False prophets

“You may be sure that this refractory nature, which demands much toil, has been implanted in us. There are obstacles in our path; so let us fight, and call to our assistance some helpers. “Whom,” you say, “shall I call upon? Shall it be this man or that?” There is another choice also open to you; you may go to the ancients; for they have the time to help you. We can get assistance not only from the living, but from those of the past. Let us choose, however, from among the living, not men who pour forth their words with the greatest glibness, turning out commonplaces and holding. as it were, their own little private exhibitions, – not these, I say, but men who teach us by their lives, men who tell us what we ought to do and then prove it by practice, who show us what we should avoid, and then are never caught doing that which they have ordered us to avoid.”
Moral letters to Lucilius/Letter 52, On Choosing Our Teachers, Seneca

The world is filled with demagogs and charlatans, in areas ranging from “self-help” to politics and religion. The internet and mass media have both accelerated the promotion of their views and well as pitted them against each other in a gladiatorial contest that would have made Nero proud. I realize that it is the promotion of the competition and the conflict that matters to the promoters, not the outcomes or the virtues of the arguments. Whatever keeps the circus going and helps it grow is good. By definition, anything that brings rational analysis and discussion to a conflict is bad, as it would lead to a quieting of the noise and a shutdown of the gravy train.

I realize now that the constant promotion of the false dichotomy of liberal/conservative, republican/democrat, etc. is about not about the validity of competing viewpoints, but rather about the continuation of conflict between groups. As long as the people are constantly distracted and fighting each other, they do not have time or mental energy to recognize who is truly manipulating them or for what purpose, nor to think about what is truly in their best interest. Likewise, as long as the leaders of the competing groups are constantly rallying their followers to attack the “other”, they do not have to answer for the shortcoming of their own beliefs or policies. War then, is the ultimate solution when any leader is facing a crisis of confidence in their leadership.

I am responsible for my beliefs, values and plans, and living a life aligned with these. In developing these I will look to whatever sources of wisdom I can find that contribute to my greater understanding of the world, as I interpret and adopt it. In living my life I will not always live up to my best ideals, however as long as I climb back on the path and keep trying I will never fail. Failure is only the end of trying, not the opposite of succeeding.

The Roots of Evil: Part 3

“Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program.”
Milton Friedman

“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”
Benjamin Franklin

“War is a racket“
Major General Smedley Butler

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the (congressional)-military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
President Dwight D. Eisenhower

“The end of democracy and the defeat of the American Revolution will occur when government falls into the hands of lending institutions and moneyed incorporations.”
Thomas Jefferson

“Whereas it appeareth that however certain forms of government are better calculated than others to protect individuals in the free exercise of their natural rights, and are at the same time themselves better guarded against degeneracy, yet experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms, those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny; and it is believed that the most effectual means of preventing this would be, to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large, and more especially to give them knowledge of those facts, which history exhibiteth, that, possessed thereby of the experience of other ages and countries, they may be enabled to know ambition under all its shapes, and prompt to exert their natural powers to defeat its purposes;”
Thomas Jefferson

“Fascism is capitalism in decline.”
Vladimir Lenin

“Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. “
Lord Acton

As I believe that religious and political ideology enslave the mind, so I believe that their partners in crime, evil government and institutions, enslave the people.

Corporations are the most prevalent modern institutions that are creatures of government and would not exist without the legislative and legal framework that allows for their creation, and more important once created, leads to their ever growing power to limit competition, support their growth and stifle dissent. As more power is funneled to corporations through favorable legislation and wasteful purchases, increasing profits from the corporations are funneled back to governments through donations, bribes and jobs, leading to an ever escalating cycle of cronyism. “Too big to fail” becomes the watchword of the day and the facade of public interest is exposed when it is revealed that the corporations write the legislation that supposedly regulates them to their own benefit through their paid handmaidens, politicians.

Governments are the means by which those who have sized power consolidate and use that power. Regardless of the high minded statements made in constitutions, as Jefferson noted, political realities and the ambitions of self serving leaders so widen the gap between rhetoric and reality that in time the founders of the government would hardly recognize their creations (assuming that they ever had any intent to actually grant the rights that they set forth in their constitutions).

For both governments and institutions, both exist, initially at least, “to serve the people”  by providing goods and services that they otherwise cannot provide for themselves. And certainly they do so, especially when they are small and new. The challenge arises when the growth of the organization and the subsequent demands to feed and perpetuate the organization exceeds the net benefit provided. In medical terms there is a word to describe the mutation of what were once productive cells into unproductive cells that exist simply to grow without limits: cancer.

It seems that looking back over world history, the pattern is for ever increasing growth and centralization of power, to the point that the purpose of government (and non-governmental institutions) becomes the continuation of their existence. At some point this growth, with the inherent complexities of organization and communication added by this growth, stifles any useful benefit that was provided in their infancy. As they grow, they become increasing fragile and subject to failure through external shocks, as their ability to respond to unforeseen events has atrophied through neglect as their focus shifted to controlling and shaping events to their benefit. Like an old and massive oak, it is when the facade is the largest and seemingly the most virile, that the core is most likely to be rotten and subject to catastrophic failure from external shocks.

Both governments and institutions (through prices, taxes and competitive restrictions) tax the public in order to fund their growth. In the early stages these taxes are reasonable and the trades are fair. Just as cells transmute from useful to cancer cells over time, so too do institutions and governments. With the continued consolidation of power, the taxes and restrictions grow and the benefits recede. As this occurs, the symbiosis between corporate and government interests becomes more evident, with corporations and governments become the cheerleaders and enablers of the other and their programs.

I do not believe all governments and corporations are evil. It is the degree to which their increasing size, age and power is focused on their growth and survival, as opposed to their mission as expressed in their constitutions or corporate purposes, that they are or are becoming evil. I also believe that this is a process that occurs over time for those organizations that do not start with malicious intent, who however evolve to it through deliberate or incidental adoption of practices and decisions that are counter to their original charters, which through accumulation fundamentally undermine their stated purposes. The “slippery slope” of evil.

Corporations and governments are not independent entities, but are ultimately collections of people. It is these collections of people that through their actions that enable both to act in the real world, to the benefit and harm of the broader public. In looking at the growth and consolidation of power in governments and corporations, what is happening under the covers is the growth and consolidation of power by individuals who makeup these organizations, especially at the senior levels. While there may be some that recognize the lie that underlies their actions in the services they provide, as I discussed in the power of memes, the ability to recognize and act against those lies, especially when it is in conflict with someone’s immediate best interests, can be nearly impossible.

As a Stoic I remind myself that the limits to my control end with my actions. What happens after my actions are subject to fate, likewise what happens in my external environment, where those events are driven by governments and corporations. However, just because I cannot control the outcomes, does not mean that I will not try to influence them for the greater good. From helping awaken the minds of individuals, to fighting the mind controlling influence of ideologies, to opposing the power of evil governments and institutions where I am able, my success in life is not measured by my achievements, but rather in my efforts.

The Roots of Evil: Part 2

“When even the brightest mind in our world has been trained up from childhood in a superstition of any kind, it will never be possible for that mind, in its maturity, to examine sincerely, dispassionately, and conscientiously any evidence or any circumstance which shall seem to cast a doubt upon the validity of that superstition. I doubt if I could do it myself.”
Mark Twain

“I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth, it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives.”
Leo Tolstoy

Memes, or as I like to call them, mental viruses, are in my opinion the most persistent and potentially damaging of any pathogen. This is both due to the ease by which they can spread, the difficulty if not near impossibility to spot the infection in yourself, and the numerous challenges in eradicating the virus in yourself or others assuming you or they have the will to do so. Looking over the course of history, including events of today, it seems that almost all of the death, violence and destruction of human history can be traced to a religious or political ideology attempting to spread and enforce its viewpoint on others.

Religions are certainly the oldest of these pathogens and the most long lived, though political ideologies are not far behind. Both undergo evolution due to changing environmental conditions branching into new forms each with their own tendencies to enslave the mind.

While I believe all religions are dangerous due to their drive to limit freedom of thought, the degree to which a religion mandates the unconditional acceptance of its doctrine, and encourages the punishment of those who fail to believe and follow its obvious truths, defines how dangerous it is to my mental health and the health of the general public. Examples of the violence perpetrated by those infected with such memes fill the news channels everyday, and should be a warning to all regarding both the spread of these diseases as well as their fatal consequences.

In a like manner, political ideologies also capture the mind and narrow the viewpoint to the extent that people infected are unable to see any viewpoint other than their own and will also violently attack those who criticize or resist theirs. From the perspective of the impartial anthropologist from Mars, I suspect that they would see both behaviors (political and religious motivated violence) as symptoms of the same underlying pathology, though caused by different strains of agents.

Is there a cure for these diseases? Unfortunately not one that I think can be imposed externally. Certainly the attempts by the pushers of religious or political ideology think that they can convert others by simply shouting louder or if necessary, bashing the unbeliever’s heads in or chopping them off for their failure to accept the shining light of truth which is their belief system. These are diseases that I think can ultimately be cured only by the infected themselves, through the recognition of their mental state and their subsequent actions to break free of their mental chains. As Twain and Tolstoy both noted, this is not an easy task and one which in part explains the prevalence of these diseases.

If a cure is difficult, the best course I believe lies in prevention. Living a Stoic life, combined with a skeptical viewpoint, is for me the best course for reducing the chances of these memes taking hold and spreading in my own mind.