A persistent fantasy of progressives and conservatives alike is the belief that government will work just fine if we put the right people in power. Try as they might, their efforts and assurances have resulted in failure after failure. This week, another progressive icon has surrendered to social and political pressure resulting from revelations of misconduct. One of the most important elements of these revelations is the process through which allegations of congressional misconduct are handled. It should be no surprise to those keeping score that elected officials consider their own conduct worthy of obfuscation to the point of non-disclosure. Of course, when compensation is agreed upon in such cases, it comes from the public till rather than from the pockets of those accused.
The reason for such abuses is obvious: human beings given power over other human beings will inevitably seek to retain, expand, and abuse that power. This is not an ideological issue, nor is it an issue of human weakness or depravity. It is instead an issue of praxeology (i.e. human action).
Humans act to achieve ends based on the means available. When people are social equals, they are limited in the means they can employ to achieve their goals: one cannot simply violate the property rights of an equal without repercussions. When one or more people are in positions of power, however, some or all of those limitations are removed either explicitly or implicitly. This is often justified by asserting that these actions are for the benefit of others. While actions may benefit others, they are always undertaken to achieve selfish goals. There are no humans existing outside of this reality and, therefore, there can never be “the right people” to be given power over others.
A recent visit to the North Carolina Museum of Art offered an opportunity to peruse the several exhibits currently on display. One of these, “Donald Sultan: The Disaster Paintings,” is a collection of works employing tar and latex, among other industrial materials, portraying destruction of man-made structures. As Mr. Sultan put it:
“The series speaks to the impermanence of all things. The largest cities, the biggest structures, the most powerful empires—everything dies. Man is inherently self-destructive, and whatever is built will eventually be destroyed… That’s what the works talk about: life and death.”
While the dark images of destruction are certainly evocative, one wonders why Mr. Sultan wishes to ascribe a self-destructive nature to mankind. Sadly, this is a common claim, echoed in the halls of public schools and academia, used to justify state control and centralization. While there is little doubt that some humans are more destructive than others, and many are also self-destructive, mankind in general does not exhibit the destructive nature often claimed.
Mankind’s structures are meant to serve a purpose when built. Anyone believing they should endure indefinitely assumes that their purpose will endure as well. Should we believe that the absence of mud huts proves weakness in humanity? There is no reason to believe that human construction is any less susceptible to damage or disaster than are forests, prairies, rivers, or lakes. The fact that such damage can originate through either accidental or intentional human action does not equate to self-destructiveness of the species.
In Planning for Freedom, and Sixteen Other Essays and Addresses, Ludwig von Mises said: “If one rejects laissez faire on account of man’s fallibility and moral weakness, one must for the same reason also reject every kind of government action.” Another way Mises might have put this is to say that governments do not act, humans do.
Progressives and conservatives alike regularly descry what they claim to be the flaws of humanity. They tell us that humans are morally weak, that we care little about one another and, left to our own devices, we would rather kill one another than cooperate. Despite the fact that this is both logically and demonstrably false, hey insist on outlawing drugs, alcohol, guns, free association, and anything else that encroaches on their ability to control the masses. At the same time they claim democracy is the cornerstone of civilization, enabling representation in government policies. The irony of claiming “fallibility and moral weakness” in private affairs while believing in the ability of these same people to select wise leadership appears lost on them.
In addition to the inconsistency routinely exhibited by proponents of state power, it is common for those less enamored with government oversight to blame government for wars, recessions, or other social ills. While the presence of government certainly might enable such things, governments themselves cannot actually start wars, tamper with economies, or otherwise impact societies absent the actions of those in command. Even when working in unison, all actions are individual actions and all responsibilities can only be ascribed to individuals. As a result, when the next war or economic downturn occurs, responsibility for these events will fall with those whose actions and policies directly led to them.