NOTE: I was looking for a dozen or so articles I cited in a new essay, trying to find them in my log of all my old posts on Random Notes, when I ran across this essay. It has nothing to do with my essay, but I found it an interesting work I had all but forgotten, and so decided to post it again.
I have written before of the fact that authoritarian philosophies all depend upon a single perspective, or rather a range of related perspectives1. If you see humanity as incompetent, or malevolent, or simply gullible and manipulated by a malevolent minority, then you will be much more prone to want to enact laws telling others how to behave.
In general I have used this realization to argue that there is an unavoidable progression from small interventions to full scale authoritarianism2. The basic premise being that, in order to justify your small interventions you must assume man is incompetent or evil, and, once you have assumed that about your fellow man, then there is no rational argument against ever increasing interventions. After all, if minimum wage is justified because man is not competent to set his own wage in free negotiations, then why should you continue to allow him to se this own prices? Or choose his own television programs? Or decide what he should read? After all, bad ideas are much more dangerous than low wages, and if the decisions of the hoi polloi are suspect, how can we justify letting them decide for themselves what ideas they should encounter? Isn't it best to just make sure they are exposed only to the right ideas?
And there follows another argument, though one that goes largely unspoken, if only for tactical reasons. If all of mankind is foolish or evil, or even manipulated by evil forces, then there is no way we can put together a competent government, and no way to know what laws to enact, to make man do the right things. So, any theory that assumes man is in need of a guide to help him through life must also assume there is a small elite, a group of competent and good individuals who can provide this guidance. (And, again unspoken, the assumption is that those promoting the theory are among this elite.) Obviously, while people might listen to an argument that runs "we have to have minimum wage, as people are not in a position to know what wages they deserve", they will not be as open to one that ends "but I do", so this assumption of competence is largely left unmentioned, though it is an essential part of any theory based on universal incompetence.
But I have written on this topic quite a bit, as the footnotes show, so I won't be delving again into the way that simple, small interventions can be used to justify the progression to ever greater encroachments on our freedoms. Instead, I want to address a slightly different topic, the way that the same assumptions can also be used to support the recourse to violence.
The basic premise of these theories is that the elite is somehow saving people form themselves, and without their intervention society would degenerate into chaos. And based on that rationale, it is easy to see how one could justify violence as well.
On the most basic level it can be justified by the irrationality of the common man. While many may be expected to follow the sage advice of the elite, there are doubtless those recalcitrant few who will not. And, like a child or a puppy, they will not be open to reason, and so must be "spanked" to get them to listen. In fact, the same argument can be taken even farther. If these irrational individuals are so prone to their irrationality that they cannot be corrected even by spanking, then they may need to be removed for the greater good. After all, if they are allowed to remain among their fellows, their obstinate irrationality may spread and threaten the improvements the elite have made.
Of course there is an even more basic argument. The basic premise of all authoritarian systems is that individual rights, individual wishes and the rest must be sacrificed to the common good. As individuals cannot be trusted to know what is best for them, they cannot be entrusted to exercise these rights. It is far better for them to have these decisions made for them.
And if rights are no longer a concern, and collective good is the sole standard by which decisions are measured, then what argument can there be against harming or even killing individuals who are difficult? If the good of the whole is threatened by an individual, then why not use violence3? His rights are of no concern. And as he is not a rational being who can be persuaded, then the only recourse left open is violence4.
And so the same view of mankind that supports interventions, from the most innocuous tot he most totalitarian, is also the rationale behind most political violence5. Which just serves to show how important our view of our fellow man is.
1. See "The Citizen Dichotomy", "Man's Nature and Government" ,"In A Nutshell", "Cognitive Dissonance Part 2", "Utopianism and Disaster" and "Still More Confirmation".
2. See "Inescapable Logic", "Inescapable Logic II", " The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism" and "Symmetry and Asymmetry in Government".
3. The problem here is that the justification sounds remarkably close to the rationale behind properly applied violence. In free societies execution is allowed as some individuals have proven themselves unable to coexist with others and are by their nature a threat to the rights of others. What makes the authoritarian position distinct is that it relies upon the ill-defined "common good" to justify execution, where free states use the protection of well defined rights.
4. What makes this particularly interesting is the liberal obsession with turning criminal punishment into "reform". While far-left-leaning states have a history of politically motivated violence, the more modest liberals have a strangely anti-violent position. Then again, as they view "rehabilitation" in almost behaviorist terms, not as a rational response but basically as something akin to training an animal, I suppose it does more resemble totalitarian "reeducation" than any sort of persuasive endeavor.
5. As I mentioned elsewhere ("The Nature of Evil") a few "daring" thinkers espouse some version of brutish thinking, arguing that "might makes right" and think that makes them brave realists, but for the most part those having recourse to political violence want a better justification than "we are stronger". Even the National Socialist put a patina of philosophy on their brutality. So I think we can safely ignore the few honest barbarians out there.
Even the non-governmental use of violence is often justified with the same rationale. For example "the sheep" are "asleep" and need a sudden shocking stimulus to "wake them up" to the truth. In other words, irrational individuals cannot see what we few do, and so we will use violence against them until they realize we are right. Or the unjust system, run by the irrational common man and his malevolent lords, will not change without violent stimulus from the outside. Again, irrationality, this time combined with gullibility in the face of a malevolent few, will only respond to aggression.
Of course it only makes sense. Once you postulate a majority which will resist reason, which is not open to argument, the only choice left is force. So violence, or the threat of violence implicit in authoritarianism, is the logical outcome of a philosophy which postulates man's irrationality and incompetence.
Originally posted in Random Notes on 2009/09/23.
UPDATE (2015/03/23): I read this again and noticed one small error. As I complain about people saying "HIV Virus" or "ATM Machine", I should not accept my own statement about "The Hoi Polloi". Since "Hoi" in "Hoi Polloi" is simply Greek for "The", I am saying, in effect "The The Commoners", which is not good writing. However, no matter how redundant, it does seem the phrase "the hoi polloi" has become an accepted usage, mostly, I assume, because so few who use it know what the Greek really means. So, I am allowing the error to stand for now, but do want to mention in passing that I do so very reluctantly.