Who Guards the Guardians?

Kenneth McDonald is a Toronto writer on economic and political subjects.

This article is reprinted by permission from the September 1977 issue of Executive, Canada ‘s management magazine of information, opinion, and analysis.

The fact that people are foolish, as everyone is from time to time, has been seized upon by reformers to justify all manner of impertinences. It is only fitting, therefore, that among all the words whose meaning they have debased, reform should be accorded a place of its own.

The amendment of conditions which are judged against a standard of instinctive moral values has been reshaped, in an age when those values are under attack, to signal amendments which serve only the aims of the attackers. By destroying a society’s criteria, and putting nothing in their place save the social theories of the moment, the reformers further the achievement of those aims. By setting up straw men for their attacks, they weaken the real men whose independence they fear.

Thus the excesses of limited private monopolies are invoked to justify their replacement by the total monopolies of the state. Public ownership is advanced in all seriousness as the best and wisest means to supply the public with everything from soup to nuts. The soup may lack variety, but it is no longer contaminated by profit. The nuts may be scarce and of one kind, but they are grown on state farms under the supervision of inspectors imbued with the best of intentions.

The whole thrust of the state’s expansion is toward uniformity. The purpose of the state, after all, is to enforce laws which impose certain restraints upon individual liberty. The purpose of the restraints is to prevent one individual from trespassing upon the liberty of another. The good fences which make good neighbors are policed by the state. Keeping the peace is its one acknowledged duty.

But as the Latin tag attests, the role of guardian is the most dangerous of all. Who, indeed, guards the guardians?

The Urge to Reform

It is that temptation to butt in which is at the root of the matter. We are prone to it as individuals. In our pride we can see how things might be better ordered, especially as they affect our neighbors. By prodigies of self-control we may refrain from telling them, but the urge is there nevertheless. What holds us back is partly the fear that our advice will be resented but more that it will be ignored.

With maturity we learn to suppress these urges, to take people as they come, even to recognize in them shortcomings of our own.

The state, however, is subject to no such impediments. The secret of its power lies in its very remoteness. It is one thing to refrain from advising the man next door, whom we know. It is another thing altogether to compose a set of regulations for people collectively. They are as diverse as the regulations are uniform. Their diversity constitutes a perpetual challenge. If only people would respond to the forecasts, if only the behavior which is predictable in general terms would conform in particular ones to the trend of the graph.

That is the challenge which the state feels called upon to meet. It has, its servants have come to realize, immense, even limitless power; the power to create money. Not wealth, but the illusion of wealth. Dealers in illusion, the state’s servants are its first victims.

Unaware of its futility, they apply themselves to the task with a will. Each fresh set of regulations exposes gaps that must be filled. The establishment of one board reveals the need for a second. Unless it sows the seeds for continuance in another form, no commission of inquiry is complete.

As the regulations mount, as the boards and commissions proliferate, the law itself is crushed under the weight of them. Relationships which were simple are made complex. Rules which everyone could understand are multiplied into abstractions and interpretations and footnotes to sub-sub-paragraphs until they are incomprehensible to everybody, not least the authors, least of all the lawyers and judges whose lives are consumed in deciphering them.

How Bureaucracy Grows

One result is to bring the civil law into contempt. Another is to establish, outside the courts, a court where there are neither lawyers nor judges, where arbitrary rulings are the prerogative of inspectors, regulators and commissioners, and where mountains of precedent are built upon molehills of law.

When the growth of a bureaucracy passes beyond control, it becomes a law unto itself. The process is self-fulfilling. The failure of each new intrusion compels it to intrude again. More people are hired, more programs devised to occupy them, until the bureaucracy’s, original purpose is obscured. No longer is it there to administer the law, for the law has been buried. It is there to minister to itself.

The contempt which this process heaps upon the civil law is conscripted to bring the criminal law into disrepute. Here, however, the attack is mounted from the safety of that other bastion of liberalism—permissiveness.

The doctrine that instinct deceives, that behavior is conditioned by circumstances, and that the failure of individuals to conform to society’s rules is not their fault but society’s, is applied enthusiastically to the treatment of criminals.

Does he steal? He has been deprived by society. Does he commit crimes of violence? He is the victim of a society which, in its disregard for his needs, was violent to him. Does he commit murder? The pressures that society exerted upon him were too great to be borne.

It is in this that liberalism’s fundamental hypocrisy is fulfilled.

A New Class

The attitude which dictates a concern for people in general while denying the legitimate aspirations of individuals in particular is reversed when some of those individuals break the law.

Then they are transformed from a condition of individuality to one of membership in a class. Not a criminal class, as our forefathers held before the enlightenment, but an underprivileged class, a class which has somehow escaped the welfare net, a class, in consequence, which it is society’s duty to rescue.

If members of the class are not responsible for their condition, how can they be blamed, much less punished, for actions which derive from it?

Innocent unless proved guilty, they must be freed without delay until the crowded calendar can admit their reappearance. In the meantime society will muster its social workers, its psychiatrists, its publicly appointed counsel and its special pleaders to excuse, to explain, by all possible endeavors to exculpate the accused.

The police, whose duty to catch the transgressor was discharged upon his arrest, are witnesses to a process which puts them, who defend the law, upon the defensive. By a curious twist of reasoning, the police are the enemy, not the criminal. As the tangible representatives of the society which wronged him, they are clearly in the wrong.

The hypocrisy culminates in the treatment of premeditated murder. Whether he be a domestic bandit, who kills for money, or an international one who kills for a cause, he must be preserved from the fate he dealt without hesitation to his victims.

Flight from Reality

The principle of an eye for an eye, which served from Moses’ day until recently, has been abrogated by those to whom principles are an encumbrance. That the victims were innocent, were in fact strangers until the gun introduced a fleeting intimacy, is ignored. Conveniently, they are dead, members of the largest class of all, and the state has no responsibility for them. It is free to turn its attention to the well-being of their murderer.

Predictably, the word murderer is the first casualty. The domestic murderer is never referred to by that term. It is too precise. It admits of no doubt that he did, with the premeditation which is inseparable from taking a weapon to the scene of his crime, kill someone on purpose. After the event the word is too harsh a reminder of the harshness of his crime.

The welfare state, whose aim is to cushion its wards from the inescapable realities of life and death, must itself escape reality. In court, the domestic murderer becomes "the accused." When guilt has been established he is thenceforward referred to by name, as befits his notoriety. If, after the passage of time, he is referred to again, the public’s recollection is prompted by reference to the crime he was "involved in." When, in due course, he is released, if the crime was sufficiently newsworthy his earlier notoriety will be revived. The name of his victim may even be mentioned, though not in a reproachful way, because he has now paid his debt to society. The murder he committed has been expunged. It is as if it had never been.

By imputing to the abstraction of society the qualities which can be identified only with the individuals who comprise it, the state, which is itself an abstraction, subverts the truth. Society, which cannot be punished, is blamed for the crime which only a person can commit. The theory that no one, because of upbringing or environment or deprivation or whatever, is responsible for anything, requires the creation of a substitute. Since reason and instinct tell us that there can be no substitute, the state must confound us by indirection.

Like a magician’s audience we are led to believe that things are not what they seem. Society which was to blame in the first place has become the victim of the murderer it bred. When he has paid to it the debt of his crime his unfortunate lapse will be forgotten, swallowed up by abstractions as woolly as the thinking which gave rise to them.

The International Bandit

The international bandit can be disguised in more fanciful terms. He is at worst a terrorist, more often a freedom fighter, a nationalist, an urban guerilla, or simply a member of the "movement" of the hour. Never is he a murderer. The people he kills are not the victims of his guns or his grenades or his dynamite, but of the circumstances which drew them to that particular airplane, or embassy or public place.

They are hostages against the fulfillment of demands in which they have no concern. Secure until that moment in the possession of identity and occupation, they surrender both to the cause of their assailants. As hostages they will suffer, as hostages they may die, but there is nothing personal about it. The abstractions which serve the domestic scene are applied the more easily to the international.

For if the public sector at home is out of control, the super-sector that sprouts from the United Nations abroad is out of all reason.

Compounding the Folly

If it is foolish to blame a national society, from which traditional values have been banished, for crimes committed by persons, then transferring that blame to international society, which has neither tradition nor values, merely compounds the folly.

To suppose that, by seconding them to the United Nations, national bureaucrats acquire qualities superior to those of their fellows at home, is only the first in a chain of assumptions. If experience leads us to doubt the validity of the domestic assumption—that all wisdom resides in the state and, by implication, in its servants—the sheer impertinence of the international assumption may well leave us breathless.

Applying to an international court the same social theories which have brought domestic courts into disrepute is to confuse issues already confounded. The effect is to dissipate responsibility to such an extent that it disappears.

The dictator who conspires, on grounds of national security, to murder thousands of his fellow citizens is quick to appeal to the Security Council if his personal security is threatened. He is blameless at home but he still feels the need for a higher authority to appeal to.

That the Security Council should be as powerless as the United Nations of which it is part is wholly consistent with the theories which gave birth to them both. That nations which are manifestly unable to govern themselves individually—many having acquired nationhood since the day before yesterday—should be credited with the ability to govern all nations collectively, including those with centuries of tradition and cohesion behind them, is the final absurdity. Yet it persists.

The motive force can be ascribed to two distinct impulses. First is the natural tendency of the state to dissolve its responsibility in committees. The drive to escape responsibility, to seek the shelter of a consensus, at all costs to be fireproof, is the inevitable corollary of social theories which hold that no one is to blame for anything.

The ready assumption of personal responsibility, attributed to George Washington in the matter of the tree and his little hatchet, may be apocryphal but its survival springs from more than Americans’ veneration of their first president. It marks a rare quality. How rare may be judged when we try to recall examples of public figures, whose prompt acceptance of responsibility for deemed successes is a daily occurrence, accepting responsibility for evident failures. "It was my fault"—that, to borrow an American idiom, will be the day.

The second motive is more sinister. The drive to transfer power from the individual to the state—indeed to render the individual powerless—finds its natural extension in the transfer of power from individual nations to the international body which foreshadows the world state.

If the best is the enemy of the good there is little doubt that, for Western civilization, the enemy is a creeping mediocrity which substitutes envy for excellence. The independence which drives men to seek the best is attacked by those who would make all dependent on the state.

Western civilization faces a crisis of the spirit. It is the West’s belief in its own beliefs which is at issue.