The Control Imperative



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The most intriguing riddle of statism, and at the same time the most important intellectual challenge that faces every friend of liberty, can perhaps be summarized in the following question: Why has statism indisputably taken over the world, given that it is a position both immoral, based on unjustifiable violence, and economically inefficient?

Many ingenious yet inadequate answers have been proposed to this question. By way of referring to some of them, I would like to present in the following text a possibly novel perspective, which might be able to shed at least a dim light on some of the relevant, but as yet unexplained issues.

One of the reasonable though insufficient responses points to the role played by the propaganda apparatus, including state-licensed media and nationalized education system. Admittedly, the apparatus in question plays a significant role in grounding statism in the consciousness of the public and in neutralizing any alternatives to it, primarily by means of distorting the concepts used in describing the surrounding socio-economic reality--but this is just a description of the symptoms rather than an identification of the causes of the underlying disease. Why have the great human masses allowed a comparatively small group possessed of despotic and parasitical mentality to put them in the state of such ideological bondage? It would seem that more resistance could be expected of beings endowed with reason and independent subjectivity. In other words, it could be expected that statism and attachment to the natural order would spread around the world in at least equal proportions.   

Another rather unconvincing response draws on the alleged fact that aggression and violence always constitute a faster, easier and more profitable path. Yes, perhaps faster, but not necessarily less risky. Yes, perhaps easier and more profitable, but only in the short term. An aggressor can derive undeniable profits from his acts of aggression, but antagonizing the whole environment will bring him indisputable losses. In other words, the optimal environment for him is definitely not a jungle in which everybody lies in wait for everybody else, even among the members of the same robber band. Those who believe in the Hobbesian myth would say in reply that this is precisely the reason for the triumph of statism--the jungle is replaced by a chain-and-truncheon-induced order. But the more insightful know that ceding the possibility of initiating violence into the hands of a monopoly not only does not liquidate the jungle, but also deepens the savagery and viciousness that prevails in it--for out of the tribe of predators emerges a select group of arch-predators, bent on eliminating every possibility of bottom-up defense through disarming their subjects and imposing on them the costs of their own aggressive actions. Another thing to mention in this connection is that smaller, “private” aggressors can continue to prosper in the statist jungle, since their numerous presence in the society gives the ruling aggressors a perfect pretext for imposing successively higher tributes on their subjects (collected, needless to say, for the purpose of “fighting crime” and “increasing security”).

So why do we live in the statist wilderness, grown on the soil of, speaking absolutely literally, “the worst form of government”? As we all know, respect for property rights, free competition, diminishing time preference and the subsequent accumulation of capital, will in the long run be universally serviceable, helping also those of parasitical and criminal persuasion. That is why even such individuals should not have it in their interest to nip the abovementioned phenomena in the bud, which has nonetheless been happening through ages, with only minute historical intermissions. Furthermore, even the most ignorant and selfishly-oriented groups should retain the consciousness that a minimum of honest work in the system of freedom of action will earn them, not in the immediate, but also not in the very distant future, a level of well-being incomparably higher than that available as a result of erecting coercive systems of large-scale redistribution. Finally, it is not the case that the abovementioned groups routinely harbor ill will or an active and vicious urge to harm others--how then shall we explain such widespread support for statism even among essentially undepraved people?  

On my private bench of the accused, next to selfish human nature, stupefying propaganda and economic ignorance (whose guilt I consider to be only partial and even unnecessary), I would like to seat another culprit--this element of human nature that I would call “the control imperative.” I would describe the control imperative as a natural tendency of most people to approve of controlling the actions of others and a spontaneous inclination to try to engage in such practices. What is important is that it need not be physical control--most often it is visual, or, more broadly, informational control. Perhaps the most common manifestations of the phenomenon in question are nosiness and gossip. Huge multitudes of people are eager to poke their noses into the lives of others--both those of their most immediate neighbors as well as those of the so-called “celebrities” and icons of mass culture. What is typical of the individuals who succumb to the control imperative is that they are progressively less concerned with themselves and their own desires, but progressively more concerned with the desires of others, as well as the means of their satisfaction that they have at their disposal. Consequently, we should not associate the described phenomenon with the aforementioned egoism, since a paradigmatic egoist does not care about the lives of others and finds no interest in them, thus not needing to exhibit any sort of regulatory urge.  

As was correctly pointed out by Ludwig von Mises in The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, the fundamental source of what I termed the control imperative is envy and malice, oftentimes coupled with a hypocritical rationalization, according to which the superior position enjoyed by some must necessarily result from an act of fraudulent appropriation of what (for rather unspecified reasons) is taken to belong rightfully to others. The strength of the above-mentioned rationalization is often so great that the rationalizers indeed begin to believe that a higher standard of living available to certain groups is not a well-deserved reward for their diligence and resourcefulness, or even a gift of propitious fate, but an unjustly acquired privilege, which should be accessible to all. The appetite grows while eating, especially if it is others who are eating, whereas we are just licking our lips behind the restaurant window.  

And yet, nonetheless, even the most convoluted and two-faced rationalization is usually incapable of putting to rest the overwhelming feeling that the forcible expropriation of the “privileged” is to be considered an extremely wicked and undignified deed, or at least an action that is likely to bring severe ostracism upon the expropriator and hence should be thought of as prudentially inadvisable.  

That is why the easiest way to transform purely visual or informational control into physical control is to cede the task of creating the latter onto external forces, especially those working at the behest of an impersonal and de facto ownerless entity. No other institutions are better suited for such a cession than the institutions of representative democracy--their character allows an envious and greedy individual to merge his own envy and greed with that exhibited by millions of others, and then use it as the material to forge a redistributionist system by the hands of those who can no longer be called robbers hired by Mr. Lazybones to loot the resources of Mr. Diligent, but should be called the executors of the common will instead. As soon as this happens, all potential pangs of conscience and fears of ostracism disappear--acts of plunder and predation (henceforth known as acts of rectification) are no longer committed by any particular, individual person, but only by a vast, collective immaterial entity, whose corporeal representatives are to be regarded as tools of historical justice. The whole process is complemented by far-reaching ritualization of the actions of the abovementioned entity, as well as by the attendant series of semantic distortions, which make unequivocal identification of aggression, violence, coercion, theft and enslavement (let alone successful elimination of these phenomena) incomparably more difficult than it was before.       

At this point we should ask ourselves the question: What is the source of the aforementioned envy, malice and willingness to compare oneself with others, associated with the desire to lay one’s hands on another’s property? That, of course, is a huge and hard question. Perhaps some part of the answer may lie in connection with evolutionary reasons--noticing that others enjoy a higher standard of living, and consequently higher chances of passing their genes into the future, creates in many a natural eagerness to gain similar opportunities in the most convenient manner, even if that means forcible extraction. It is also possible that the territorial instinct has some significance in this context, suggesting that the better-equipped “territory” of one’s neighbor is a potential threat to one’s own habitat, which, being much poorer, would inevitably get absorbed in the event of a confrontation. Or perhaps we should seek the reason in our unique status of beings endowed with free will, ambition and self-love? Such an explanation seems to be suggested by the story of original sin: Let us remember that Eve plucked the forbidden fruit in order to indulge her informational possessiveness, unable to bear the thought that the Lord knows something that she and her husband are ignorant of. Thus, the control imperative appears to be the oldest and the most dangerous vice of humankind.   

In the concluding paragraphs of this article, it is worthwhile to think of what might lead to the universal disappearance of this vice, since there seems to be no question that its decay on an individual or even group level is not unheard of. After all, we become friends of liberty and members of pro-liberty groups precisely as a result of combating the said weakness. One optimistic answer could be: The solution is education, reliable and uncontaminated with statist indoctrination; the kind of education that is becoming more and more available thanks to the Internet, a boundless area of informational freedom, so far untouched by the specter of accreditation and censorship. However, even though I am most hopeful about the growing and intellectually salutary influence of the global web, I do not believe that education is able to eliminate on a mass scale what is probably hard-wired into human nature. Not all of us are born with the potential to understand certain matters, and I am afraid that it is one of these things that ultimately cannot be changed.

On the other hand, I think that what shall eventually bring the doom of the control imperative will be the further development of defense technology. We already have at our disposal both technologies of mass destruction (nuclear weapons) as well as some means of protection against total destruction (anti-ballistic missiles, nuclear shelters). What we still lack, however, is efficient methods of individual, personal defense. The disastrous rule “nec Hercules contra plures” still makes it the case that a peacefully inclined individual cannot effectively withstand the depredations of the statist apparatus of coercion. But let us imagine, drawing for a moment on the most clichéd science fiction scenarios, that some ingenious inventors come up with a prototype of a personal protective field generator, field impenetrable by any forces known to science (think of the monolith from “2001: A Space Odyssey” or of the experiments conducted by Nikola Tesla). Though fictional today, this is not a logically impossible scenario. The dissemination of such an invention would lead to the ultimate dissolution of the practicability of violence-based solutions, just as the dissemination of the Internet rendered any censorial attempts directed against the free flow of information unfeasible. The only alternatives would then be: barricading oneself in one’s indestructible shell and returning to coarse self-sufficiency or engaging in voluntary and contractual cooperation, based on the division of labor, free competition and unbridled entrepreneurship. The precise shape that the adherents of the latter alternative would give to the abovementioned system of voluntary collaboration remains an open question--however, the crucial change would be that the control imperative would perhaps not be completely eliminated from human nature, but it would become generally powerless, and it would henceforth be a vain effort to try to uphold the practices based on it.    

A pessimistic addendum to the above scenario could read: Global voluntarism would last only as long as one revolutionary invention were not followed by another, nullifying the benefits brought by its predecessor. As above--such a development of events is not logically impossible. But even bearing in mind various dark forecasts we should not forget that the ultimate tone of the speculations contained herein is positive, for their final conclusion states: Logic does not protest against, while historical experience is sympathetic to the thesis that the fruits of human reason are oftentimes able to rein in the fruits of human vice. And with this positive conclusion I would like to leave all the friends of liberty.

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Jakub Bozydar Wisniewski's picture
Columns on STR: 12

Jakub Bozydar Wisniewski is a libertarian theorist and a researcher in the tradition of the Austrian School of Economics. He has been a fellow at the Institute for Humane Studies and at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He has published peer-reviewed articles in philosophy, economics, and political economy in, among others, "Independent Review", "Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics", "New Perspectives on Political Economy", "Journal of Prices & Markets", "Libertarian Papers", and "Reason Papers". Visit his blog at