Why the Worst Get on Top

Throughout the course of modern history, the cyclical nature of government has always been to expand itself, corrupt itself, and to subsequently be replaced by a new regime or government which makes the same predictable mistakes as the last. Corruption and immorality, while rampant in government today, are hardly new:  The Emperor Nero of Rome and Cleopatra of Egypt were noted for assassinations of family members, for instance.

However, it is generally thought by most in society that corruption need not be a direct function of power, but rather an unfortunate coincidence of these systems of power over a period of time. As part of his best-selling Road to Serfdom (which has gained renewed interest in light of its recent feature on television pundit Glenn Beck’s show), Nobel Prize winner F.A. Hayek sought to discredit this notion of coincidence in a chapter he entitled “Why the Worst Get on Top.” In his own words, Hayek initiates the discussion in this way:

It is the belief that the most repellant features of the totalitarian regimes are due to the historical accident that they were established by groups of blackguards and thugs … Why should it not be possible that the same sort of system, if it be necessary to achieve important ends, be run by decent people for the good of the community as a whole? … [Yet] There are strong reasons for believing that what to us appear the worst features of the existing totalitarian systems are not accidental by-products but phenomena which totalitarianism is certain sooner or later to produce.

Those “strong reasons” were the substance of a chapter whose message can give pause to even the most well-intentioned of progressives in today’s political climate:  Perhaps the expansion and concentration of power attracts those who would plunder the population and take advantage of the weak in society, rather than those who would use such power for any perceived benefit. Specifically, Hayek noted three crucial points that lead socialist regimes into the hands of ruthless totalitarian dictators as a predictable consequence.

1. The person/party perceived as “strong” will be desired by the greatest number in society. By “strong,” Hayek means “able to make action quickly”; most opportunities for expansions of government power or regime changes happen due to a discontented, impatient populace. Typically, the largest group in society is the one which is in such a position to affect change in their direction; but (a) the largest group is the one that is least original and independent due to their lack of education and/or intelligence; (b) a potential dictator can most easily convert those who are docile and gullible from outside this group, further weakening the constituents who bring a leader to power; and (c) it is easier to unify people in a negative program (hatred of an enemy or envy of the rich) than any positive course.

2. All collectivist programs serve a limited group by nature. Collectivism (the opposite of individualism) groups people and treats those groups as one coherent entity. Since socialists regard capital as belonging to the nation, rather than belonging to humanity, the totalitarian program will serve the ruling elite as its advantaged “collective.” From the opposite perspective, the individuals in such a collectivist society – which, Hayek is clear, all centrally planned economies are indeed collectivist – feel inferior to those in the groups that are advantaged by the state, and will join the group if they feel that membership will confer superiority over outsiders. Consequently, these individuals are free of the many moral restraints that they feel when acting on their own behalf, because they need only act on behalf of the group (the party in power). These are the people who are naturally in position to receive leadership assignments in the party.

The most important corollary to the distinction between collectivist and individualist society is that in order to achieve the “ends” in central planning, the would-be leaders must create centralized power, which infinitely heightens that power. Hayek explicitly states that the competitive (i.e. free market) system is the only system designed to minimize, by decentralization, the power exercised by man over man.

3. Collectivist morals contrast with individualist morals. Collectivist “morals” view the ends as the only noble goals, whereas individual ethics teaches us that ‘the end justifying the means’ is the denial of all morals. Anyone in a position within the elite/ruling class must be willing to do things which are “bad” on an individual level, but good for the nation as a whole. As such, these positions attract people who are largely immoral in the individual sense to begin with.

Hayek’s three-pronged approach demonstrates why “the worst getting on top” is systematic and inevitable, rather than subject to random chance – in a socialist or communist system. However, Hayek’s analysis ends there: an effective argument against the specific form of government which he was combating in Serfdom (published in 1944 at the height of WWII), but an argument that stayed within that realm. Applying the argument against centralized power in the form of idealistic socialist/communist states ignores the bigger picture, which can be traced throughout the history of government and politics: Centralized power is, in and of itself, an attraction to the worst elements of society, regardless of the political system in which it is contained.

In his influential work Common Sense, Thomas Paine echoes Hayek’s unspoken theme, applying the corrupting influence of concentrated state power to the monarchy of England while appealing for independence:

Sir William Meredith calls [England] a republic; but in its present state it is unworthy of the name, because the corrupt influence of the crown, by having all the places in its disposal, hath so effectually swallowed up the power, and eaten out the virtue of the house of commons … Of more worth is one honest man to society, and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived.

Here, again, Paine conflates the power with the specific political system and ruling class with which he is familiar. A monarchy, being a system with a highly visible leader entrusted with the power of the state, is similarly affected by the influence of power as Hayek’s examples of Germany and Italy so many years later.

Today in America, we face a government that utilizes collectivism perhaps to a greater extent than did Hayek’s totalitarian Germany. We face a government which taxes us to a far greater extent than did Paine’s English crown. We face a government which has sold our rights to the highest bidding lobbyist, a government which creates laws and agencies at the whim of its bureaucratic agents regardless of its Constitutional authority to do so. And despite the best efforts of the Founders to diffuse and limit the powers of the state in America, we find ourselves facing a state with one of the most concentrated centers of power in the world: Washington, DC, the Mecca of corporatists, statists, and fascists alike. This, despite the American form of government being a republic.

Perhaps, as Paine once remarked about England, “it is unworthy of the name.” Or perhaps no entity should be trusted with the myriad duties which our government now claims as its responsibility.

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