Fit Tools?

Listening to the American citizens claiming that they don’t mind the pornographic body scanners or the “enhanced” pat-downs, as long as those conducting them are from the government and as long as it’s for “safety” and for “security,” I am reminded of this quote from Jefferson:

Dependence begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition. (Notes on the State of Virginia, 1787, Query 19)

You may recall the experiments Philip Zimbardo ran at Stanford University in 1971, in which student test subjects were randomly assigned roles as either prison guards or prisoners, and they were asked to play out these roles in an artificial setting in a building on Yale’s campus. The results were famously horrific: the “guards” became authoritarian and brutal, the “prisoners” tremulous and subservient. Why did the “guards” act to cruelly? Why didn’t the “prisoners” just leave (the doors were all unlocked)?

Zimbardo’s experiments were conducted a decade after Stanley Millgram’s famous experiment at Yale University in which he asked subjects to administer electric shocks to others, in an effort to see how far subjects would be willing to go in obedience to authority. The answer: much, much too far.

People argue about what these experiments really showed, but one thing I believe they reflect is people’s disheartening inclination to listen to whatever someone in authority tells them. That inclination is almost as strong, pervasive, and reliable as is the inclination for people to fully exploit and indeed abuse any authority or power they are given. Everyone from the lowest clerk in an office to the president of the United States will jealously guard his authority, and can be counted on to expand the scope of his power indefinitely until it reaches a point of resistance.

That observation of the natural course of human nature—obedience and subservience to authority, on the one hand, and a correlated steady and increasing exercise of power and authority, on the other—are what led some of the leading figures at America’s founding to think that the best safeguard of liberty and independence is simply not to have the apparatus of power and authority exist in the first place. If there is such an apparatus, one can count on some people seeking it out and using it to the fullest possible extent; one can also count on others bowing to it. Since both of those are evils, the only practical way to limit them is to minimize the opportunity for power in the first place. Hence: limited government.

If, to quote Jefferson again, the “natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground,” then we should not be surprised to discover either that our government is relentlessly expanding its power or that many of our fellow citizens are content to docilely accept, even energetically welcome, orders from their masters. Perhaps that means that a free republic was doomed to fail because it was just too foreign to deep elements of human nature.

Perhaps this dispiriting and disheartening conclusion is true. But, but, but: reflecting further on this situation, and on my own place in it, I am reminded of another famous speech, this one given in St. John’s Church in Richmond, Virginia, on March 23, 1775. Re-reading it now, I am struck by how remarkably it captures not only the situation today but also my own sentiments. I recommend the whole speech, but I will close this post with only its thundering conclusion:

Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!

3 thoughts on “Fit Tools?

  1. This seems quite right to me. I think if there is anything more appalling than the implementation of the new TSA policies, it is the acquiescence of formerly-free American citizens in accepting them. Not just complying: the invidiousness of the despotism consists in compelling people in ways that require them to give up very great goods to resist. But acquiescence and endorsement (“so long as it makes it safe, I’m all for it!”). I think: what would it take? Is there a line? Suppose the TSA next week decides that stripping naked and spreading the buttocks for a visual and digital rectal exam were required. Would that be too far? How about the requirement that we “pat down” each other for contraband, in an effort to save time. Is there a line that people really will not cross? I’d hope there would be, but there really does not seem to be, as long as we approach it incrementally enough.

  2. The Patrick Henry quote is great. But I always have trouble when slaveholders uses allusions to slavery to defend liberty.

    Just goes to show the complexity of human nature.

  3. Good post, Jim. I’m glad this is getting media attention and hope people keep up the protests. Having recently been to Auschwitz I was taken aback when seeing how similar the TSA naked pictures looked in comparison to the pictures of camp victims. And further, learning how the german people and army did evil (yet recognized it as a good) in order to be subservient to a cause.

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