When writing or thinking about some organization of people, in the interest of clarity I try to put things in terms of the individuals who are acting under the auspices of the umbrella organization. Without this mental convention I risk attributing their actions to an abstraction, the façade behind which the actual people who are doing things hide.
When someone says, "The government did this," or "The Accounting Department did that," in neither case is it technically true that such lifeless abstractions did anything. Only those men and women in decision-making and administrative roles acted. For good or ill, it is they who bear responsibility, and attributing their individual actions to the organization in which they labor leads to a host of misunderstandings.
The most pervasive of these is the state.
The state is the central abstraction by which a catastrophically wrong idea is placed into practice. It is the organized system for employing violent action (or its threat) on the part of individuals, for as noted before, only individuals act. This rationalization occurs on two levels, first by diffusing responsibility to a fiction and second by inducing a group-think inversion of standards.
Belief in the state provides the means for individuals to avoid their own perception of responsibility. This is how we see the legislator, the cop, and the judge (along with their armies of support staff) able to survey the uniformly awful outcomes of their collective actions without embracing a hint of personal responsibility. They are but cogs in the machine, they’ll say, and they didn’t make the rules. Even the legislator will claim that the final bill he voted for was "not ideal," and that if it was up to him it would be different.
This is the fountainhead of the phrase, "I’m sorry, I’m just enforcing the rules" whereby what little personal and private empathy the enforcer feels toward her victim evaporates under the pressure of the organization in which she labors. Occasionally we are even treated to the spectacle of enforcement bureaucrats weeping for the victims of their actions, like when a judge is "forced" by statute to unjustly imprison an individual because of "mandatory minimums."
This bulwark against personal responsibility extends in almost equal measure to the victims’ perceptions as well. Rarely are specific individuals deemed personally responsible for the harms they inflict on the targets of their work. "He’s just doing his job" is an oft-encountered comment even among those just given a ticket for driving a safe speed that happens to be above the posted limit. Past heads of state, though personally responsible for policies of murder and mayhem beyond description, are generally treated with deference and respect in direct proportion to the size of the armies they commanded and the height of corpse piles left behind.
This elimination of personal responsibility would be meaningless, however, without the inversion of moral standards induced by citizens’ personal self-identification with the state.
Lifelong exposure to media-carried circuses and mythology induces an intense sense of identity with this abstraction by nearly all participants; suddenly acts deemed universally wrong when performed by private individuals are rehabilitated into right when performed by individuals acting on behalf of a social abstraction, the state. This inversion feeds the near-universal appeal of the state because it allows individual citizens the opportunity to systematically act on the violent impulses that reside in each person.
This rationalization is a powerful process. It allows nice people to nod in agreement when Dick Cheney issues an unsubstantiated claim that terrorizing a helpless man by inducing a reflexive sensation of drowning has saved them from some nameless violence. It allows 19-year-old soldiers to "follow orders" with near total disregard of normal standards of humanity, dooming themselves to the living hell of lifelong regret that underlies the tragic condition of many veterans. It generates a vicarious sense of power in many people when CNN shows a video of 500-lb bombs detonating in urban areas. It allows citizens who abhor the thought of holding pistols in their own hands the ability to employ costumed enforcers holding pistols to threaten and even slaughter those whose actions, while not harmful, fall outside those citizens’ personal opinion of "right behavior."
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In every case, we see the belief in an abstraction, the state, allows people to act out their darkest fantasies in complete, albeit temporary freedom from natural laws, limits and personal responsibility. No wonder the state, particularly its apotheosis, democracy, is so revered: In the name of any definable Greater Good, any action undertaken by those claiming membership in the state is sanctified. This renders every participant in the political process a co-tyrant; each voter unconsciously enjoys the possibility of seeing everyone compelled to populate his or her own particular Utopia. In the name of stamping out racism or sexism in people’s minds, or eliminating poverty or violence, people ardently demand statism and poverty-inducing taxation/regulation, all enforced by violence. Only the abstraction, the state, allows them the means to rationalize acting upon these dark fantasies by creating a collective morality that is an inversion of the neighbor-to-neighbor kind.
It does not require an obsession with the language to reject the silly notion that christening violence and threats with a word, government, thereby absolves of wrongdoing all the individuals employing violence and threats. Truly peaceful people recoil from giving physical reality to their darkest impulses. We reject any special "collective morality" and the magical thinking about the state which supports it.
This view may explain how an abstract abomination polluting human endeavor has exhibited such a tenacious hold on people. Belief in the efficacy and utility of the state has reached apogee in our lifetimes despite its uninterrupted record of failure.
This means that caution is warranted; as we experience the greatest failure of collectivist policy in centuries, by no means is it the end of statism as we know it. The demon of collective violence is buried deeply and it will probably not be exorcised quickly, meaning far more difficulty ahead for the wise, who trust in and love liberty.
October 9, 2009
David Calderwood [send him mail] a businessman, artist, and author of the novel Revolutionary Language, selected January 2000 Freedom Book of the Month at Free-market.net.