“Morals are For Men, Not Gods” – Part 1

Demigod: n. a being with partial or lesser divine status, such as a minor deity, the offspring of a god and a mortal, or a mortal raised to divine rank

The nature of power – and the human desire for it – is a theme I find myself drawn to again and again as a fiction writer. A case can be made that Man craves power far more than he will ever desire freedom. Scripture itself tells us that he spurned the perfect liberty of Paradise for a promise “to be as gods.” In a later passage, we are shown the immediate descendants of Noah with all the world before them – a vast expanse of virgin lands and continents waiting to be explored and settled by a great human family of free peoples. Yet this freedom to was spurned as they gathered themselves into one place and raised a Tower to rule over all. This, we are told, was to serve the dark ambition of one man, the first known who demanded worship from his fellows. His name has come down to us as Nimrod.

The Tower itself now lies in ruins somewhere beneath millennia of desert sands. By divine decree, it is forever lost to men. But the dream behind it has never truly died. The earliest tales of recorded history are the exploits of god-kings and conquerors, ruling thereafter with divided power as divinities upon the earth.

We like to believe we are more enlightened now than in that supposedly benighted age. Indeed, much of the human race has lost the habit of literal deification. But the modern era – perhaps more so than any that has come before it – is filled with those who yearn to raise the Tower anew.

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Image: Rolling Stone

The Cult of Experts

Among many insidious legacies of the twentieth century, none so utterly dominates the Western world as the cult of expertise – a vision in which human society is considered just another sphere of the natural world to be mastered by scientific method. Believers in this ideal have hooked their banner to a wide variety of social causes over the decades, some of them mutually contradictory. But the common thread through them all can be summarized by social theorist Thomas Sowell in his treatise Intellectuals and Society:

the vision of the anointed is a vision of intellectual and moral elites being surrogate decision-makers, imposing an over-arching common purpose to supersede the disparate and conflicting individual purposes and individual decisions of the population at large [204].

The form of its practical application is also described in Sowell’s earlier work Vision of the Anointed:

  1. Assertions of a great danger to the whole society, a danger to which the masses of the people are oblivious.
  2. An urgent need for action to avert impending catastrophe.
  3. A need for government to drastically curtail the dangerous behavior of the many, in response to the prescient conclusions of the few.
  4. A disdainful dismissal of arguments to the contrary as either uninformed, irresponsible or motivated by unworthy purposes [p. 5].

This vision dominates all of today’s most fashionable social and political ideas, whether they concern welfare policy, environmental regulation, education, monetary policy, healthcare, global warming or “over-population.” Somewhat earlier, it was also the impetus for full-scale central economic planning in nations around the world, before the experience of Communism permanently discredited such measures. Simultaneously, it assumed perhaps its ugliest manifestation in the 20th century Eugenics movement.

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Image: Wikipedia

Rule of Law and Rule of Man

Over the course of centuries, great battles have been fought to establish the Rule of Law now regarded as the basis of constitutional government. In the simplest terms, this ideal denotes that, in the words of Friedrich Hayek:

…government in all its actions is bound by rules fixed and announced beforehand, making it possible to foresee with fair certainty how the authority will use its coercive powers in given circumstances and plan one’s individual affairs on the basis of this knowledge [The Road to Serfdom, 112].

In earlier times, royalist absolutism was considered the antithesis of this, whereby one individual wielded and exercised coercive power outside of any legal framework; the only basis for decision-making was that same individual’s own personal judgment. More broadly, this is what we would call arbitrary or discretionary power.

I mention this dichotomy because the second type of power is precisely the sort implied in the modern cult or expertise. Any one – or any group – that becomes a surrogate decision-maker must necessary make decisions that cannot be foreseen by formal rules. The classic dilemma of the economic planner stands out as a prime example: how many goods need to be produced and how many prices need to be set are constantly changeable depending on circumstances, and the planner must necessarily choose between the conflicting needs of various persons and groups. The same, incidentally, applies to surrogate decision-makers in the medical field (where nationally-administered healthcare systems have installed them in countries around the world). They must decide on questions such as how many surgeries are performed, what treatments are administered, how many doctors and staff are hired, what they will be paid, etc.

Let me reiterate for a moment what this all means. Rather than self-governance and individual decision-making under a clear set of formal rules, the cult of expertise demands that citizens of modern societies surrender choice over multiple areas of their lives to select groups of people making decisions according to nothing more than their own knowledge and judgment. Such discretionary planning power over society assumes the existence of near-omniscient knowledge on the part of the planner or “expert.”

But the truth is, no one is truly an “expert” on anything. Scientists in all fields always have conflicting opinions – every theory has flaws. All human beings are fallible, which is the ultimate reason that no one person or group can be trusted with absolute power or be assigned absolute credibility. “Experts” can be – and for much of history have been – drastically wrong.

To be continued next week in “Morals Are For Men, Not Gods” – Part 2

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