F. A. Hayek, a famous but little understood economist sheds light on one of the scandals of our time. There is a well
deserved outrage building over the current Pope’s blaming “the 1970s” for
rampant pedophilia and child molestation by Vatican employees. Some of us remember that time, and the Pope’s statement is at
best an attempt to distort the truth and shift blame away from the guilty. As we know beyond reasonable doubt
these actions were at least covered up , by Bishops including the current Bishop of Rome. To this we add the weasel words of prominent lay Catholics who have taken it upon themselves to
speak for the Church. To my mind
that these men are moral degenerates posing as spiritual teachers goes without
saying, but I want to focus on something I think is much more interesting.
Church consists of many millions of people who are not moral degenerates. They way outnumber those who are. Many of these people, lay people,
priests, and nuns, engage in devoted service to others and seek to walk their
talk as best they can. How then is
it that moral degenerates or those who cover for them make it to the top or near the top so often? For this pedophilia issue has gone on for decades and probably millennia.
spiritual context the answer to this question is important for several
First, religious organizations have a long history of encouraging and even
participating in widespread violence against peaceful people. Off the top of my head Christians,
Muslims, and Hindus all come to mind, and I am sure that list is a partial
Second, the current crop of aggressive atheists use these acts to attack the
argument that a super-human and meaningful ethical context even exists.
Third, most religions seek to make the world a better place, and figuring out
how the worst get on top so often is a key to any such endeavor.
Finally, as a
political scientist I have always been interested in how often the same
phenomena occurs in government, and indeed in large and powerful organizations
where ever they can be found.
I think Nobel
Laureate F. A. Hayek hit on the answer but did not see its full
implications. In the chapter “Why
the worst get on top” in his Road to Serfdom, (recommended but not even remotely understood by Glenn Beck), Hayek
discussed why such monsters as Hitler and Stalin could rise to the top of
powerful organizations. He argued
it was a result of “collectivist” ideology and politics. But in fact the implications of Hayek’s
argument went far beyond Nazism, Communism, and similar movements. It holds for
any organization with all-
embracing goals for humanity, and to a more limited extent for any organization
was so complex that any strong sense of community between all people
presupposes “a greater similarity of outlook and thought than exists” between
people. If the community -race,
class (or Church) – exists in some sense independently of its members then only
those people who work to advance its goals can be good members.
People in all
their diversity can be united around a goal if it is sufficiently abstract,
such as the “all power to the working class,” the “German Volk,” (or the
“Kingdom of God”). This abstract goal “enables everyone to project their hopes
and dreams into what will happen once it has been achieved.” We have seen this recently with Obama’s
campaign for president, where each of us who supported him projected our own
version of “Hope and Change” into him, while he was careful to keep it all
When we all
unite around vague, abstract and compelling goals, a powerful sense of unity and
self-sacrifice arises rooted in a superficial but intensely felt
level of agreement.
When the group
is finally in a position to implement this dream this unity begins to fall apart
as concrete disagreements about specific ends, their proper priorities, and
specific means to achieve those ends all cause dissension to arise. Different interpretations of doctrine, be it Marx or the Bible, emerge. Different priorities arise. The organization’s unity is threatened with schism. Addressing this problem unleashes a fatal logic.
that every “collectivist” system “has two central features . . . the need for a
commonly accepted system of ends of the group and the all-overriding desire to
give to the group the maximum of power to achieve these ends. . . .” While he did not mention it, his description applies to more than collectivism
communist or Nazi style. He
described the basic orientation of any organization’s towards its members and
its goals. Churches, corporations,
political parties, and unions all share these two attributes. Their strength varies with the importance of organizational goals.
Hayek added that
“To act on behalf of a group seems to free people of many of the moral
restraints which control their behavior as individuals within the group.” War demonstrates more profoundly than any other activity, but
the same attitude arises in sports, and any other group activity where we share
a strong sense of ourselves as a group against an outside world. The result is that members tend to
treat those outside their group as real or potential allies, real or potential
opponents, or as irrelevant. The
more important the goals to the members, the more powerful this tendency
becomes. Political utopianism,
war, and religion are among the most powerful motivators for people.
This is why the
inner logic of any instrumental organization denies the equality of those over whom it or its leaders have power. These people necessarily serve as resources for attaining the organization’s goals. The only limitation
here is how important the goal is for the members. Other points of view tend to be seen as challenges to the
dominant group, as sometimes they are.
Alternative views within the group tend to be seen as disloyal regardless of the motives behind them.
are profound. Most fundamentally,
to the degree the organization’s goals are important to its members, they
subordinate their individual conscience to those goals. While individual morality can make absolute or near absolute
prohibitions on certain kinds of behavior, the goals
of organizations demanding and receiving intense loyalty override these limitations. As Hayek put the point, “This makes collectivist morals so
different from what we have known as morals that we find it difficult to
discover any principle in them . . . .” The basic
principle of collectivist organizations is, as Lenin observed, that “the end
justifies the means.”
When I was
teaching college and these issues arose I would ask my students how many played team
sports. Most raised their
hands. I would then ask how many
saw team mates cheat at some point.
Again most hands were raised.
I finally asked how many reported on the cheating. As I remember no hands ever went up.
was a mundane example of this process.
The cheating was easily rationalized as acceptable (the other side does
it) and reporting on it would weaken the team and create divisions and resentments. The cheating that was tolerated was kept in bounds primarily
by players’ commitment to the rules and to how important winning that particular
game was in their lives. We are ALL caught up in this dynamic when we are
members of a group with a goal. What keeps
things under tolerable control is our willingness to subordinate our goals to
an over arching set of ethics and values.
The more important the goal the stronger these limits have to be.
Distorting the Goal
Over time an
organization established to achieve a goal comes to identify the goal with the
well being of the organization itself.
Not only is the over arching goal important, members have all kinds of
personal goals that get caught up and identified with the organization’s
well-being. This is particularly
true for people who make serving the organization a career or calling.
To the degree
the well-being of the organization becomes identified with the organization’s
goal, the next step in its degeneration sets in. The organization becomes its own reason for existence, and
even (always ‘temporarily’) setting aside its initial goals can be rationalized as a
necessary if regrettable step. The
classless society never comes, but the Party abides. The Nazis did not have such a long time in power for this to
happen, but it would have.
Catholic hierarchy’s behavior is a perfect example of this process. Many Catholic officials likely personally disapproved of pedophilia. I certainly hope so. But they believed it would hurt the Church if
these activities were exposed to a unsympathetic larger world. Because they saw the Church as doing
God’s work on a fallen earth, this was a serious threat. Best then to handle the matter internally, and as quietly as
possible. That its weakest members
were sacrificed to the Church’s well-being was a regrettable necessity.
It is at this
point that a common human virtue, loyalty, becomes a human vice. Insofar as people strongly identify with a group’s
goals, there can be no recognition
of other people’s intrinsic value when such recognition threatens the
organization. Collectivism then must
elevate power over ethics because ethics in human society primarily applies to
individuals. Ethical individuals
automatically limit the group’s ability to act. Since ethics is the limitation of power, this means that
collectivist groups cannot truly be ethical.
In Hayek’s view,
a collectivist political system would not attract men and women whom we would
regard as good. Good people would
be repelled by it. I think here he
is off the mark. Once they believe
a noble goal is truly good, many people will subordinate themselves to it. This in itself is not
collectivistic. But when they see
a particular group as essential to the
attainment of that goal, and so come to equate the good of the group with the
goal that initially animated them, they are corrupted.
The moral energy that enabled them to
devote their life to a noble goal is turned to devoting their life to the
service of the power of a group that identifies with the goal. They may have started out good, but
they end up doing bad. Here, I
believe, is the key to the question of why so many self-sacrificing communists
turned into brutal rulers. It is why so many good Catholics excuse inexcusable
conduct by their hierarchy.
Why the Worst Get on Top
contended that collectivist groups will attract those who seek power and
authority over others. A group
oriented towards power will be most effectively led by those who are themselves
devoted to power. Further, such people will be willing to do more in order to
rise. They will be less bound by any personal ethical limits. Competent
sociopaths will normally have the competitive edge in the internal politics of big
Consequently, in a
collectivist system, be it communist, Nazi, fascist, theocratic, or something
else, the worst will tend disproportionately to come out on top. This
outcome is not a law without exceptions.
Russian Communism gave us Mikhail Gorbachev. The Catholic Church gave us John XXIII. But these men are
the exception and their efforts at reform either failed (John XXIII) or led to
the demise of the corrupted organization. (Gorbachev). The current Pope with his lies and distortions is more the norm.
history organizations established in the name of service to a higher
all-encompassing good have reinterpreted their charge to provide their leaders
and key members with power and privilege. The process proceeds as follows:
First people subordinate their personal morality to the organization and its goals.
Second, the initial goals are redefined as what is good for the organization.
Third, the organization’s leaders become increasingly dominated by sociopaths.
Such a long and consistently blemished record suggests that the usual
explanations that “the wrong people” got into positions of power, or that
“mistakes were made, but will now be rectified,” or even that “human nature” is
at fault, are inadequate.
More than anything else, this is why I love the fact that NeoPagans groups are so decentralized. It is also why I so deeply suspect big organizations of any kind.