The Fatal Flaw

As a young man, I often gathered with other young men of my tribe to discuss the proper role and nature of government. Cozy by the fire, we would snack on mastodon nuggets in our communal cave, arguing with verve, style, and brilliance, utterly unhampered by the fact that, at least as regards government, we didn’t know what we were talking about. Not one of us, for example, ever questioned the need for government in the first place. In this we were very much like most modern Americans.

Of course, there was always someone arguing for monarchy. That was understandable, because the head of our tribe was a monarch of sorts, and things went along fairly smoothly. The efficiency of a monarchy couldn’t be denied. No interminable meetings, conferences, voting, etc. The monarch would decide, and that would be that. Inevitably, however, the question would be raised: what if the monarch was wicked, or a fool? With equal inevitability, the answer would come: yes, but it’s just as likely that he’d be virtuous, and wise!

Officially or unofficially, the monarch could seek advice from tribesmen he respected. This led some of us to conclude that an aristocracy would be ideal: rule by the best and brightest. Listening to friends arguing in favor of monarchy, I had been convinced that monarchy was the best form of rule. But now I wasn’t so sure. Weren’t two — or a dozen — heads better than one? Ah, muttered a gloomy friend from the shadows, but what if the aristocrats are venal and corrupt? Inevitably (you guessed it) came the response: what if they were upright and sincere?

Well, in all walks of life there were people who were honest, and people who weren’t. So maybe, it was suggested, the ideal government would consist of — everybody! That way, things would average out. We could all vote, and the majority would decide on the proper course of action. Since ours was a small tribe, and we all knew one another, that suggestion sounded good. But, of course, an objection was made. How could we manage this democracy (as we called it, having a penchant for Greek) when our tribe had grown so large and so dispersed that voting would become difficult, if not impossible? Again, a solution was promptly proposed: we needn’t vote on every single issue, but could vote instead on people to represent us, and let them do the voting on the day-to-day stuff. We would call this a representative democracy. What a great idea! We were pretty smart boys!

Old gloomy, wouldn’t you know it, had to throw some water on the fire. What if the elected representatives were dishonest schemers? Impatiently, we reminded him that they could, just as easily, be upstanding men of virtue. Someone pointed out that the majority-rule scheme meant that 50.5% of the people could dominate 49.5% of their fellow tribesmen. And since not everyone would vote, even if they could (and women and children certainly couldn’t!) that means that the "majority" would, in fact, be a minority of the people in many cases.

Some of us became a bit testy at this point. "Hey, nothing’s perfect" was heard to echo through the cave. It was exactly at that point that someone could have pointed out that perhaps the whole government idea should be abandoned, since it presented at least as much opportunity for wrong-doing as right. But no one did. Have I said we were pretty smart boys? Well, not smart enough.

What has changed through the millennia? Monarchy would still be a perfect government, if kings were perfect. An aristocracy would be ideal, given ideal aristocrats. A democracy would be wonderful, if the people were informed and alert, and their representatives upstanding men of good character. The fatal flaw in all of these schemes is human nature. As we have suggested before, if there is an opportunity for corruption, corruption will manifest itself. Government provides the perfect opportunity; indeed, it is a veritable hotbed for the growth of greed and the proliferation of power.

Well, aren’t some men going to be corrupt, whether there is government or not? Absolutely. However, the harm that can be done by a single corrupt individual is insignificant compared to that which can be done by a Congressman, or President, or King. Al Capone was a corrupt individual, but even in Chicago, his seat of power, most people were unharmed by his baleful presence. The mayor of Chicago, by comparison, could, with a few words and the affixing of his signature to a document, inflict harm upon hundreds of thousands, and moreover, in doing so, he would doubtless be hailed as a benefactor to humanity by cronies who benefited from his efforts! And, of course, it would be legal, because he and his pals made the laws.

Perfect government, assuming it could support itself without taking people’s money without their permission, would require perfect people. There aren’t any of those, or at least not many. Merely good government would require good people. There are lots of those, but, rightly, they avoid participation in government, where power corrupts. It’s time to consider what we couldn’t even imagine back in the cave: do we need this sort of organization in the first place? Until human beings become incorruptible, we’d be better off without it, wouldn’t we?

Dr. Hein [send him mail] is a retired ophthalmologist in St. Louis, and the author of All Work & No Pay.