“[T]he state originated as a protection racket.”
– James C. Scott, Against the Grain
A powerful mafia takes over a small country. They tell everyone in the country they must pay a percentage of surpluses to the mafia’s goons. If they pay up, the goons will protect them from other gangs. If they don’t, goons will return with guns.
Part of this arrangement means the people will have to obey mafia rules, even though some of those rules strike them as arbitrary.
One day, the mafia grants everyone in this country the right to vote for the mafia’s leaders and even let people run in elections to become a boss. Newly elected bosses get to make the rules and enjoy the power to issue threats on the mafia’s behalf.
After a time, the people start referring to this mafia as the government.
This little allegory prompts a set of questions: are mafias and governments just protection rackets? Does the introduction of voting and elections justify the mafia’s authority? And what part of that justification involves morality?
The Moral Core
Maybe you’ve noticed that few people talk about morality anymore.
I once avoided such discussions, never wanting to come across as churchy. And some conflate their sectarian or personal moralisms with what we might call the moral core — that is, the handful of essential virtues that, when practiced, facilitate social harmony and material abundance.
Notice the emphasis on practice.
Though most values in the moral core are nigh universal — that is, present in almost every culture — I sometimes prefer aspects of Eastern over Western conceptions. Eastern approaches to morality involve conscious, daily practice — including emotional control — whereas Western approaches increasingly involve occasionally plucking abstractions from the air.
Morality’s Big Three
Morality, especially in America, has become anemic. So we need to talk about it again.
Consider the Big Three of the moral core:
- Don’t harm.
- Don’t steal.
- Don’t lie.
The Big Three are almost universal. For example, in the Vedantic traditions, there are ahimsā, asteya, and satya.
- Ahimsā emphasizes non-violence in thoughts, words, and actions. To practice ahimsa, replace negative thoughts with positive ones and approach your daily interactions with kindness, avoiding aggression.
- Asteya, or non-stealing, promotes satisfaction and happiness – particularly with what one has. The idea is to obtain things honestly, and in your daily practices, focus on your experience of the moment rather than on coveting others’ assets or achievements.
- Satya, or truthfulness, is essential for spiritual growth and fulfillment. Be honest with yourself and others, operate with integrity and adapt your practice to your current physical and mental state to avoid accepting or propagating untruths.
As I’ve suggested, these aren’t conceptually different from the West’s Big Three. But subtle differences exist in how these fundamental norms are taught and practiced.
Much of tort and criminal law is built on the Big Three, but, as we’ll see, that law is only for the plebs. Still, if you hurt someone, pleb, you’ll probably go to jail. If you steal? Same. Certain kinds of lies, such as those involved in fraud, can land you behind bars, too. And this is as it should be.
For the elites, though, especially the political elites, politics creates a profound moral asymmetry. That asymmetry eats through society like a caustic acid.
Politics’ Big Three
Let’s put the matter a little more starkly. Politics has its own Big Three:
Politics is anti-morality.
Just like the mafia uses these tactics in their enterprise, political actors do too. Yet most people won’t acknowledge this reality. Between failures of imagination, such as the inability to see how things could be otherwise, most people settle for ways to justify unjust authority.
Apologia around politics almost always involve justifications that tiptoe around the difficult truth that the pillars of political practice are himsa, steya, and anṛtam, that is, violence, theft, and untruth. You’d better believe that, in politics, these vices are active, daily practices. Few people ever put matters into such stark terms, because authorities must always shroud themselves in casuistry. Wishes father lies.
It used to be that churches helped justify state power. Today, the state is its own church.
Making such a stark assessment of politics and its attendant mafias will strike many as harsh. Most have been raised on a steady diet of state-issued civics, empty patriotism, and apathy. But as civilization teeters at the precipice, stark assessments are in order.
You just need more nuance, interlocutors will say. Nuance is one of those Obi-Wan words its wielders think can wave away the contradictions. But when you press them, the details always terminate in himsa, steya, and anṛtam. Sophistry shrouds all the anti-moral machinations, but that sophistry has been so successful that most people believe it.
But don’t take my word for it. Here are some recent examples:
- “This is a pandemic of the unvaccinated.”
- “The rich don’t pay their fair share.”
- “We will put you in jail.”
- “[This] bears the hallmarks of Russian disinformation.”
- “[P]roviding false information is punishable by up to five years imprisonment.”
- Inflation will be “transitory.”
- Penalties for tax evasion are 3-5 years in prison.
- “[The Administration has] committed to not impacting joint filers earning less than $400,000 with higher audit rates.”
These are but a sprinkle, composing part of a vast system of power that subsists on anti-morality.
Legal is not Moral
So, politics is a system of legitimized violence, theft, and untruth. But don’t let the term legitimized fool you, as that just means legal (though not for you). Legal doesn’t mean right. It doesn’t mean just. It doesn’t mean moral. The powerful get away with misdeeds because, for too long, we have conflated the domains. And this conflation goes all the way down.
One wonders if morality and politics are commensurable at all. After all, as the abolitionist Lysander Spooner once wrote:
If any man’s money can be taken by a so-called government, without his personal consent, all his other rights are taken with it; for with his money the government can, and will, hire soldiers to stand over him, compel him to submit to its arbitrary will, and kill him if he resists.
Threats are the only justification for political authority that has ever made sense.
If anyone has any moral justification, let him come forward and give it. You must prove that your morality is more fundamental than morality’s Big Three. Until then, those with a conscience must figure out how to find the remaining pockets of morality and freedom and work to underthrow power.