Hardly a day passes without some people-pusher emerging to propose yet another intrusion upon the liberties of people to control their own lives. A California legislator has proposed legislation that would make spanking a child under three years of age a crime, subject to a $1,000 fine or one year in prison. This measure follows in the trail of such offerings as prohibitions upon smoking, the criminalization of parents who allow their children to get sun-burned, the banning of trans fats in food preparation, the regulation of eating habits to prevent obesity, penalizing motorists who express anger while driving, and, well, the pattern is doubtless already familiar to you. Not to be left out of the collective mania, the mayor of a Texas town has now proposed making it a misdemeanor to utter a racial slur.
Such statist programs have elicited the expected responses from rational minds: they intrude upon matters which, whether one approves of the targeted actions or not, are best left to the determination of individuals or families. That these efforts violate the free speech, liberties, and/or property rights of people — interests that government officials took an oath to defend but now scurry to violate in the most detailed manners — is beyond question. But there is a deeper meaning to these intrusions that is overlooked, the implications of which portend the continuing collapse of vertically-structured institutional systems.
It is part of the nature of conscious beings to focus attention on events that are immediately before us, and to overlook the more distant consequences of our actions. Frdric Bastiat addressed such tendencies in his essay on u201Cwhat is seen and what is not seen.u201D In a lesson long since lost on modern minds, Bastiat informed his readers of how the immediate benefits of a government program masked adverse consequences that get lost in the allure of the moment. Thus, do we now understand how minimum wage laws increase unemployment, the prohibition of alcohol and drug usage generate more consumption of the banned substances, and the coercive nature of American foreign policies have produced the reactions of u201Cterroristu201D groups that the institutional order tries to explain away as nothing more than hatred of our virtues and lifestyles.
It is becoming increasingly evident from the study of complexity that what our dualistic minds have learned to separate into mutually exclusive categories conceals an u201Cinterrelatednessu201D essential to the well-being of each. Thus does the police system depend upon criminals, just as lawyers require disputes, the morally self-righteous need sinners, and orthodontists need overbites. Such interconnected relationships, I believe, help to explain the current frenzy to have the state micromanage every conceivable expression of human behavior.
The institutionally-structured world we have been conditioned to regard as essential to both our individual and social well-being, has been in a state of collapse for a number of decades. The unexpected end of the Soviet Union has been, perhaps, the most dramatic example of this centrifugation of authority. But the decentralization of social systems has also found expression in such areas as the education of children, alternative health care practices, and the development of technologies that place more decision making in the hands of individuals. The Internet now threatens the influence — if not the very existence — of the long-established u201Cmainstream media.u201D Broadcast and print journalism — premised upon the top-down model in which an authoritative few communicate to the rest of mankind what it is in their interests to have others believe — now face a horizontal system in which hundreds of millions of people exchange information over tens of thousands of independent websites, such as the one you are now reading.
All of this foreshadows what appears to be the breakdown of traditional social systems that operate on the pyramidal model of the vertical and bureaucratic direction of mankind. The presumed capacity of those at the top of the pyramid to gather information imagined to be otherwise unavailable to ordinary people and to promulgate policies and practices that would lead to predictable and favorable results, has been the central article of faith in society. The premise is virtually synonymous with all forms of political behavior, but also finds itself generally expressed throughout the business community, organized religions, and school systems. Its underlying assumption has never been more clearly expressed than it was by former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who employed it to help engineer the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of human beings during the Vietnam War: u201CVital decision-making, particularly in policy matters, must remain at the top. This is partly, though not completely, what the top is for.u201D
As institutional authority continues to collapse into decentralized networks of autonomous individuals, those whose conditioned mindset is unable to imagine a world functioning without formal direction and control experience a chilling fear. To such people, social systems that run themselves without superintendence is not only disturbing to their ambitions for power, but a form of fanciful thinking. At what is no doubt an unconscious level, such persons seek to revivify the dying model by its endless reiteration throughout the realm of human activity. Such people bear a sad but frightening resemblance to brain-injured people described by Abraham Maslow as wanting u201Cto manage to maintain their equilibrium by avoiding everything unfamiliar and strange and by ordering their restricted world in such a neat, disciplined, orderly fashion that everything in the world can be counted upon.u201D
There is a compulsiveness to such behavior; a faith that the rote repetition of a familiar pattern will reconfirm its vibrancy. I have often used the metaphor of a chicken that has just had its head chopped off: it reflexively flails about in a wild, noisy, and bloody display, but its fate is sealed. Such, I believe, helps to explain the reactive mindset of modern people-pushers who see their world of vertical power-structures being enervated by life forces over which they are losing control.
Those who wish to criminalize the spanking of children, or the uttering of racial slurs, or eating the wrong foods, are being driven by the same energy that now leads the United States into an obsession with conducting wars. It matters not who the momentary enemies happen to be: Afghans, Iraqis, Somalians, or Iranians. As we have seen, war is a way of revitalizing the authority of the state. The crumbling foundations of vertical power systems can be shored up — temporarily — by making people fearful, for fear restores the herd impulse. I wonder whether previous civilizations whose collapses were preceded by expansions of the war system, were playing out the same dynamics one sees in modern America.
But as we have learned so painfully since 9/11, war itself has become decentralized. American soldiers — whose behaviors and modes of organization represent the centralized order as much as did the British u201Credcoatsu201D during the Revolutionary War — continue to die at increasing rates at the hands of decentralized Iraqi u201Cinsurgencyu201D forces. The interests of the American political establishment — both Republican and Democrat — are grounded in the perpetuation of the dying model, which leads its political voices to continue advocating centrally-directed solutions grounded in the presumptions of power. The statists need the problems they seek to overcome in order to rationalize their appetites for authority over others. If such u201Cproblemsu201D were to disappear, new ones — such as fattening foods or parents who spank — will have to be fabricated. This is why Republicans and Democrats continue to read from the same script: to propose a fundamental change in direction would be to abandon the state’s vertically-structured model altogether.
President Bush has proposed sending an additional 20,000 troops to Iraq, a move grounded in the political assumption that resistance to state violence can be overcome by increasing the level of violence! Such an effort can only reinforce the destructive consequences — to both Iraqis and Americans — of a desperate policy driven by a desire to reverse the inevitable decentralization of human society and the dismantling of power structures. As with all political action, such thinking suffers from the failure to ask the right questions and, when the answers continue to be self-defeating, to respond with the same thinking.
Both President Bush as well as those who want to send parents to prison for swatting their children’s behinds, are each seeking to reconfirm the validity of an antiquated system that no longer satisfies people’s expectations. Such statists are trying to ride the same dying horse, whose failure to respond, they believe, can only be overcome by a stronger whip.
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival.