LXXII – The Divine Right of Irresponsibility

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare

Many
have expressed surprise, if not outrage, at the United Nations granting
to American and British soldiers immunity from international criminal
prosecution for wrongs committed while they were engaged in UN missions.
"Given the recent revelations . . . the US has picked one hell
of a moment to ask for special treatment," said an official
of Human Rights Watch.

Those
who are shocked by such news need to review history. Political systems
insisting they not be held accountable for wrongs they have committed
goes to the very essence of politics. Any first-year political science
student can tell you that governments are defined as institutions
enjoying a monopoly on the use of force within a given geographic
area. If force is the operating principle in politics, then
how naïve are those who believe that people who enjoy the popularly
sanctioned power to pursue their ends through violent means will
respect any formal restraint on such capacities? No more than would
a lion be expected to moderate its forceful energies vis-à-vis
the interests of a gazelle, should we expect statists to take seriously
the notion that they be held responsible for how they choose to
exercise their monopoly powers.

That
political systems should regard themselves as immune to the processes
of accountability attending the behavior of ordinary people, is
not a recent phenomenon. Its origins can be traced to our earliest
ancestor who picked up a club and beat his neighbors into submission.
I suspect that the only recourse others had was to get an even bigger
club, thus introducing us to the evolutionary processes that have
created the modern state.

The
exemption the United States was able to extract from the United
Nations was but another expression of the medieval notion of "divine
right of kings." The proposition that "the king can do
no wrong" did not succumb to the same forces that brought an
end to monarchical power; it was only transformed — in secular and
democratic cultures — into the notion of "sovereign immunity."
But the same insistence that institutionalized force be free to
act without accountability remains as intact as ever. Our caveman
tyrant would be flabbergasted by the modern, sophisticated clubs
with which his descendants rule others, but he would comprehend
the underlying principle at once.

Intelligent
people have struggled, over the millennia, to control the state;
to make it responsible to those subject to its rule. The most valiant
effort, unquestionably, was the drafting of the American Constitution.
In an "age of reason," men believed that ideas could be
reduced to a verbal expression that could be used to restrain Leviathan.
The proper ordering of words, on parchment, could assure
future generations the liberty for which humans had longed. Unfortunately,
the men who made this effort lived generations before Alfred Korzybski
was to offer the warning that all intellectuals should heed: "the
map is not the territory." Words are only abstractions and,
as such, are always subject to interpretation. Those familiar with
American constitutional history will attest to the failure of constitutionalism
to secure individual liberty and to restrain the state.

The
doctrine of "sovereign immunity" means that the state
cannot be held legally responsible for its acts unless it chooses
to be so held. Part of the rationale for this idea has been that,
to hold the state liable for monetary damages for what would be
"wrongs" if committed by non-political bodies,
could bankrupt the state. In an age in which government, in America,
siphons about 45% of the annual wealth of the country, and enjoys
coercive, regulatory powers that reach into virtually every crevice
of modern life, such an excuse borders on the ludicrous. And, it
should be noted, there have been a number of instances in which
governments have consented to be liable for their actions,
but with the caveat that the state, itself, will decide if and when
it chooses to be responsible. The state has never agreed to abandon
"sovereign immunity" itself, and to place itself on the
same legal footing as individuals and private corporations who cause
harm to others.

Before
one jumps to the conclusion that I am accepting the inevitability
of statism, let me note the one factor that allows brute force to
prevail, i.e., the willingness of men and women to subordinate themselves
to the violence of others. Political systems are strong because
we have chosen to be weak; the state is immune from
responsibility for its actions because we choose to be irresponsible
for our own lives and actions.

The
state has aggrandized its power, in other words, by letting us share
in its propensities for irresponsibility. It does so, not reluctantly,
but with enthusiasm. It encourages us to think of ourselves as incompetent
decision-makers and, at the same time, to regard others as
the cause of whatever difficulties we experience. By insinuating
itself ever more aggressively into our affairs, the state diminishes
the sense of control we have over our lives and property.

"Responsibility"
is a function of control. Someone once defined "hell"
as a place in which you are responsible for everything, but have
no decision-making control over anything. I am responsible for my
actions because I am the one who directs my behavior. But if I believe
that others (e.g., the state, the business system, foreigners, members
of other races, et. al.) are in control of events in my life, my
own sense of responsibility evaporates. I then see myself as a helpless
person upon whom the rest of the world acts. Do you understand why
"victimhood" has become so dominant in our world?

Our
acceptance of political thinking has turned us into irresponsible
beings. A.E. Housman's lament "I, a stranger and afraid, in
a world I never made" has become the standard whine of most
people as they call upon the state to rescue them from life's uncertainties.
The laws of causation — without which you would be unable to drive
your car to the end of the block without having an accident — become
hindrances to wishful thinking. Public opinion polls become substitutes
for principled, rational, and psychologically-centered analysis
of events.

The
state has institutionalized irresponsibility. It consistently
lives beyond its financial means, creating debts that can ultimately
be resolved only through repudiation; is a betrayer of promises,
thus helping to erode the sanctity of contracts upon which any creative
society must depend; and maintains an almost pathological commitment
to lying. In order to advance its interests — and of those who control
its apparatuses — the state encourages us to demand immediate benefits
that will only be paid for much later, and by others.

The
politicians, themselves, openly advertise their irresponsible nature.
Louis XIV and Napoleon Bonaparte shared the belief "I am the
state," a sentiment I am certain coursed through the bloodstream
of Genghis Khan. George W. Bush added his endorsement to this proposition
when he commented that "the nice thing about being president
is that I don't have to answer to anyone, people have to answer
to me."

Nor,
in the interest of bipartisanship, can we forget Madeleine Albright's
contribution to the increasing contempt with which the rest of the
world regards the United States. In response to criticism of America's
previous economic boycott of Iraq — which, over an eight year period,
was estimated to have killed two million Iraqis — Ms. Albright was
asked by 60 Minutes' reporter, Leslie Stahl: "we have
heard that half a million children died; that's more children than
died in Hiroshima. Is the price worth it?" Albright replied:
"we think the price is worth it."

In
a world of responsible people, the costs of any undertaking are
paid for, voluntarily, by those who desire the end sought. This
is the important distinction between the marketplace and
the state: the state "socializes" the costs of
its actions, imposing the consequences upon those who have not chosen
to be bound. A business firm that dumps toxic wastes into a river
is also engaged in "socializing" some of its costs of
doing business. In another setting, I can imagine Madeleine clucking
with righteous indignation at those who pollute the air and rivers,
mindless of the fact that her willingness to impose death on millions
of Iraqi civilians is a greater offense than the worst act of industrial
pollution. Her statement that "the price [of such deaths] is
worth it," represents the essence of irresponsibility, for
she was not the one who paid the price!

And
now many of us feign shock in discovering that the United States
insists on being absolved of any responsibilities for its actions
in Iraq. The same kinds of torture and killings committed by Hussein's
forces that were part of the casus belli for Bush's holy war, are
now to be swept under the rug when committed by the United States!
Washington, in other words, wants the United Nations' assurance
that its functionaries will not be subject to the same Nuremburg
principles it insisted on imposing on World War II's losers; principles
that, for decades, served as the basis for so much moralizing and
filmmaking about individual accountability even in wartime.

But
please let us spare ourselves the luxury of joining Bush's critics
in condemning this demand for immunity. Until we are prepared to
recognize that this claimed right of irresponsibility not only inheres
in all governmental action, but defines the essence of the
state, we shall only be indulging our habit of reacting to symptoms
rather than the underlying disease.

The
state derives its irresponsible nature from us; it is the collective
mobilization of our refusal to be in control of — and, thus, responsible
for — the conduct of our lives. We hide behind illusions which,
like smoke, quickly dissipate. We then seek a new illusionist in
order to spare us the pain and hard work of confronting the fear
of our own responsibility. Shakespeare pointed this out to us over
four hundred years ago when he wrote:

The
fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

Next
Chapter
                               Table
of Contents

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare
  • LRC Blog

  • LRC Podcasts