All Commentary
Sunday, October 1, 1989

Perspective: China: Why the Worst Got on Top

The recent slaughter of student demonstrators in China’s Tiananmen Square led me to reread “Why the Worst Get on Top,” a chapter in F. A. Hayek’s classic The Road to Serfdom, written in 1944. Why were the Chinese authorities so brutal? Why did the soldiers shoot their own countrymen? Consider Hayek’s perceptive comments about totalitarian leaders and their minions:

“To be a useful assistant in the running of a totalitarian state, it is not enough that a man should be prepared to accept specious justification of vile deeds; he must himself be prepared actively to break every moral rule he has ever known if this seems necessary to achieve the end set for him. Since it is the supreme leader who alone determines the ends, his instruments must have no moral convictions of their own. They must, above all, be unreservedly committed to the person of the leader; but next to this the most important thing is that they should be completely unprincipled and literally capable of everything . . . .

“Yet while there is little that is likely to induce men who are good by our standards to aspire to leading positions in the totalitarian machine, and much to deter them, there will be special opportunities for the ruthless and unscrupulous. There will be jobs to be done about the badness of which taken by themselves nobody has any doubt, but which have to be done in the service of some higher end, and which have to be executed with the same expertness and efficiency as any others . . . . The readiness to do bad things becomes a path to promotion and power . . . . It is only too true when a distinguished American economist [Frank Knight] concludes from a similar brief enumeration of the duties of the authorities of a collectivist state that ‘they would have to do these things whether they wanted to or not: and the probability of the people in power being individuals who would dislike the possession and exercise of power is on a level with the probability that an extremely tender-hearted person would get the job of whipping-master in a slave plantation.’”

—Brian Summers

On Envy

It is ludicrous to envy anyone who succeeds in a capitalistic economy. Those who achieve great financial success do so through their productivity and are our most efficient servants. Their genius and energy produce the cheapest, the best, or the most desirable products that we buy. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t buy, and they wouldn’t be so rich. Ours is truly a symbiotic relationship. Our good fortune is their good fortune—and vice ver sa. Their genius and energy are ours for the purchase price of their goods and services.

—Jim Russell

Beachwood, Ohio

Beyond Numbers

The success of recent privatization efforts can obscure the fact that privatization seeks merely to redress the damage done by collectivist actions and principles. Often those principles are left essentially unchallenged, even after property has been returned to private hands. The strong anti-property, anti-capitalist bias of government officials is still largely intact. Some officials may have concluded that government action in the marketplace is inefficient, but few think it immoral.

We will not make real progress in shrinking the size of government if we only react to government programs and if our reaction consists only of bar graphs and balance sheets. The figures, while providing empirical evidence against state intervention, apply to only one specific case at any time; there is nothing to carry over, no “big picture” to leave people with. The fact is that most people will countenance a good bit of inefficiency if they believe it to be for a good cause.

The goal should be to nip plans to expand government in the bud, before a protective constituency sprouts up. To accomplish this, the mind-set of decision-makers in government must be changed. Such a change can occur only when the intellectual battle moves beyond simple number crunching. For success, the conflict must be waged where notions of freedom and liberty are the most compelling—the realm of ideas.

—Jeff A. Taylor

Kingstree, South Carolina

The Worst Polluter

Crude waste disposal practices, which the Federal government banned in the private sector a decade ago but allowed to continue at its own nuclear weapon plants, are largely responsible for extensive environmental damage at those plants . . . .

At the Portsmouth Uranium Enrichment Complex in Piketon, Ohio, workers dumped oil on the soil and plowed it under until 1983, failing to analyze it for cancer-causing solvents that have now contaminated the underground water and threaten drinking water supplies . . . .

At the Savannah River Plant near Aiken, S.C., wastes laden with radioactive and chemical pollutants were dumped until the mid-1980′s into seepage lagoons . . . .

At the Pinellas Plant in Largo, Fla., toxic substances have been discharged into the Pinellas County Sewer System . . . .

The reports make clear, and experts agree, that the pollution was allowed to continue long after techniques for controlling it were thoroughly understood.

—Matthew L. Wald,

writing in the December 8, 1988,

New York Times

Equal Rights

Do rights exist in the individual or in the group? If rights exist in the individual, then there are no other rights that come with belonging to any group. A cajun does not have more rights because he belongs to a group labeled “cajuns” because there is no such thing as “cajun rights.” A black does not have more rights than non-blacks because he joins other blacks to form a politically active group. Therefore, there’s no such thing as “black rights” per se, but only individual rights that are the same for any black, white, cajun, and everyone else.

—Kevin Southwick,

editor, Centre Democrat,

Bellefonte, Pennsylvania