002

“All power tends to corrupt,” wrote Lord Acton. “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I love Lord Acton, but I wish he were remembered for more than a single aphorism. In fact, I wonder if this famous aphorism is quite right.

Here is my counter-aphorism: those who seek power are already corrupt.

Put otherwise, politics naturally attracts criminal types. Put still otherwise, most people are sheep, cooperative herd animals. That is why they are doomed to be ruled by wolves.

Look at Israel, ruled by the bloody Ariel Sharon. His predecessors include the terrorists Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir. And this is a democracy, of sorts. But look at the Arab states around Israel. Most of them have been ruled by dictators, some of them very rough customers indeed. We should keep our distance from the whole region. There are no good guys there.

Come to think of it, when have good guys ever ruled? Good guys seldom want to rule. Flip through the roster of twentieth-century rulers, some of them still in business. You find names like Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Roosevelt, Mussolini, Mao, Castro, Ho Chi Minh, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Robert Mugabe, Lyndon Johnson, Bill Clinton, and many others of similar quality. Criminals rule with suspicious frequency.

What does this tell you about the nature of the state? My short list may seem unfair to politicians as a group; but can you honestly say that any other occupation would yield so many killers, predators, frauds, and liars? They seem to have the skills suited for the acquisition of power. The state, after all, is organized force, and it will be headed by those who don’t mind using force.

[Breaker quote: Politics attracts criminals.]If you think this is something new in history, I recommend that you study Shakespeare’s history plays. Richard III is an obvious monster. Henry IV and his son Henry V are far more subtle; so much more so that Henry V is usually mistaken for a national hero.

A thriving society isn’t built by force. It’s built by countless free cooperative acts, which the phrase “free markets” hardly expresses. Those acts include not only commerce, but family life, friendships, worship, courtship, charities, sports, and countless other transactions we take for granted.

The philosopher Thomas Hobbes had it backward. He thought life in “the state of nature” — that is, life without the state — would be “a war of every man against every man,” which he described as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

It sounds plausible when you read it, but Hobbes’s psychology was naive. He saw human beings as essentially predatory individuals, bent on sensory pleasure and avoiding pain, whose social life would be naturally violent and selfish without a state to “keep them all in awe.”

It works the other way around. People are naturally cooperative, capable of loving each other and usually driven by loves of various kinds. Making all allowances for Original Sin, their average level of humanity and honesty is far above the average for rulers of the force-systems we call states or governments.

So why do they submit to the state? Chiefly out of fear. They fear what the state will do to them (if, for example, they don’t pay taxes) and, at the same time, the bogus fear of anarchism. They have been told that the great predator is also their protector. And most of them deeply believe that “their” state is the only thing protecting them from hostile foreign states. Fanning fears of foreign states is one of the most efficacious ways of keeping a population loyal and submissive.

But ordinary people aren’t saints, either, and they too can be corrupted by power. They wouldn’t rob their neighbors, but if the state will do it for them, they may accept a government check, without inquiring too closely into where it came from. They wouldn’t murder people either, but if the state sends soldiers abroad to kill and conquer, calling it “defense,” they won’t usually object. The state spares them the pain and risk of committing crime, while sharing the profits thereof.

Thus dependence on the state corrupts millions of otherwise decent people. If they hold government jobs, they may even flatter themselves that they are “contributing to society” when they are, in fact, parasites on society — like the state itself.

Want another aphorism? Trying to “clean up” politics is like trying to “clean up” an extortion racket. Because that’s just what it is.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2002 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications
This column may not be reprinted in print or
Internet publications without express permission
of Griffin Internet Syndicate

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