"It is said that power corrupts, but actually it's more true that power attracts the corruptible. The sane are usually attracted by other things than power." ~ David Brin
Viral Deindividuation in the Government Meme
When a virus infects an organism, it cripples the immune system so that the organism cannot fight back. A memetic virus employs the same tactic when infecting a brain. For instance, when a religion takes hold of a brain, it often suggests that faith or revelation operates on a higher level (or at least a different but equal level) than reason. Reason is the only tool of intellectual discernment the human brain has at its disposal. When a brain accepts that reason is irrelevant regarding a given meme, that meme has effectively crippled the brain's intellectual immune system.
The meme of government uses similar methods of tampering with the immune system. Deindividuation is an especially effective method. Deindividuation is the concept of relinquishing selfhood. As an individual being, it is natural for the human to think and act out of self-interest. The government meme cannot alter the tendency of an individual to act selfishly, but it can distort the individual's value judgments.
Philosophical deindividuation removes the idea of the self entirely. When the individual accepts that he is only a part of some higher whole, his happiness is no longer his to control. He will willingly become a slave when he is told it will benefit the community. If the individual believes that the self is unimportant and that selfishness is unhealthy, he will readily accept that some governing body is necessary to mitigate selfish impulses and regulate society. This is what makes the meme viral. If the meme's hold is strong enough, the individual will forsake his own judgment for that of society, as represented by the government. For the most part, the individual will keep his rationality for everyday life, but he will not question the existence and actions of government.
The meme proposes that the life of the individual is not important when compared with the fate of society. This seems harmless at first, and utilitarian calculations seem intuitive. If, strolling along, you simultaneously witness a car accident on one side of the street and an airplane crash on the other side, you will likely run to the greater catastrophe to help. However, when the individual is seen as only part of the greater whole of society, the calculations are less innocent. If some minority group is deemed a blemish on society, what is to stop the surgical removal of that blemish? Society is what is important, and society would be better off without these particular undesirables. Who makes these decisions? The government will, as the representative of society. It is easy to organize mass purgations when there is a government purporting to exercise the will of society.
The most insidious breed of deindividuation is that of blame. In a free society, an individual is held accountable for her actions and only her actions. If she is caught committing some transgression, then she is responsible for it and she must pay the consequences. No one else has to pay for her mistake. The assignment of blame is vital for the smooth operation of a society. When something goes wrong because of a human, blame is the first step in redress. When government officials act inappropriately or dangerously (they are especially wont to start wars), the blame is difficult to assign. An elected official may be at fault for a decision, but she was elected by the will of the majority. Democracy among the elected representatives further skews blame. All the elected officials violate common sense and whatever constitution is in place in their own various ways, so it would be impractical to impeach every official at every slightest offense, not to mention the multiple popular interpretations of constitutionality, common sense, and insanity.
Unelected bureaucrats add another layer of fog. Bureaucrats are given considerable latitude by the elected officials who appoint them. When a bureaucrat decides an endangered species is more important than a human life, is he responsible for the damage? Or is it the elected representative? Or is it the multitude of representatives who passed the law? Or is it the voters' election of those officials in the first place, or their failure to evict them?
The military presents the same problem. When soldiers (or better yet: conscripts) slaughter innocent civilians in faraway lands, are they, just following orders, responsible for those crimes? Or are their many layers of commanding officers? Or are the elected officials, or the voters who all probably voted for at least one leader involved in causing the war? The only answer that makes any sense is that the blame is distributed and everyone is just a little bit guilty. But that is as good as no answer at all.
Once a host population accepts the government virus (something philosophers call a "social contract" to make it sound existent), the deindividuation of blame entrenches its position and allows it to grow unencumbered by caution or common sense. No one individual or even group of individuals is fully at fault for governmental actions. Even when a government starts small and (mostly) innocuous, the deindividuation of blame makes it impossible to halt the virus even at early transgressions. The immune system of individual decision-making and responsibility is crippled. The result is an accelerating descent into totalitarian hell.
The divine right of kings follows the same pattern as modern popular government. Religious authority is a deindividuated philosophy: the individual exists for the purpose of worshipping a deity. So the monarch is as unimpeachable as a democratic parliament. But democracy works much more efficiently because it is more deindividuated; authority is too concentrated in a king; at a certain threshold of tyranny, he can be blamed for everything, although a marriage with the church and/or a wealthy aristocracy is a powerful ally.
Beyond the nearly perfect distribution (the fewer the eligibility requirements for voting the better) of blame, the democracy strand of the government virus is the most dangerous because of its illusion of power. Paradoxically, although democracy offers the most deindividuation and therefore the least actual self-government, it appears to grant the individual more power than any other variation of the virus. In a sense, the individual does have more power; by voting, he exerts control over all the other citizens. The voter focuses on this and forgets the unpleasant truth that the other citizens are exerting their power over him just the same. Not a simple virus, democracy is a Trojan horse. Deindividuation enters the potential host population disguised as liberty.
Twin to blame, positive responsibility is deindividuated in democracy as well. As the government grows, it takes on more responsibilities formerly belonging to the individual. This happens easily enough due to the deindividuation of cost. People will grumble about taxes, but they will happily consume social services when they appear to be free. As a democracy progresses, the government will pay for education, healthcare, and retirement; it will subsidize your business, even cripple your competitors if they are too efficient; if it can proceed as far before collapsing under its own weight, the government will even pay for recreation. The laws of economics (the only laws a government is ever interested in repealing) guarantee sub-par quality in all these services and programs, yet it matters not because they are "free." Like dogs and antifreeze, voters will lick it up because it tastes so sweet. The result of all this is that the citizen's individuality is further crippled. When an individual is no longer responsible for her own sustenance, her sense of self is destroyed, making her an even better carrier of the virus.
The government virus attacks an individual's sense of self because a healthy ego is immune to memetic viruses. An individual with a firm sense of self is an individual with self-confidence. He is confident in his own ability to manage reality and the struggles it presents. This includes the ability to rule himself, to make his own decisions. Because he respects himself, he extends respect to others. As he has no wish to be ruled, he has no wish to rule others. Having self-esteem requires strong will; it is far easier to let oneself get defeated and downtrodden than to lift the head up high and march on. When an individual has less than perfect self-esteem, he often tries to shore up that weakness with something unsubstantial. He will try to replace self-esteem with the esteem of others, or he will compare himself to others and thus seek ways to dominate them. Or he may just give in to a sense of defeat and helplessness. Deindividuation is such a powerful weapon for a memetic virus because it attacks and exploits these delicate insecurities that everyone has from time to time. The virus enables the individual seeking the esteem of his brethren the power to rule them via the ballot. It enables the defeated and surrendered to survive on the state's handouts. Deindividuation is attractive because one no longer has to shoulder the burden of self-esteem and personal responsibility.
Memetic viruses are perhaps more difficult to fight than their biological cousins because they are so unrecognizable. On the other hand, when they are recognized, they are as good as dead; the only vaccine they need is acknowledgement that they are viruses and illegitimate. The government virus may be impossible to vanquish, but perhaps there is some small victory just in the knowledge of its viral nature.