Recently by Butler Shaffer: More People Sacrificed to DestructiveThinking
Hain't we got all the fools in town on our side? and ain't that a big enough majority in any town?
~ Mark Twain
My wife and I are very fortunate: we have two automobiles that have the kindest, and most congenial and responsible dispositions. In the years that we have owned them, they have neither gotten us drunk and crashed us into a busload of schoolchildren, nor have they driven us along a freeway at 120 mph, weaving in and out of traffic. I might add that none of our previous cars engaged in any such acts, leaving me thankful that they have chosen not to endanger our safety, or that of our children and grandchildren. Perhaps my wife and I know how to select "nice" vehicles; cars with a pleasant state of mind; unlike those that manage to extend their powers of causation to other drivers.
As I write this article, I am informed that a van carrying Chinese kindergarten children plunged into a pond, killing eleven youngsters. Are we to conclude that Chinese vehicles are more inclined to destroy human life than are those in the West? We do know that there are various substances — such as alcohol, drugs, and tobacco — whose use forces men and women into an irresistible submission to their powers. We are also being told — by those who most of us accept as being more knowledgeable than ourselves (e.g., politicians, academicians, people in the mainstream media) — that guns also have this capacity to exercise their wills over us; to make us do their bidding.
Why are so many of us inclined to accept the proposition that inanimate things and forces in the universe have the capacity to act through intentionality; to substitute their will for ours, and to make us do things we might never choose to do on our own? The answer to this question can be traced back to the patterned conditioning to which we were subject in early childhood. Like our tribal ancestors, we modern humans embarked on institutionally-defined and centered social systems, and have been conditioned to think of ourselves as extensions of the organizations that have succeeded in setting their purposes above our own. In so doing, we have not only made ourselves subservient to institutions, but have become what David Riesman defined as "other-directed" persons. Truth, moral principles, useful standards of conduct, our sense of being and purpose in life, and all other considerations bearing upon human motivation and behavior, are qualities prescribed and enforced by authorities in the organizational hierarchy.
The underlying premises of such thinking are constantly reinforced by our parents, teachers, friends, the news and entertainment media, and other institutions which have a vested interest in the universalization of such a mindset. Most of us find it difficult to think of ourselves as being independent of such attachments. The processes by which we become indoctrinated in this externalized definition of ourselves go back at least to Plato and his superintending "philosopher kings." The particular forms by which the few are allowed to dominate and subdue the many are largely the products of an intelligentsia that has — in furtherance of their own interests — created systems that confine intelligence to the service of institutions.
The system that has proven to be the most destructive in pursuing this organizational premise has been the state. The disastrous, anti-life consequences of political behavior arise from the underlying definition of the state: an agency that enjoys a monopoly on the use of violence within a given territory. Because it enjoys a monopoly on the use of force, those who believe that their interests can be better pursued through coercion rather than consent, find themselves attracted to the use of the state's violent machinery. As more and more people find themselves seduced by the trappings of violence, society becomes increasingly politicized.
The exercise of coercive power has always been the essence of political behavior. In a free market system, the interests of different parties are subject to contractual negotiation, never to the use of violence. If a buyer thinks that a retailer's asking price for a widget is too high, he will make a counter-offer which the retailer is free to accept or reject. The two parties either arrive at a mutually agreeable price, or the buyer takes his business elsewhere. The idea that the retailer could pull out a gun and threaten the would-be buyer with death if he did not agree to the seller's demand, would be so unthinkable as to make the evening news programs. For the state, however, the gun is always behind the demands of government officials, and negotiation or withdrawal are rarely an option available to the individual.
In recent years, the violent nature of state action has greatly expanded. Having been conditioned to accept the legitimacy of — and personal identification with — a system that enjoys a monopoly on the use of violence, most people find it difficult to conceive of limitations on the use of such defining powers. As a consequence, arbitrariness and absoluteness have come to characterize the modern state. Because of the uncertain and unpredictable nature of complexity — coupled with a growing awareness of the self-serving character of the corporate-state — the resulting conflicts, contradictions, and turbulence produces a failure of the popular expectations of political systems to produce societal order.
With the increasing inability of political systems to satisfy their expected ends, they begin to experience dynamics similar to those about which Thomas Kuhn has written regarding revolutions in scientific thought. Kuhn observes, in the context of a scientific theory, that "the failure of existing rules is a prelude to a search for new ones." He then emphasizes that a major paradigm shift in thinking occurs not solely from such a failure, but only when a better model is available to replace the old one.
The traditional model of a vertically-structured society under the centralized authority of the state has shown itself unable to satisfy even the narrowest definition of societal order. Wars, depressions, genocides, torture, police-state brutalities, assassinations, economic dislocations, imprisonments without trials, and a twentieth century death toll of some 200,000,000 victims of state power, attest to the failure of political systems to provide their promised protection of life, liberty, property, and the creative processes that sustain a civilization. When popular expectations and real-world conduct continue to diverge, the failure of the old model leads intelligent minds to seek a new paradigm.
It must be remembered that political systems depend on the widely-held belief that transcendent moral principles are being served by the state apparatus: divine will, natural law rights of people, utilitarianism, egalitarianism, social contract, historical determinism, being the more familiar. But, through a combination of political failures and the emergence of technologies that allow for the decentralized communication of information and ideas, millions of people throughout the world have become aware of the fraudulent nature of all political systems no matter the rationale upon which they have been founded. They have also discovered that the "greatest good for the greatest number" always comes down to the "greatest good for the greatest guy;" that the rulers have never represented the interests of the ruled, but want nothing more — nor less — than the unrestrained power to pursue their ends through coercively-enforced obedience. The fluff and fool's gold that has been used to sanctify the state has largely eroded and been blown to the winds, leaving thoughtful minds with the realization that the state is nothing more than the systematic organization of unprincipled violence. Having a vested interest in maintaining the ignorance of the many has not assured the rulers of the passivity of its conscripts.
A consequence of the increasing politicization of society has been that the violence that defines the state has precipitated into the rest of the culture. Movies, television programs, and computer games have not been the causes of the proliferation of violence, but reflect the pervasive mindset of death and destruction loosed upon society by the very nature of politics. Presidents assert — and act upon — a presumed personal authority to declare wars against nations of their choosing, and to kill persons of their choosing, and few voices are heard in protest. And yet, when a few young men with troubled minds resort to mass killings at schools, movie theaters, or shopping malls, otherwise intelligent people fail to see — or pretend not to see — the causal connections. Preferring to address the symptoms rather than the causes of our politically-generated collective madness, people with bankrupt minds look for explanations in the guns used by these killers.
Politicians, academicians, and media hacks were quick to exploit the murders at Newtown, Connecticut, feigning genuine sympathy for the kindergarten victims and their families in order to promote the long-held desire of establishment owners to disarm those they rule. These five- and six-year old murder victims should be mourned, but as an act of genuine human emotion, not of political opportunism. If there was any sincerity in those who use the deaths of these twenty children — and five adults — to plump for more violent government power over those who did not engage in the murders, why were their voices utterly silent when, in 1993, the federal government — acting through the FBI, the BATF, and other agencies — murdered twenty-one children and fifty-five adults at the Branch Davidian site in Waco? With the use of gas, tanks, armed helicopters, machine guns, and fire, the deaths of so many innocent people was met with a collective yawn by the politically-correct, who rationalized the slaughter on the grounds that the Branch Davidians had strange religious beliefs! If the murders of twenty children in Connecticut merit depriving peaceful people of their weapons, why doesn't the earlier killing of twenty-one children by the collective force of the federal and state governments warrant the shutting down of political systems; the agencies of violence upon which the establishment owners depend for maintaining their authority over the rest of mankind?
In order to institutionalize its powers of violence, the political order is dependent upon neutralizing the intelligence of those to be ruled, so as to discourage the questioning that fosters understanding. Government schools and the mainstream media serve these ends, programming minds that would never inquire whether there are any limits to state power, and relying upon government officials (e.g., the Supreme Court) to tell them if any such boundaries exist.
As wars proliferate against people who have caused Americans no harm; as government monetary and taxation policies continue to transfer wealth from those who have produced it to the privileged elites who want it; as the state insists upon acquiring more and more details of our private lives, while demanding the secrecy of its own behavior; when people's lives and liberty are put in jeopardy by the whims of presidents; it becomes increasingly evident that the alleged moral principles political systems are reputed to serve represent nothing more than the rationalization of power. When the image of government ceases being Edmund Burke's "contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants," and becomes what former Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, called "government by crony," the system loses any popular sanction, save for those who fashion themselves as beneficiaries of the looting and violence.
As the state loses the respect and awe in which we have been conditioned; as a new age of young minds — adept at employing the developing technologies that exponentially expand the flow of information and ideas — begin to question the existing order; and as the dinosaurs of "America's [so-called] greatest generation" take their politically-serving bromides and basic premises with them down history's "memory hole," a widespread loss of innocence about the nature of politics is accelerating. In the face of growing disaffection, along with the emergence of alternative, non-political practices, the state is resorting to increased violence in a desperate effort to shore up its collapsing foundations and sustain its dominance.
To borrow from Thomas Kuhn's work, I believe that Western Civilization is at a point where a fundamental paradigm shift in social thinking is occurring. Relating his study to the topic at hand, Kuhn tells us that "political revolutions are inaugurated by a growing sense . . . that existing institutions have ceased adequately to meet the problems posed by an environment that they have in part created." Kuhn adds that such revolutions "aim to change political institutions in ways that those institutions themselves prohibit."
If Kuhn is correct, we might ask ourselves to what source(s) young men and women of an emerging paradigm will look as they begin to flesh out new visions for a world grounded in peace, liberty, and the inviolability of every individual?
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of the newly-released In Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition, 1918–1938, Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival, and Boundaries of Order. His latest book is The Wizards of Ozymandias.