It is the unfortunate state of our nation today that a significant minority of Americans labor under the delusion that increasing or concentrating power in the presumably democratic state is not only fairly without danger, but is actually beneficial as long as the politicians accumulating the power are “well-intentioned” or seek to “do good.” But what is missed by these overly trusting citizens is that the diminution of individual liberty, which is the power for each person to determine the means and ends of his life, and the resultant increase in state control, necessarily produces an increase in arbitrary state power.
What is meant by ‘arbitrary’ power is that the ends of action are indeterminate, or in flux, or conditioned by personal prerogatives such as power-seeking for its own sake, and therefore, individuals who may have yielded personal power to ‘well-intentioned’ politicians with the understanding it would be utilized to serve ‘the greater good,’ may find themselves irreconcilably vulnerable to whatever whims and desires those at the helm of the state develop. The person yielding liberty to the end of a higher morality might find that his lost personal power is subsequently directed towards what he once considered to be an immoral end (war being one prominent example). History is rife with examples of future bloodthirsty dictators promising to further ‘the common good’ when coming to power, and once there, engage in popularly undesirable acts and rampant suppression. (Ayn Rand cites some prominent examples in her essay, “The Only Path to Tomorrow,” Reader’s Digest, January 1944, 88-90)
An individual, out of a sense of compassion, or duty to humankind, or love of country, might partake in a mass movement on behalf of an ostensibly magnificent aim (environmentalism, for example), only to find herself or her children to be no more than fodder for the ultimately failed and miserable schemes of central planners. And at what cost? The loss of one’s life – metaphysically, and in some cases, physically – is this not the greatest tragedy that can befall a human being? To lead a life where one’s merit, one’s virtue, is inconsequential, and all that matters is his ability and willingness to serve as a tool for some faceless bureaucrat or some megalomaniacal dictator to promote some pointless or even malevolent end?
Indeed, it is the sad and irrefutable lesson of history that any system of concentrated power would foster the development of wicked and cruel personalities and bring them into positions of greater power. Immorality, that is, an infinite flexibility of morals, would become the new virtue.
One of the key thinkers whose work elaborated on this general line of thought was F.A. Hayek. His The Road to Serfdom exposed how even the most well-intentioned of planners may create a system that ultimately leads to undesirable and even evil results. As Hayek wrote:
It is not only, as Russell has so well described, that the desire to organize social life according to a unitary plan itself springs largely from a desire for power. It is even more the outcome of the fact that, in order to achieve their end, collectivists must create power – power over men wielded by other men – of a magnitude never before known, and that their success will depend on the extent they achieve such power. […]
This remains true even though many liberal socialists are guided in their endeavors by the tragic illusion that by depriving private individuals of the power they possess in an individualist system, and by transferring this power to society, they can thereby extinguish power. What all those who argue in this manner overlook is that by concentrating power so that it can be used in the service of a single plan, it is not merely transferred but infinitely heightened; that, by uniting in the hands of some single body power formerly exercised independently by many, an amount of power is created infinitely greater than any that existed before, so much more far-reaching as almost to be different in kind. (University of Chicago, The Collected Works of F.A. Hayek, Vol. II, 165.)
Hayek’s thesis bears extremely close resemblance to that of the German sociologist Robert Michels, who lamented socialist revolutions’ propensity to develop into despotic oligarchies. In his Iron Law of Oligarchy, Michels noted that several factors contributed to the necessary control of a complex organization by insiders, even in the case of revolution: the need to coordinate communications regarding who represented the organization and what the organization stands for; a nearly ubiquitous desire by the masses for leadership, especially in time of tumult; and the drive by the elites to maintain order and control, and thus preserve themselves in power.
Ayn Rand formulated a view very similar to Hayek’s theory in her collection of essays The Return of the Primitive. As Rand put it:
Once a country has accepted the obliteration of moral principles, of individual rights, of objectivity, of justice, of reason, and has submitted to the rule of legalized brute force, the elimination of the concept legalized does not take long to follow. Who is to resist it? And in the name of what? When numbers are substituted for morality; and no individual can claim a right, but any gang can assert any desire whatever; when compromise is the only policy expected of those in power; and the preservation of the moment’s stability of peace at any price is their only goal; the winner, necessarily, is whoever presents the most unjust and irrational demands. The system serves as an open invitation to do so. If there were no communists or other thugs in the world, such a system would create them. (Ayn Rand, The Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution, transcribed from audiobook available at Audible.com.)
In contrast to Hayek’s and Rand’s respective hypotheses, that the state becomes corrupt despite all best intentions, and that the collapse of morality and individual rights produces immoral states, we have the hypothesis of Eugen Richter, whose novel Pictures of a Socialistic Future paints socialist leaders as malevolent actors who fully intend to enslave their fellow man. From professor Bryan Caplan‘s foreword to the novel:
Lord Acton and F.A. Hayek have inspired the two most popular explanations for the crimes of actually existing socialism. While Acton never lived to see socialists gain power, their behavior seems to perfectly illustrate his aphorism that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” For all their idealism, even socialists will do bad things if left unchecked. Hayek, with the benefit of hindsight, suggested a slightly different explanation: under socialism, “the worst get on top.” On this theory, the idealistic founders of socialism were gradually pushed out by brutal cynics as their movement’s power increased.
Richter’s novel advances a very different explanation for socialism’s “moral decay”: the movement was born bad. While the early socialists were indeed “idealists,” their ideal was totalitarianism. Their overriding goals were to engineer a new society and a New Socialist Man. If this meant treating workers like slaves—depriving them of the freedom to choose their occupation or location, forbidding them to quit, splitting up families without their consent, and imposing draconian punishments on malcontents – so be it. (Eugen Richter, Pictures of a Socialistic Future, ix, available for free from Mises.org.)
The meaning of The Enlightenment was to escape the arbitrary edicts that sprang from Absolute power in the state and to re-found societies on the pillars of enlightened self-interest, and Constitutionally limited government. Supposed “progressivism” is nothing less than a return to the status quo ante and an ushering into power of the oligarchs whose ancien regimes were once lost. What makes this situation perilous is that the oligarchs who return to power will have the past benefits of free market capitalism at their disposal – the surveillance, computing, and military equipment – under which to establish a dark age that could last a thousand years.
The only way to prevent the rise of this existential threat is to stand up for the ideals that gave rise to freedom; not the imaginary freedom the socialists promise, but true freedom. Freedom is nothing less than the ability of each man to follow his conscience, to live his own life, to pursue his own dreams, to personally live according to his own values, as long as he does not seek to deprive this same golden opportunity from others. If one urgently, desperately, desires to “change the world,” or more accurately, to make a better world, the lesson of history is that to ensure one’s moral ends are not perverted, it is best to take action oneself, and to enlist those of like-mind to join you on a purely voluntary basis. In this way, one can truly serve humanity, while ensuring that humanity doesn’t serve you, or those who act in your name.