Knights or Knaves, Angels or Devils? 5

Nobody should be permitted unaccountable power.

This series has analyzed one of the most significant intellectual and spiritual clashes of our time - the question of whether men and women are basically good by nature or basically evil.  The idea that they're basically bad and are born into original sin goes back thousands of years; the thought that they are basically good originated around 1580 with the "noble savage" concept.

Although most people mix these concepts from time to time, every person alive acts most of the time on one or the other of these ideas.  This makes a great deal of difference to your concept of government.  If you believe in original sin, you'll be skeptical of any government program that claims to try to do good.  Since all government employees are as evil and selfish as anyone else, they'll subvert the agency to serve themselves instead of serving the public.  Caring more about accumulating power for themselves than about solving problems, they'll take away our essential liberties in order to grow their own personal prestige.

If, on the other hand, you believe that people are basically good, you'll trust government employees with your money so that they can do good with it.  You'll also think that any restrictions the government places on you are a small price to pay to uphold the greater good.

Government Sometimes Does Good, For a While

Government bureaucracies sometimes actually do accomplish good things, at least for a while.  The last article explained that Japanese government employees set an example of selfless hard work in the decades after WW II.  This led the citizens to work hard to serve the country.  Exports boomed and the nation became prosperous.

Once the crisis passed, however, the bureaucrats reverted to type and started looking out for themselves.  The citizens followed their example of selfishness and the economy stagnated.

Around 500 BC, the Chinese sage Confucius pointed out that government employees are as greedy and selfish as anyone else.  Left to themselves, he taught, they'll always arrange matters to suit their interests, whether they seek to minimize the amount of work they have to do, maximize the amount of money they get paid, or whatever.

Although he didn't call it that, Confucius believed in Original Sin.  His cure was for the government to employ virtuous scholars such as himself to teach individuals to follow the path of virtue.  He also expected a virtuous emperor to reinforce the scholars' teachings by chopping off the heads of non-virtuous government employees who abused their power.  This combination of the carrot of gaining self-esteem by following the path of virtue coupled with the stick of being beheaded should, he believed, result in mostly virtuous behavior enough of the time for society to function.

Our president lost the power to even fire government employees with the passage of the Civil Service Act in 1883.  President Kennedy gave our unfireable bureaucrats the right to join unions in 1962.   Since then, our public servants have demonstrated anew that Confucius was right.

They've used their unaccountability and financial clout to elect the very officials with whom they "bargain."  It's no surprise that public-sector union employees have reached levels of pay, health care, and pensions far greater than in the world of private employment.

In fact, the debts imposed on society by this double-dealing are so great that some economists estimate that the total unfunded liabilities of our federal, state, and local governments exceeds the entire world GNP.  We've spent all the money there is, and it still isn't enough.

Whether US Government employees ever behaved in a knightly manner we don't know, but they've certainly turned knavish in their utter disregard for the effects of their actions on society as a whole.  Our educational system is collapsing, our infrastructure is falling apart, and it costs so much to get permission to do anything that we're effectively locked out of building new factories anywhere in America.

The Evil of Liberal Intentions

This is not to say that government employees deliberately set out to destroy society. For the most part, they don't.  They're simply acting in their own interests, which all people do, while claiming to serve the public good.  Thinking they're doing good, or at least claiming it, is a necessary step on the road to evil outcomes.  Alexander Solzhenitsyn, famous Soviet dissident and author of The Gulag Archipelago, said:

In order for men to commit great evil, they must first be convinced that they are doing good.

Unfortunately, if you're working in a massive government agency it's all too easy to overlook the evil your agency produces down on the ground.  It's even easier to attack anyone who points it out.

In discussing threats to the West, Solzhenitsyn warned of "an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man's noblest impulses" and a "tilt of freedom in the direction of evil ... It stems primarily out of a humanistic and benevolent concept according to which there is no evil inherent in human nature.”  Having been tortured for years by employees of the Soviet government, Solzhenitsyn was all too aware of the ease with which government employees can end up doing evil regardless of their intentions.

Consider the welfare system.  Let's assume that our Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) laws were put in place with good intentions - nobody wants children to starve.  Unfortunately, once the bureaucracy got their system in place, they wrote rules which make it nearly impossible for anyone trapped in the welfare system to get out.  After all, if welfare clients matured to the point of becoming able to function as productive members of society, the agency budget might get cut!

President Bush II understood the problem.  During his first run for President, Sen. John McCain beat him in the New Hampshire presidential primary; Mr. Bush rightly recognized that he urgently had to reconnect with his base.  He spoke at Bob Jones University to re-establish his credentials as a conservative:

Lyndon Johnson's Great Society was a noble effort, and well intentioned, but flawed from the beginning in two important ways: The welfare state must necessarily make people dependent upon welfare.  It can't ultimately help them because it makes them dependent instead of independent.  And the second great failure of the effort of the war on poverty is that it fails to realize that, government, though it can give, can never make people have right motives to give.  Because government can't make people love each other.

    [Quote based on notes taken by guests in the audience.  No public transcript available.]

Mr. Bush recognized that the welfare system locks generation after generation into lives of hopeless dependence on government.

When people read about welfare cheats, they tend to resent their hard-earned dollars going to support people who won't work.  I've heard a number of friends comment that people on food stamps eat better than they do.  This builds up hatred and discontent in society.

The New York Times has a different view of welfare recipients as shown in their criticism of President Reagan:

Reagan’s son, Ron, says in the film [“Reagan,” an HBO documentary] that he believes his father “was vulnerable to the idea that poor people were somehow poor because it was their fault.” A clip is then shown of Ronald Reagan referring to, “The homeless who are homeless, you might say, by choice.”

The Times' choice of "vulnerable" to describe President Reagan's view of the homeless shows that the Times believes Reagan to have been hopelessly deluded about homeless people.  This is consistent with the Times' oft-stated view that welfare recipients, the homeless, and other objects of government charity are angels who would work if they could but are poor through no fault of their own.  They can't imagine their liberal impulses doing any harm to the poor.

Conservatives such as Mr. Reagan believe that a great deal of what happens to poor people is due to their own choices or laziness and that government charity encourages dependence.  Those who look deeper into the machinations of the system believe that welfare bureaucrats are devils who, for the sake of their budgets, deliberately write rules to trap people into generation after generation of dependence.  When President Clinton signed the republicans' welfare reform, the loudest complaints came from liberals.  May years later, a few brave souls admitted that the working formerly poor were better off than they had been on welfare, but this is not a common view in liberal circles.

Doing Good is Hard to Do

To be fair, it isn't easy to help people in an effective way that doesn't make them dependent.  The welfare system was put in place with good motives, but it's spawned an immensely expensive bureaucracy which locks people into soul-destroying uselessness.

The men who wrote our Constitution believed firmly in original sin.  They believed that government employees would always seek to pervert their positions by exploiting the citizens.  They gave us divided government to keep that from happening.

Unfortunately, today's statist, socialist liberals have forgotten that government is made up of government employees, just as those evil multinational corporations are made up of employees, who are every bit as greedy, sinful, and lazy as anyone else.  In believing that government is the solution to all problems, they necessarily must believe that bureaucracies will always act from the best possible motives.

Alas, the sordid history of the TSA, the mine inspection agency, the SEC, and a never-ending list of alphabet soup agencies show that when it comes to serving society or serving themselves, the bureaucracies choose self every time.

The question isn't, why would we give them any more power?  The question is, why do we dare permit these knaves and devils to keep the power they already have - especially when it's driving us and our nation into bankruptcy and collapse?

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Bureaucracy.
Reader Comments

The NOBLE SAVAGE concept came into being around the same time that the holy roman empire transformed itself into the British empire. at this time the monarchy was created and the English language started to become the dominant world language.(this is where the current date for Christmas-Christ’s birthday-comes from-December 25, which is wrong. this is the day and month that the monarchy was created.) At this time the Christian Bible was re-written(in the new language-THE KING JAMES VERSION) to soften the concept of ORIGINAL SIN. Over the last 500 years the worlds population has been encouraged to become SECULAR, which has helped to strengthen the concept of the NOBLE SAVAGE. This was all necessary in order to convince the population that a WORLD GOVERNMENT is needed.
All part of a very long term plan indeed. Very good for the ELITES of the world, not so good for the average Joe!
Great series, keep up the good work!

February 17, 2011 8:02 PM

I have no belief in "original sin", but still am weary of any government that does more than protect my liberty through constitutionally appointed means.

(And this isn't the place for it, but I disagree with the idea of "original sin" being biblical, too - at least in its current typical theological meaning)

The main point, though still stands. I would argue (as I have in the "Myth of the Middle") that our viewpoint comes from how we see the world. Often our religion (or lack thereof) will have great influence. It's interestig to see Christians on both sides - ardent "socialists" and devout libertarians. We also see atheists on both sides.

An interesting question to ask would be "how do we end up this way?"

February 18, 2011 11:48 AM

"Around 500 BC, the Chinese sage Confucius pointed out that government employees are as greedy and selfish as anyone else. Left to themselves, he taught, they'll always arrange matters to suit their interests, whether they seek to minimize the amount of work they have to do, maximize the amount of money they get paid, or whatever."

This is playing out right now in Wisconsin, soon to spread across the country.

February 18, 2011 11:49 AM
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