The State Can Do No Wrong
[This article was first published in the American Mercury in November 1936. An MP3 audio file of this article, narrated by Steven Ng, is available for download.]
Now that the campaign is ending, our citizens are presumably deciding whether to vote for Tweedledee or Tweedledum, and speculating on what is likely to happen to the country if either ticket wins. It was clear from the first that the campaign would boil down to the one old familiar issue, which is whether we shall be blackmailed for the next four years to support a horde of deserving Democrats or a horde of deserving Republicans. This is the only real issue that has existed in American politics since the Civil War, and it is the only one that exists now. Hence those who hold no material stake in this issue may well decide that it is all the same to them which ticket wins or loses, and all the same to the country whether they drop their vote in the ballot box or in the ash barrel.
The reason for this state of things is worth investigating. It lies in the popular idea of the moral character of government. In the old days the idea was that a king got his commission straight from God, and therefore he was exempt from the moral sanctions that were binding upon everybody else. The moral character of his acts was not open to question by anyone. He might do whatever he liked — lie, steal, cheat, commit all sorts of oppressions, mayhems, adulteries, murders — and, as we say, get away with it under the special moral sanction that the king can do no wrong.
We have now pretty generally got rid of kings and substituted a system of parliaments and executives who administer what we call the State; and now the question is, what is the popular idea about the State? Are the parliaments and executives answerable to the moral standards set for other people, or have we the idea that they may do anything they like because they represent the State (or actually are the State for the time being) and can do no wrong?
In one view of this question, the State is a social agency set up by the people to safeguard their freedom and distribute justice. This is the republican view, according to the Declaration of Independence, which says that "to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men," and says further that government derives its just powers, not from God, but from "the consent of the governed." In this view, obviously, the government may not do anything it likes; it is merely an agency with a clearly specified function, a definite job. It is not morally irresponsible; on the contrary, it is answerable to moral judgment, like any other social agency. Having been created by the people, it may not arrogate to itself any exemption from the ethical code of its creator. By consequence, those who administer the government may not do anything they like. There is no margin of permissible misconduct allowed them. They are merely agents, public servants, no more, no less. The president of the United States is precisely what the late Mr. Bryan said he is, "the people's hired man," and in the discharge of his specified duties he is open to judgment by exactly the same standards of integrity that we apply to the conduct of a bank manager or a train dispatcher, a butler or a housemaid.
In another view, however, the State is entirely dissociated from moral considerations. Like the old-time king, it stands alone, outside any ethical code, with no prescribed duty to anyone, and no responsibility but to itself; it is its own judge of its own acts. As Mussolini puts it, "The State embraces everything, and nothing has value outside the State. The State creates right." In this view, whatever the State disallows is wrong, because the State disallows it; and whatever the State allows is right, because the State allows it. There is no other criterion of right and wrong but the approval or disapproval of the State. There is no criterion of justice between man and man except the interest of the State. If what one man does to another affects the State favorably, it is just (even fraud, arson, theft, murder) and if unfavorably, it is unjust.
This is the old absolutist idea, expressed in a new formula, as against the republican idea. It merely transmogrifies the divine right of kings into the divine right of parliaments, executives, dictators. Hegel puts this plainly when he says that "the State incarnates the divine idea upon earth." Its essence is that the people exist to maintain and magnify the State. The republican idea is that the State exists to protect and prosper the people in their rights and liberties. Thus Fascism, Communism, Hitlerism, Stalinism, are all essentially the same thing. Their superficial differences amount to nothing more than catchwords and claptrap.
We have seen the progress of the absolutist idea in Europe, and we have perceived that the significant thing is that whereas formerly only the few who made up the "ruling classes" were penetrated by it, nowadays immense numbers of people are penetrated by it. Hence, as we see in the case of Spain, any disturbance of stability in the public order opens the way for any adventurer to come forward and establish himself by popular acceptance of any and every act of crime that he may commit on the pretext of "assuring the position of the State."
Thus after the French Revolution, a man of no name, no tradition, no habits, no character, no convictions, not even a Frenchman, made himself the State; that is, he made himself master of a people thoroughly impregnated with the absolutist idea, and by a course of inconceivable crime set Europe on fire from end to end. Thus again of late in Germany another, not even a German, assembles a horde of fanatics and desperadoes, and by sheer violence makes himself the State; thus in Italy another, a Socialist agitator and journalist, heads a mob of vicious lazzaroni in a march on Rome, and makes himself the State. Thus in Turkey, thus in Poland, thus in Hungary, thus in Portugal, and so on.
From all this we may see that the dangerous thing is not what actually happens here or there, but the general subversion of moral theory with respect to the State, for this subversion permits anything not only to happen but to be approved. Loose talk about "it can't happen here" is crudely superficial. Given a people thoroughly penetrated with the idea that the State may do anything it likes and can do no wrong, and anything inimical to the interest of the people can happen anywhere. It may not take place by force of arms, nor be attended by bloodshed and rapine; it may take place by normal and familiar processes of political chicane. In this country, for example, the most exorbitant confiscations of public interest to "assure the position of the State" have lately been effected in this way. The danger is never in the overt acts, for they can be got over; it is in the ethical estimate of such acts as right and just.
As with the State, so with the political party. In the struggle to get control of the State's machinery, the most flagitious misdemeanors are divested of any moral character in the estimation of the public, on the ground that the party shares the moral exemptions accorded the State. Mendacity, duplicity, breach of trust, diversion of public money to party purposes are accepted as acts having no moral quality. Moreover, as with the party, so with the candidate. The general view of the State as an amoral entity inevitably and powerfully stimulates the ambition of the type of person who is best qualified, and also most eagerly disposed, to profit by it and presume upon it to the utmost. His party platform, his campaign promises, his pre-election agreements, his declarations of political principle, his expressions of deep solicitude, are accepted as a kind of ritual — really, as so many signboards reading, "Do not trust me," and their prompt repudiation, when it comes, is not reprehended on moral grounds.
Finally as with the State, the party, and the candidate, so also with the elected incumbent. His election qualifies him as a chartered libertine; his certificate of election is a letter of marque-and-reprisal, exempting him from all moral considerations in "assuring the position of the State" — that is, in assuring his own continuance and that of his party in control of the State's machinery. To promote this purpose he may do anything he likes without incurring any risk of collision with the public's moral sense; in certain circumstances, even, he may be assured of the most enthusiastic popular acclaim for acts which if committed in a private capacity would mark him forever as a knave and a dog. The only consideration he need take into account is "what the traffic will bear."
And here we come in sight of the question raised at the beginning of this paper. Whichever party wins, whichever candidate is elected, their measures will be taken, not for maintaining the liberties and security of the people, but for "assuring the position of the State" — that is to say, their own position — by every means consistent with what the traffic will bear; and the traffic will bear as much and no more from one party than from another, as much and no more from Mr. Roosevelt than from Mr. Landon, Mr. Thomas, Mr. Lemke, or Mr. Browder.
Four years ago the psychological condition of the country, the condition of disgraceful funk that took possession of the citizens, was so demoralizing that the traffic would bear an unprecedented amount; and the most conspicuous lesson of that election was furnished by the alacrity displayed in what James Madison contemptuously called "the old trick of turning every contingency into a resource for accumulating force in the government." Mr. Roosevelt and his associates lost no time about "assuring the position of the State" with immense energy and by egregiously immoral means, quite as their opponents would have done in their place; the difference in results, if any, would have been a difference due only to superior ability and skill in managing those means.
At present, the contingency is not so pressing, the people are not in a funk, and the traffic will not bear so much; but all the parties and candidates are quite alive to what it will bear, and whichever party wins the election may be confidently expected to conduct itself accordingly.
Therefore, the sum of the whole matter is that if and when the people of this country drop the neomedieval conception of the State as an institution completely dissociated from morality, and adopt the republican conception expressed in the Declaration, the thoughtful and intelligent citizen may reasonably be expected to interest himself in the course of the nation's politics; but until then he may reasonably be expected to do nothing of the kind.