The Problem of Evil
We come now to perhaps the foundational flaw of the cult of expertise and its entire system of surrogate decision-making: there are fundamentally evil people in the world who should under no circumstances be allowed control over the lives of their fellow human beings. These, in fact, are the individuals most likely to be at the center of any regime based on discretionary power. Friedrich Hayek observed this decades ago in the totalitarian governments spawned by 20th-century socialism:
“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. Just as the democratic statesman who sets out to plan economic life will soon be confronted with the alternative of either assuming dictatorial powers or abandoning his plans, so the totalitarian dictator would soon have to choose between disregard of ordinary morals and failure. It is for this reason that the unscrupulous and uninhibited are likely to be more successful in a society tending toward totalitarianism.” [The Road to Serfdom, p. 158]
Even self-professed “humanitarian” decision-makers are likely to have radically different moral priorities than the people under their control. This tendency can be observed across a wide swath of history and is almost an established tradition among the Western intellectual class. To quote Thomas Sowell again:
“Contemporary denigrations of the masses echo a centuries-old tradition among the anointed, despite much rhetoric on the political left about ‘the people.’ Rousseau likened the masses of the people to a ‘stupid pusillanimous invalid,’ and Condorcet said that ‘the human race still revolts the philosopher who contemplates its history.’ To eighteenth-century British radical writer William Godwin, the peasant had ‘the contemptible sensitivity of an oyster.’ Fabian socialist George Bernard Shaw considered the working class to be ‘detestable’ people who ‘have no right to live.’” [Vision of the Anointed, p. 122]
We could talk at length about the elitist temptation of the highly educated. But that would miss the point entirely. Common, ordinary, and even – dare we say it – ‘good’ people are no less vulnerable to the perverse incentives of arbitrary power and surrogate decision-making. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote following his experiences in the Soviet Gulags:
“If only it were so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” [Goodreads]
Where No Man Should Go
As a speculative fiction writer with an audience that includes many of the same, I’ll leave you all with an illustration from that genre.
Though my tastes have since gone in other directions, I was a near-obsessive fan of Star Trek during my childhood and early teens. My first exposure was actually to the The Next Generation, but I did some subsequent exploration of the Original Series – which I now, incidentally, find more fascinating from an artistic standpoint. The original 1966 show concept was conceived as a series of philosophical tales written as Gulliver’s Travels-style adventure stories. The plot of each episode involved the characters being faced with moral dilemmas requiring hard decisions and tests of their inner principles. This storytelling structure allowed a form of non-confrontational social commentary on a variety of contemporary issues and questions (i.e. war, peace, freedom, tyranny, racism, tolerance etc). It explored some occasionally profound and thought-provoking themes – before show creator Gene Roddenberry’s absurd socio-political beliefs were overtly expressed in subsequent installments of the franchise (The Next Generation, Deep Space 9, Voyager, etc).
One episode that stands out to me years later is “Where No Man Has Gone Before”. It was originally slated to be the second pilot of the series after NBC rejected the first, but was actually the third episode to be shown on television. The particular theme it explored was none else than Lord Acton’s famous dictum: “Power corrupts – and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
I remember being about 9 or 10 years old when I first saw this episode on DVD. At the time, I thought it was one of the most disturbing things I had ever seen on screen – I didn’t find the courage to watch it a second time. A video excerpt is available here for those who want something more than my own heavily-condensed summary, which is as follows:
The USS Enterprise, commanded by Captain James T. Kirk, passes through “the galactic barrier” a dangerous anomaly in space that damages the ship and has strange effects on certain members of the crew. One crew member in particular, Lt. Commander Gary Mitchell, begins to develop increasingly powerful psychic abilities along with terrifying changes in his personality. It becomes clear that his powers are destroying his moral compass. He now sees himself as a superior being, aspiring to nothing less than godhood – and he will destroy all those who refuse to worship him. At the climax of the story, he proclaims, “Morals are for men – not gods.” In the end, Kirk is forced to kill him before he becomes unstoppable.
Despite – or perhaps because of – its alternately fantastical and simplistic elements, this story still stands in my mind as an enduring parable on the nature of absolute power. That image arises anew with every arbitrary decree of every tyrant who places themselves above the laws that apply to ordinary men. With every “expert” deciding to end a human life because they can. For in the end, the power they crave is exactly the same – a place where no mortal man should ever tread.
It is time to expose – and ultimately cast down – the new demigods we are raising in our midst.
They’ve already turned on us.
Join me next week as we continue our journey through the Uncharted Corners of Heaven and Earth.