State Power and the Powerless

“It is a tolerably well-ascertained fact that men are still selfish. And that beings answering to this epithet will employ the power placed in their hands for their own advantage is self-evident.”

That’s Herbert Spencer, writing in Social Statics about the nature of political power. He goes on to give a long list of examples to illustrate the point. I was struck, on re-reading this passage today, by the character of those examples. Read through them yourself. And notice how often Spencer points out how political power is used at the expense of the powerless – the poor, the working classes, the propertyless. He didn’t have to choose those examples. He could have talked about how government regulation hurts the captains of industry, or those who through thrift and hard work have amassed large fortunes. But he doesn’t.

Herbert Spencer – Bleeding Heart Libertarian? Maybe.

Should any one need facts in proof of this, he may find them at every page in the nearest volume of history. Under the head—Monarchy, he will read of insatiable cravings after more territory; of confiscations of the subjects’ property; of justice sold to the highest bidder; of continued debasements of coinage; and of a greediness which could even descend to share the gains of prostitutes.

He will find Feudalism exemplifying the same spirit by the cruelties inflicted upon serfs; by the right of private war; by the predatory incursions of borderers; by robberies practised on Jews; and by the extortionate tribute wrung from burghers—all of them illustrations of that motto, so characteristic of the system, “Thou shalt want ere I want.”

Does he seek like evidence in the conduct of later aristocracies? He may discover it in every state in Europe: in Spain, where the lands of nobles and clergy were long exempted from direct taxation; in Hungary, where, until lately, men of rank were free of all turnpikes, and only the mercantile and working classes paid; in France, before the first revolution, where the tiers-etat had to bear all the state burdens; in Scotland, where less than two centuries ago it was the custom of lairds to kidnap the common people, and export them as slaves; in Ireland, where at the rebellion a band of usurping landowners hunted and shot the Catholics as they would game, for daring to claim their own.

If more proofs are wanted that power will be made to serve the purposes of its possessors, English legislation can furnish many such. Take, for example, the significantly named “Black Act” (9th of George I.), which declares that any one disguised and in possession of an offensive weapon “appearing in any warren, or place where hares or conies have been, or shall be usually kept, and being thereof duly convicted, shall be adjudged guilty of felony, and shall suffer death, as in cases of felony, without benefit of clergy.” Instance again the Inclosure Laws, by which commons were divided amongst the neighbouring landowners, in the ratios of their holdings, regardless of the claims of the poor cottagers. Notice also the manœuvre by which the land tax has been kept stationary, or has even decreased, whilst other taxes have so enormously increased. Add to these the private monopolies (obtained from the King for “a consideration”), the perversion of the funds of public schools, the manufacture of places, and pensions.

Nor is the disposition to use power for private ends less manifest in our own day. It shows itself in the assertion that an electoral system should give a preponderance to the landed interest. We see it in the legislation which relieves farmers from sundry assessed taxes, that they may be enabled to pay more rent. It is palpably indicated in the Game Laws. The conduct of the squire, who gets his mansion rated at one-third of its value, bears witness to it. It appears in the law enabling a landlord to anticipate other creditors, and to obtain his rent by immediate seizure of his tenant’s property. We are reminded of it by the often-mentioned legacy and probate duties. It is implied by the fact that whilst no one dreams of compensating the discharged workman, gentlemen sinecurists must have their “vested interests” bought up if their offices are abolished. In the tracts of the Anti-Corn Law League it received abundant illustration. It is seen in the votes of the hundred and fifty military and naval members of Parliament. And lastly, we find this self-seeking of those in authority creeps out, even in the doings of the “Right Reverend Fathers in God” forming the Ecclesiastical Commission, who have appropriated, for the embellishment of their own palaces, funds entrusted to them for the benefit of the Church.

But it is needless to accumulate illustrations. Though every historian the world has seen should be subpœned as a witness, the fact could not be rendered one whit more certain than it is already. Why ask whether those in power have sought their own advantage in preference to that of others? With human nature as we know it, they must have done so. It is this same tendency in men to pursue gratification at the expense of their neighbours that renders government needful. Were we not selfish, legislative restraint would be unnecessary. Evidently, then, the very existence of a state-authority proves that irresponsible rulers will sacrifice the public good to their personal benefit; all solemn promises, specious professions, and carefully-arranged checks and safeguards, notwithstanding.

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Author: Matt Zwolinski
  • ThaomasH

    I’m not sure what the choice of examples prove. Suppose that Mr Spencer’s objetive were to constrain State power so that is cannot be used to promote the interests of the poor and powerless when these are in conflict with those of the rich and powerful. Would he still not chose examples of the abuse of state power to try to paint the constrants as being more likely to work to the benefit of the poor and powerless rather than expose his real objetive? Bleeding Heart Libertarian or Black Heart Conservative, his examples would be the same.

    • Hmm. So if we assume Spencer to be dishonest about his intentions, then the examples he gives don’t prove anything about what his intentions really are? I guess that’s true. And I guess if you believe that he’s being duplicitous, you won’t be much persuaded by the passage that follows shortly thereafter the one quoted in the OP, either:

      “would a just arbitrator say [that the many many should suffer for the few]? Would he not say, on the contrary, that even if their respective members were blessed with equal advantages, the minority ought to be sacrificed rather than the majority; but that as the most numerous are at the same time the least favoured, their claim becomes still more imperative. Surely, if one of the two parties must submit to injustice, it ought to be the rich hundreds, and not the poor thousands.”

      • Sean II

        Clearly, further proof of his deviousness. The less evidence I see in this caper, the more convinced I become that we are dealing with a true master criminal.

      • ThaomasH

        I was taking no position on Spencer’s intentions.  I see that you agree with me that his choice of examples does not shed any light on what they are.  As a rule, I think we should assume that a person’s intentions are what he proclaims them to be.

  • Sean II

    Funny how his unfortunate Lysenkoist take on evolution turns up casually in the phrase “…men are still selfish”. The implication is that one should be careful not to say “inherently selfish” or “eternally selfish” or “selfish by nature”, in case human nature happens to change abruptly thanks to some magic transfer of acquired traits from one generation to the next.

    What’s even funnier is, that actually happened…sort of. Selfishness has been abolished, by means of a verbal sorcery that allows everyone in a democracy to believe, and to get away with aggressively claiming, that his own interest is identical to the public interest.

    No one today ever admits to defending a special privilege, or fighting on behalf of a class (except the “middle class”, which is typically defined so as to exclude almost no one). A whole wordsmith industry exists to supply the supporters of any given policy with knock-down proof that their policy serves 99% of the population, by releasing a cataract of benefits for a mere trickle of costs. Even people with no rhetorical gifts to speak of have mastered the art of describing everything they like as an imperative for, and everything they dislike as an outrage against, the common good.

    So it is not in fact “needless to accumulate illustrations”, because now, thanks to universal suffrage and the illusion of political equality that comes with it, most people manage to see themselves as both the powerful and the powerless, depending on the issue in question and the number of people who tend to agree with them.

    • “Selfishness has been abolished, by means of a verbal sorcery that allows everyone in a democracy to believe, and to get away with aggressively claiming, that his own interest is identical to the public interest.”
      The problem, as I see it, is that selfishness is considered a bad thing, rather than just a thing. And powerlessness is a means to power – victims are often granted priviledges that others are not. So why do we expect any different? Perhaps if we were less concerned with squabbling over who is “legitimate” and who is not, this wouldn’t be an issue, but right now, this is the way things are.

      • Sean II

        If you don’t answer me before the fourth try, you better be sick, dead, or mute, a-Aron!

        To your point, though: I think even if selfishness came to be considered
        “just a thing”, as in…not a Randian virtue to get all excited about, but neither a shameful thing that people will lie, cheat, and start fights about in order never to admit (i.e., what it is now), there would still be a huge incentive for people to engage in public choice shenanigans.

        It would be nice, and certainly refreshing, to hear UAW hold a press conference where they said “Fuck ya’ll, and I’m talking about bond-holders, tax-payers, potential competitors, non-union wage workers, and – oh yeah – punk-ass car shoppers, too! We want what we want, and we meant to take it any way we can.” That would at least be candid, compared to the nonsense they currently pump out about fairness, weekends, American pride, and inventing/saving the middle class.

        But it’s not just a taboo against selfishness that stops them from speaking the truth, it’s also the need to build coalitions in a winner-take-all electoral system.

        In Spencer’s day, the “powerful” were still pretty much who they had been in the age of Barry Lyndon. Today, the way you get to be powerful is by cleverly packaging your scam as a common-sense policy in the service of the public interest. And the way you do that is by never admitting, under any circumstances, that you and your gang are the policy’s only guaranteed beneficiaries.

        • It seems to me that it would be refreshing for anyone, not just the UAW, to be that candid about what they want. And no, were that level of candor to become unversal, it would not eliminate the incentives for people to engage in public choice shenanigans, but I suspect that it would reduce them.

          There is nothing particularly clever about “packaging [a] scam as a common-sense policy in the service of the public interest.” That’s like saying it’s clever to run counter-clockwise around the bases – those are simply the rules of the game, imposed by us upon the players. Just as we never want anyone “admitting, under any circumstances, that [they] and [their] gang are the policy’s only guaranteed beneficiaries,” because it allows us to claim to have been hoodwinked rather than simply apathetic. After all, it’s not like we don’t know any of this stuff. We just don’t like being called out on the fact that we were left holding the bag because we were too lazy to advocate on our own behalf.

  • martinbrock

    No one amasses a large fortune only through thrift and hard work. Amassing a large fortune requires a system of forcible propriety, and a system of forcible propriety is a state imposing privileges of its haves upon its have nots. The propertyless are the powerless subject to the powerful by definition.

    That a particular system of forcible propriety organizes people more productively than others is a separate issue. I’m a minanarchist rather than an anarchist, so I won’t deny any forcible imposition that I advocate. I can’t minimize something without first acknowledging that it exists.

    Government regulation does not hurt captains of industry as much as it privileges some captains of industry over others. No state is a single decider guy. It’s a lot of decider guys always jockeying for position.

    • Spencer would not disagree. On the list of injustices for which the state is responsible,

      “The first item on the list there stands that gigantic injustice inflicted upon nineteen-twentieths of the community by the usurpation of the soil—by the breach of their rights to the use of the earth (Chap. IX.). For this the civil power is responsible—has itself been a party to the aggression—has made it legal, and still defends it as right.

  • Spencer believed that equal freedom as a political arrangement would promote the greatest human social progress. Progress to him meant the greatest individual happiness which could be measured in less suffering (less poverty, less hunger, less sickness, less war and so on).

    A society filled with happy people (people not suffering) is by definition a “fit” society. He believed this would occur naturally through greater specialization (division of labor) and social heterogeneity until a point of equilibrium is reached. Equal freedom would maximize the potential for accomplishing this natural process while government interventions would inhibit it – thus “progressives” are actually “regressives.” Spencer spent most of his life explaining why to us.

    What Spencer didn’t do is take the political implication of his ideas to their logical conclusion. If he had, he would have concluded that equal freedom is only possible with equal power sharing. He understood that each of us are dual beings – the evolving moral self and the primal self. He called our moral nature the Moral Sense.

    Our primal self though is inescapable – it is encoded in our genes. Power is an elixir to the primal self. Lord Acton famously stated that, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. ” But he got it wrong. All humans are born corrupt – it is in our nature.

    But what we call “corruption” is really a manifestation of our primal self. Murder, theft, cheating, assault, rape, bullying are all primal impulses. But for us to live in an evolved society, we are required to cooperate and deal with each other in good faith. We understand rationally that this arrangement leads to our greater happiness but it is constantly threatened by the urge to regress into primalism. Fear of negative consequences keeps our primal self in check but with political power that regression occurs with impunity.

    All political systems in the world today are primal. They are arranged to have power held by a few to exercise over the many. It should be no mystery that politicians seem corrupt and do despicable things. But we wrongly blame them for being bad people. What we need to understand is that any human will likely act badly when possessing power.

    If an individual, group or class of humans possess disproportionate power, they will abuse that power. This is not an “if” but how the abuse will occur and how many will suffer as a result. There can be no doubt that under all current political systems, equal freedom is an impossibility. And in the absence of equal freedom, those who have “freedom” do so at the expense of others through the abuse of political power.

    Only with equal power sharing can equal freedom be attained and sustained. And equal power sharing can only be possible in a political arrangement designed to distribute power equally.

    The democracy of ancient Athens (the only actual democracy in history) came closest to accomplishing this with sortition and the elimination of executive power (no one person held power). If we want a free society – which must by definition be based on equal freedom – we can start with rediscovering classical democracy to help us devise a political system that will promote equal power sharing.

    Plenarchy is a political model that is intended to promote what I call the Spencer Equilibrium – equal power, equal freedom and equal justice in perpetual steady-state. Plenarchy adopts sortition and council-based power structures (no executive power) among other devices for the purpose of distributing power as evenly as possible across society. Without equal power sharing, a society simply cannot be free or free for very long.

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