The Divine Right of Irresponsibility

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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.

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.

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