Perfection, my friends, perfection. By perfection, I mean a perfect world: a world woven with the beautiful yarn of peace and unity. No more fighting; no more disagreement; no more inequality or dissatisfaction. A world where everyone is happy; no one is starving or forgotten, and people can achieve their dreams without obstacles.
It’s called a Utopia, which literally means ‘no place’, but is most often used to mean ‘a perfect place’. Everyone looks forward to a Utopia – to the time when worries and fears and sadness will just disappear – into thin air maybe? I don’t know. Where else would they disappear to?
And yet, in all our longings and eagerness for a perfect world, there is just one itty-bitty-tiny problem with it. Utopias aren’t really made for people. People are imperfect, self-interested, and even though they might wish for a perfect world, they aren’t really willing to do what it might take to get there.
So is there a way to reach a perfect society, despite human faults and failures? According to some people, yes. We can get there through totalitarianism. A totalitarian leader can take control of the state, make all good decisions, and lovingly guide his people to the enjoyment of a perfect world where no one does any harm to anyone else, and all live in peace and harmony. I’m hearing warning bells in my head because some of the most despicable people I’ve learned about in history were totalitarian leaders who led their people in mass genocides. Adolf Hilter and the Holocaust. Joseph Stalin and the great famines in Russia. Chairman Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution in China.
But, those people assure me, those were three rotten eggs that took totalitarianism in an evil direction instead of a good one. If there was a good leader of a totalitarian state with good intentions and a good goal, he could lead people to complete happiness!
Or not. The fact that I intend to demonstrate is that there is no such thing as a ‘good’ totalitarian government. The system itself does not create good people, but instead requires leaders and ordinary people to do bad things in order to maintain the totalitarian system. No totalitarian government can achieve good things because a totalitarian system can only be maintained by doing bad things.
Lord Acton, an Englishman from the nineteenth century who set upon a lifelong study of the history of freedom, once wrote: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” In a totalitarian government, every citizen’s life lies in the hands of the dictator and his friends. The dictator can decide what each person is allowed to read, watch, say, or worship. The dictator has full power over censorship – some things he does not allow the people to see, and some things he teaches in the schools, as a form of indoctrination. He controls where people can go, what jobs they can have, and what they can do in their free time. He controls what people can buy and sell. If that isn’t absolute power, I don’t know what is.
So, if we’re going to give up all our daily decisions to a dictator that rules over us, we’re going to want to make sure that this dictator is a perfect person who knows each of us individually, knows what we want, and knows what is best for us – right? I only know of one such being, and that is the Majesty of Heaven, the God of the Universe who knows and loves each one of us personally. For a dictator – an imperfect, egoistic human being – to try to do what God does . . . that just doesn’t work. So the dictator tells you: “Okay, I can’t possibly make every choice to be the best for each of you individually. So, I’m going to make choices that benefit the State as a whole! You’re all a part of the State, so I’m going to make choices that don’t at all benefit you individually, but that benefit the State collectively.” Which pretty much is a fancy way of saying “I’m going to make decisions that benefit myself, not you.”
Even if this totalitarian dictatorship was created by people who were trying to do good things, there is no reason at all to believe that these good things will continue to be upheld by the totalitarian government. Why? Breaking news, everyone! – Humans aren’t perfect. And because they aren’t perfect, they really like to keep their jobs, even if keeping their job means making bad decisions. Because power corrupts, no dictator would give up his job voluntarily. After having a taste of power, very few people can ever give that up. Here’s why:
Power corrupts little by little. There’s a saying in French that goes: “Qui vole un oeuf vole un bœuf.” It literally translates to “He who steals an egg steals a cow”. Bad actions start off little by little, like an egg, but they get bigger and bigger until they reach the enormity of a cow. Someone in prison for murder didn’t just right out and kill someone. He started off little by little: stealing small things, then bigger things, and finally the worst of them all. These actions start slowly, and the person becomes accustomed to them. They learn to tell themselves: oh, stealing isn’t that bad. It’s normal to do this. And they keep doing bigger and bigger things. When you ask a criminal why he committed a crime, often he will say: I didn’t think it was that bad. He has accustomed himself little by little to do bad things, and he no longer feels that those things are bad.
It’s the same with the corruptiveness of power. You get accustomed to power little by little as you learn what you can do. You start doing small things: lie a little here, steal a little there; enjoy the fact that your word is law; the love of absolute power takes hold in your heart; and suddenly millions of people are dead and you’re the leader of a bloodthirsty people, thanks to what you taught them.
Yes, even good people can get sucked into the corruptiveness of power and end up doing horrible things. A reporter went over to Nuremberg after WWII to speak with some of the people being tried for terrible war crimes. The reporter found that those who had done unspeakably terrible things to their fellow brothers and sisters were just normal people who got sucked into the love of power and readiness to obey whatever they were told to do. It’s frightening what a position of power can make one do.
Dacher Keltner is a psychology professor who has been conducting behavioral research for more than 20 years. The following quote is taken from what he wrote about one of his experiments. “In one of my experiments, known as ‘the cookie monster’ study, I brought people into a lab in groups of three, randomly assigned one to a position of leadership, and then gave them a group writing task. A half hour into their work, I placed a plate of freshly baked cookies—one for each team member, plus an extra—in front of everyone. In all groups each person took one and, out of politeness, left the extra cookie. The question was: Who would take a second treat, knowing that it would deprive others of the same? It was nearly always the person who’d been named the leader. In addition, the leaders were more likely to eat with their mouths open, lips smacking, and crumbs falling onto their clothes.” This tiny and almost insignificant amount of power still corrupted ordinary individuals. If a tiny amount of power caused people to act like this, what would absolute power lead a dictator to do? The answer is evident through the actions of Hitler, Stalin, Chairman Mao, and so many more.
Keltner also observed the disturbing pattern that: “While people usually gain power through traits and actions that advance the interests of others, such as empathy, collaboration, openness, fairness, and sharing; when they start to feel powerful or enjoy a position of privilege, those qualities begin to fade. The powerful are more likely than other people to engage in rude, selfish, and unethical behavior.”
An example of this was Hugo Chavez, a socialist leader of Venezuela. He promised good things to workers and the poor. He talked in a way that the people liked, and many really liked what he said. He convinced many people to vote for him. But once he got in power, he didn’t want to give it up. He changed the Venezuelan constitution so it would be harder to vote a new person in, and he changed the rules so that he could stay in power. Once any person has had a taste of power, it is difficult to give that up. It’s an aspect of human nature that must be watched closely and limited as much as possible so it is not abused. In a totalitarian system, however, this power cannot be limited because whatever the dictator says is law. And when power is unlimited and absolute, it always corrupts, even the best and most amazing people – because humans are flawed. To say that a totalitarian leader is not flawed and is correct in everything he does is to be like the Egyptians and ancient Chinese, who believed their pharaohs and emperors were gods and always right in everything, or to be like the Europeans of old who taught that their kings were divinely appointed by God.
There’s this idea that everyone has nowadays about how we’ve progressed so far from the blindness of the past, but it seems to me like we’re just saying the same things over and over again.
Why do you think the early pilgrims and settlers fled to America? For this same reason exactly. In Europe, there were several groups of people who had a lot of power – and they abused it. The king and aristocracy often delighted in high taxes and ridiculous laws that kept the people oppressed and under control. The clergy, priests, and bishops of the churches often encouraged witch hunts and persecution of other religions. The people were tools to accomplish what they wanted to happen. They were in a position of power where they could have done a lot of good, and some did do good. But most felt the power and used it to their advantage. The leaders lived on the people’s backs, in luxury, because there was nothing to balance their power and influence. People fled to the American continent to escape this oppression, and eventually the Constitution of the United States of America was written to prevent anything like that from happening here. The founders saw the faults of human nature firsthand. They knew that power always corrupts, and they created a system to try and prevent that from happening in the new country.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of “Why the Worst Get on Top”!