Edmund Burke noted that all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing (John Stuart Mill and Albert Einstein have said similar things), and if we combine that with Frank Herbert’s observation that it is not that power corrupts, but that it is magnetic to the corruptible, the result is unavoidably disheartening: if both assertions are true, that means that any position of power will in the long run always be used for personal gain rather than the common good.
Are there no idealists in positions of power, whether it be in politics, in religion, in financial institutions or anywhere else? Of course there are. But there are far too many examples to deny that there is truth to Frank Herbert’s words. If they are questionable at all, it is surely because of the first part: is it really not so that power corrupts? It seems to me that there are several mechanisms by which we could say that it truly does. First, people are easily infected by the behavior of others around them; it only takes one bad apple to spoil the whole bunch, so with every person who succumbs to corruption, it becomes harder and harder for those around them to resist temptation. Secondly, people in positions of significant power are so far removed from the world of the average person that they are unable to judge the impact their decisions have on most people. And then there are people who believe they are doing good and feel somewhat entitled to one act of selfishness, as that would not outweigh the good they do. It seems that power does corrupt, although it is certainly also magnetic to the corruptible.
Either way, the inevitable outcome bodes ill for those of us who are not in positions of power. Although we seem to protest more than ever (partly fueled by the explosive increase in global communication), the question remains what is really done by the good people who choose to remain on the sideline, and what theyv could do to take some power back into their own hands. The biggest obstacle to overcome is ourselves; for most people, their willingness to believe in the good of the main power structures in our society seems to outweigh the injustice of being subjected to corrupt rulers. This is why virtually no amount of scandal can shake the trust some people have in their religion, their government or in our economic system, depending on who you talk to (it could also be the assumption that there are no viable alternatives, but hardly anyone seems to be actively working to find any, and the elites are obviously eager to convince us that it would be a pointless exercise). A little over a year ago I wrote:
The danger of religion lurks in the shadow of god’s master plan, which allows people to hide from their own responsibilities to make something of their lives. There is, after all, no competing with a god who intends for you to have a difficult life, so if that is the case what more can you do?
The same principles apply to government, and all other institutions which we allow some degree of control over our existence. Ultimately, their very existence becomes the proof of their necessity. If government makes a mess of things, the automatic assumption is that we would have made a bigger mess without government. And if government can’t fix our problems, how do we stand a chance of fixing them ourselves? Governments, like religions, need rules to manage the behavior of their subjects. And the first of rule of Rules is that after every rule, another rule will follow.
With every rule our responsibility is taken away from us to determine what is right and wrong. If a person is not trusted to make that distinction himself, it should come as no surprise that he will at some point stop making the distinction at all. The more the individual is bound by laws, the more he will seek to use the law to his advantage – eventually the law will completely take precedent over common sense and decency. If the need for moral judgement is eliminated, our capacity to use it will disappear. With every limitation of our freedom , our apathy will increase.
I realize it may sound dramatic, but every time our freedom is being limited or freedoms are taken away from us we are being victimized; and there will come a point in anyone at which they will start to push back. It may always start with well-meant measures for our supposed benefit, but there is no telling where it will end. A terminally ill 14 year-old girl in Chile is not allowed to end her own life, which means the state has essentially condemned her to slowly be destroyed by her disease in a painful and undignified process. She is being victimized in a very real meaning of the word, and there is no reason why the state would be better at making this decision than the young lady herself.
The idea is that governments and religions are vehicles by which communities band together in solidarity and fairness. But they create positions of power which are almost without exception taken up by those who are driven by personal ambition rather than idealism (or, in the words of Frank Herbert: the corruptible). As C.S. Lewis put it: Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. The obvious solution is that if there is less power to have, there is less power to abuse – and power becomes less appealing to those who hunger for it.
Think big, start out small. Make yourself independent from outside rule. Accept responsibility for your deeds and enourage others to do the same. If there is nothing to hide behind, apathy is not an option. If you fall down, you don’t write an angry letter to your city council or go to church to pray. You dust off and get up again. Don’t concede control over your life to any institution, and keep as much power for yourself as you can. And remember that you are no more entitled to your freedoms than anyone else: claim liberty, practice tolerance.