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The Tyrant in You

Someone told me about a recent Facebook poll, asking something
like, "What would you do if you were President?" I find the
question itself depressing, for several reasons.

First of all, that anyone would want to be President is depressing.
To want to be President means you think that, if given the power to
control 300,000,000 people, you could make their lives better than
if you just left them alone. What a fine combination of arrogance
and insanity.

Second, it's a safe bet that almost everyone who answers the
question will feel noble and compassionate as they do so,
describing all the ways in which they would use such power to help
mankind. They don't understand that it is utterly impossible for
"government" to help mankind, because all it ever does is initiate
violence. You can't help mankind by adding more immoral violence
into society.

Anyone who has read "The Iron Web" knows exactly how I would answer
the Facebook question myself. But, as for all of you out there who
aren't anarchists or voluntaryists, the correct answer to the
question--notwithstanding any noble, charitable answers you might
imagine--is this: if you were given such power, you would advocate
mass extortion, robbing millions of what is rightfully theirs, and
use intimidation, coercion, and terrorism to control innocent
people. In short, you would become a tyrant.

The degree of your viciousness, and the amount of oppression you
would heap on your unfortunate subjects might vary, but you would
oppress them. And worst of all, you'd probably feel righteous about
it as you did so. (Most tyrants do, you know.)

At talks I've given in the past, I did this as a mental exercise,
asking people to imagine that there is a magic sea shell which,
when you hold it, automatically makes whatever you do moral and
righteous. I don't mean it changes your behavior; I mean it changes
morality. If you chose to slug someone for no good reason, or take
his stuff, or even kill him, such actions would magically become
good if you were holding the magic shell, though they would obvious
be bad if you weren't.

So what would you do with that shell? Just think of the good you
could accomplish with such power! Here are a few examples:

If, without the shell, you stole something from one person to give
it to another, the giving might be good, but the stealing would be
bad. But if you had the magic shell, the stealing wouldn't be bad
anymore! You could righteously take rich people's stuff, and give
it to the needy!

Normally, you have no right to butt into people's lives and tell
them what choices to make. But with the shell, you could use
coercion to make them eat healthier, make them get more exercise
(make them buy life insurance?), and it would be good. It would
benefit their health, and what would usually be considered bullying
and violence would become good, because of the magic shell.

Normally, how people spend their own money is up to them, but with
the help of the magic shell, you could righteously force them to
invest how they should, and buy the products they should, and spend
the right amount and save the right amount, and so on.

Normally, people have the right to make their own decisions, even
if those decisions are harmful to themselves, and you have no right
to stop them. But with the shell, you can prohibit them from
possessing things you think are dangerous (like guns), or doing
things you think are dangerous, or consuming things you think
aren't good for them--cheeseburgers, cocaine, beer, jelly beans,

And think of all the large-scale projects you could do, if you had
the right to take money from those who earned it. You could make a
defense system, a welfare system, an education system. You could
make the people safer and healthier, with better transportation and
communication systems. If you had the right to control everything,
you could create a utopia!

Well, no. You couldn't. You would create injustice, oppression,
poverty, extortion, violence, and murder. Because all such plans
are implemented through the use of violence, and the threat of
violence, against innocent people. And there is no magic shell, no
"law," no constitution, no office, and no political ritual which
can ever make that a good thing.

If offered such a magic shell--or if offered the presidency--what
you should do--but what almost no one could do--is immediately
destroy the power. There is nothing you can do--nothing anyone can
do--which can convert the initiation of violence into something
that helps humanity. Your motives and virtues don't matter.
Whatever your intentions, "authority" cannot be used for good.

Those of you who have read Lord of the Rings may be thinking of the
"Ring of Power." If so, you get a gold star. In fact, I might as
well end this article by quoting what Gandalf (the old, wise wizard
in those books) said, when he was offered the Ring of Power. If
only more people understood this about power:

"Don't tempt me, Frodo. I dare not take it, not even to keep it
safe. Understand, Frodo, I would use this Ring from a desire to do
good. But through me, it would wield a power too great and terrible
to imagine."

So I guess that's Gandalf's answer to the Facebook question.

Well, there was one other thing. He didn't merely refuse to take
the power for himself. He and his fellow conspirators did something
far more radical and extreme.

Good for them.