Monday, January 07, 2008

A Chinese totalitarian assesses America

One of the most interesting and challenging philosophers of ancient China was Hanfeizi (Han Fei Tzu), who gave a rational defense of what we would now call totalitarianism. For the benefit of those in The United States of America who might like the government to have more absolute and unimpeachable power, I offer this brief report card on how America is doing as a totalitarian state of the sort described by Hanfeizi.

Hanfeizi argued that the ideal government was one based on the three pillars of power, laws and statecraft. What he meant by those three pillars can be summarized as follows:

Power is necessary for a king to gain control over the masses. What this means is that in the final analysis it is the state that should have the power of life and death over the people. Power ensures that no one will question or resist the authority of the government. Therefore, the king should enforce the law as if he were God, which means using power effectively and absolutely but being guided by the constraints of fairness and impartiality. Like God, the ruler should always be perceived as unquestionable. In practice, this means the ruler must be sure always to take credit for successes and to find some dispensable minister to blame for failures. But only the ruler should have this sort of power to take credit and give blame; everyone else in the nation must be credited and blamed on the most objective grounds possible. In practice, this means that everyone must be watchful of everyone else; no one but the head of state can be left unwatched. Only if everyone is equally watched, will there be fairness and impartiality in all public affairs; needless to say, no one's activities will be truly private, so all affairs will be public.

The fairness and impartiality that the state requires is something that can be measured only against a known standard, namely, the law of the land. Without an objective standard of this sort, no one knows what fairness and impartiality are; they become empty words, like righteousness and benevolence. The king, therefore, like God, should use his power first to make the law and then to see to it that the law is implemented in the same way for everyone and that no one, including the king himself, is above the law in any way whatsoever. Hanfeizi wrote: “Ruler and minister, superior and inferior, nobleman and commoner—all must obey the law.” All those who break the law, whatever their social rank or their place in the government, must receive the same punishment.

Laws, if they are to uphold a fair and impartial government, must be clear, fully public and transparent, and they must be fully enforceable. Laws that are vague, or kept secret, or that cannot be enforced will only occasion contempt for the law in the minds of citizens. Contempt for the law will lead to lawless behavior among citizens, and lawless behavior will serve to erode the government's power.

But the good king also employs statecraft as if he were God, which means that he operates in ways that are mysterious and unfathomable to his ministers; this unpredictability, accompanied by power, inspires awe and dread in his ministers and therefore ensures that his dictates are carried out by them. If the preferences of the leader are known, then people are bound to speak and act in ways that please the leader, rather than speaking and acting authentically. To prevent sycophancy, the successful leader must be as inscrutable as God.

Once the law has been decided, said Hanfeizi, it is imperative that all private doctrines that conflict with the law be prohibited. If teachers are allowed to teach doctrines that conflict with the will of the king, then the law can never be effective. Hanfei was especially wary of philosophers, since they had a way of raising questions that could be answered in many ways, without giving people a means of deciding which answer is the uniquely correct one. If people have their minds full of open-ended unanswered questions, thought Han, then they will only be confused, and confusion is good for no one. So philosophers should be forbidden to teach. The only thing that everyone should be taught is what the law is, what the penalty of breaking the law is, and what the benefits of obeying the law are.

As important as it is for the leader to be as much like God as humanly possible in the ways described above, it is no less important for the leader to make sure the economy of the state is always sound. Just as individuals come to disaster if they spend beyond their means, states will surely fall if they go too much into debt. Therefore, all wasteful spending should be illegal, and like all illegal things, punished. Among the most wasteful enterprises a state can become involved, claimed Han, in is reckless military ventures. A state that is well run and that maintains a healthy economy will have no need to defend itself against external enemies, since its good international conduct will make no enemies. And such a state will also have no need to conquer other states to gain resources, since it will always be able to get everything its citizens need through fair trade. With no need to invade neighboring states or to defend against them, the well-run state need have only a minimal military, so its need for funds will be modest. Therefore, its need to tax citizens will also be modest.

Nothing will bring a state to ruin more surely than habits that undermine fairness and that stand in the way of the best people being appointed to positions of responsibility—and the most incompetent people being removed from those positions. If a ruler's thinking is clouded by considerations of personal favoritism or loyalty, then bad decisions are sure to follow. As potentially enfeebling to a state as personal loyalty and political partisanship are decisions based on taking into consideration the reputation and wealth of the family to which a person belongs. Every individual should be appointed to or removed from positions of power solely on the basis of that individual's performance in the tasks assigned to him or her.

Given what we know of Hanfei's political doctrines, how might he assess how the United States of America has been doing in recent years?

Strict obdedience of the law and punishing all lawbreakers equally.
Few administrations during the past sixty years have done a very good job at this. The US constitution declares, for example, that treaties entered into by the federal government take precedence over laws of the nation, and yet the United States has consistently been cavalier in its honoring of international treaties, United Nations resolutions, and treaties with native Americans. Moreover, the criminal justice system is in a shambles, as manifested by the different treatment of first offenders, depending on their affluence, social position and race.

Moreover, the trend during the past forty years or so has been for presidents to pardon lawbreakers within their own cabinets or within their own political circles.

In this area, therefore, the USA must be given a grade of F.

Meritocracy and avoidance of favoritism and other forms of partiality.
The current system of legislation and enforcement of policies by lobbyists and special-interest groups almost guarantees that few decisions are made on the basis of the merits of the case, and few people are hired, maintained or dismissed from their positions strictly on the basis of the quality of their performances. Whether one looks in governmental circles, the military, the commercial sector, or the academic world, one finds that social connections, affluence and personal loyalty are far more important than competence or skill.

In this area also, the USA deserves a failing grade, but because it is the country in which I was born, I'll give it a grade of B+.

Keeping the economy healthy by favoring fair trade practices.
A while back I went to a very crowded emporium of goods sold at affordable prices. Not being in the market for anything particular, I amused myself by looking at the labels of as many products as I could to see where they were manufactured. Every single item I examined was manufactured in China or some other country that has no laws in place to protect workers or the environment or to pay workers reasonable wages or offer them benefits. Providing cheap goods to the citizens of a nation is not the best means of stimulating that nation's economy. It would be difficult to justify giving our governments of the past sixty years any cumulative grade higher than D-.

Keeping military expenditures to a minimum.
According to a table on a website maintained by Christopher Hellman, the military budget of the United States was $396,100,000,000 in the year 2000. That figure was more than the combined military budgets of the next twenty-eight nations. In contrast, the total military budgets of the three nations that David Frum, via George W. Bush, dubbed the “Axis of Evil,” namely, Iran, Iraq and North Korea, was $11,800,000,000. In other words, the United States spent $33.57 for every $1.00 spent on military hardware and personnel by the nations it claims are its most dangerous enemies. As of 2003, according to the United States military budget accounted for 47% of the entire world's military expenditures. That was before the illegal invasion of Iraq, which led to a war that according to the National priorities website costs Americans $275,000,000 per day As of January 7, 2008, the total cost of the Iraq war was more than $483,000,000,000, which is about $1600 for every man, woman and child in the country.

In this area, the record of the United States is so abysmal that it does not even deserve a failing grade. It deserves to be expelled from the school and perhaps even sent to prison.

Arriving at fair and enforceable laws.
A country that has, by frequently cited estimates, more than 12,000,000 people who have entered the country illegally, obviously has flawed immigration laws. The most sensible move would be to stop trying to make it illegal to come to this country to earn an honest livelihood. And while we're at it, we might consider stopping trying to legislate against the use of narcotics, stimulants and intoxicants. Despite these examples of silly and largely unenforceable laws, on the whole the laws of the United States, namely, those in the constitution, are not bad. All told, a fair-minded grader might give the country a grade in the C+/B- range.

Being mysterious and secretive.
Although some people might at first think that America's politicians get full marks for being inscrutable and impossible to fathom, closer reflection would lead most people to conclude that in fact the inner workings of most politicians and leaders are quite out in the open and hardly disguised at all. It is evident that what makes all successful politicians tick is money. First of all, hardly anyone but a multi-millionaire can get the attention necessary to get elected. Secondly, very few can resist the lure of money once they are elected. America, since at least the time of Kennedy's election, has become a plutocracy, a government by the wealthy and for the wealthy. There is no secret or mystery about that. So by Hanfei's criteria, American government would again have to get an F.

Blaming others for what goes wrong.
At last we find a category in which American politicians have excelled during the past sixty years. During most of my youth, everything that went wrong was blamed on Communists and Communist sympathizers (a category that included almost everyone who ever had a concern for anyone besides themselves). No sooner had the Communists disappeared into the oblivion of history than Americans began blaming everything on Islamo-Fascists, jihadis, terrorists and people who hated our freedom. The truth, however, is that almost all of America's political problems have been brought on by American politicians themselves and by the people who elect them. It is probably true of everyone in the human race that they are their own worst enemy. It is indisputably true of Americans as a whole, and especially of America's leaders. Yet who ever takes the blame for their own folly? Who can resist taking credit for things that are in no one's control and that by some fluke occasionally go well? American leaders can proudly show that on their Hanfeizi report card they have one A.


At first it might seem like good news that American leaders during the past sixty years have done so poorly at following the advice of a man who engineered one of the most brutally totalitarian governments in the history of China. Unfortunately, it turns out that what would make a totalitarian government work well are pretty much the same things that would make a constitutional democracy work well. So what makes America a mediocre also-ran as a totalitarian state also makes America a second-rate also-ran as a freedom-promoting democracy. That notwithstanding, we hear American politicians routinely saying such things as “We live in the greatest nation in the history of the earth” (Rudy Giuliani recently said that) or ”Everyone in the world would live in America if they could” (Mitt Romney recently said that). Alas, so long as American political leaders keep saying that but acting like plutocratic bullies, the country they aspire to lead will never be much better than a dream that somehow never managed to come true.