Tolkien, Plato, and the State.
In Lord of the Rings, the plot centers around the “One Ring,” which is supreme among all the “Rings of Power” crafted by the evil Sauron. Some fans have been underwhelmed by the power it grants its wearer: mere invisibility. This would seem to pale in comparison to, say, the super-hero Green Lantern’s power ring, which can create just about anything its wearer imagines. What’s the big deal about invisibility, and why would such a ring be so corrupting to its wearers, as it especially was to Gollum?
Invisibility as Impunity, and Impunity as Power
J.R.R. Tolkien made the One Ring special far beyond this one power. But invisibility is actually the one fantasy “super power” that perhaps best represents state power.
What, after all, is power? Is it simply the capacity to exert unjust force? The ability to impress one’s will upon the flesh or belongings of another? Surely not. Most anyone can wield unjust force. Anyone could walk out onto the street right now and exert their will on somebody weaker: say, pushing over an old lady or stealing candy from a baby. And the toughest, or most heavily-armed guy in town can strong-arm just about any other single person. But perpetrating isolated incidents of aggression is not power. The “reign” of the rogue rampager is extremely short-lived. It only lasts until the community recognizes him as the menace to society that he is and neutralizes him.
No, power isn’t simply about the exertion of unjust force. It is about what happens next, after the exertion. Does the perp generally get away with, or not? Systematically getting away with it—or impunity—is where power truly lies. And that is what makes agents of the state different from any other bully. State agents can aggress with reliable impunity because a critical mass of the state’s victims consider the aggression of state agents to be exceptional and legitimate. That is power.
And that is why invisibility is such an apt analogue for state power. The public’s moral vision has a complete blind spot when it comes to the state. It detects acts of theft, enslavement, and murder whenever they are perpetrated by anyone else, but it is blind to the criminality involved whenever the same exact acts are committed by agents of the state. It is blind to state theft, instead seeing “taxation,” “fees,” and “citations.” It is blind to state enslavement, instead seeing “mandates,” “prohibitions,” and “regulations.” And it is blind to state murder, instead seeing “war in pursuit of the national interest.”
From Gollum to Gyges: State Impunity Corrupts
Lord Acton wrote, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” And, again, the One Ring’s power of invisiblilty can be taken to represent impunity, which is the essence of power. So it makes perfect sense that the One Ring would be so corrupting to Gollum, transforming him from a gentle hobbit-like fellow into a mad, mendacious, and murderous fiend.
Careful contemplation of the link between impunity and corruption goes as far back as the 4th century B.C.: to a thought experiment designed by Plato which also involved a ring of invisibility. In Plato’s Republic, the legend of the “Ring of Gyges” is used to argue that a man would not likely adhere to justice if he were privileged with complete impunity. Gyges was a shepherd who, upon finding an invisibility-granting ring, utilized it to slay his king and take the throne for himself. Plato’s character Glaucon concludes:
“Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a god among men.”
Such also is the corrupting nature of state impunity. It presents the state agent with abounding opportunities to “safely take what he like[s] out of the market,” through myriad methods of extraction (taxation, fiat money inflation, fees, fines, penalties, civil forfeiture, etc.) and disbursement (subsidies, bailouts, welfare benefits, government paychecks and contracts, etc.). Faced with such temptations, “No man would keep his hands off what was not his own…” This is why politicians and bureaucrats are so avaricious, and always eager to, at least in their pet fiefdoms, fatten their own wallets and resumes by way of engorging the state at the public expense.
Like the Ring of Gyges, state impunity also presents state agents with opportunities to “safely… go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would.” It invites them to indulge what St. Augustine called their libido dominandi, or lust to dominate, and to brutally mow down anyone standing in the way of their desires. This is why politicians and bureaucrats are so cavalier about the lives and liberties of “little people,” and are so liable to consider it “worth it,” as Madeline Albright put it, to kill, cripple, cage, or torture hundreds of thousands of innocents, including children, in pursuit of their aims.
A man who can do a slapstick routine about looking for the fictitious weapons of mass destruction he used to lie his country into a major war, or who can jokingly threaten to use drones to kill teenage suitors of his daughters after actually killing teenage boys with drones, is a man whose soul has become totally warped by the impunity of office.
This sickness of soul can also be seen in the brutality and mendacity of U.S. client states privileged with impunity in the form of blank-check, unconditional support from the global hegemon. Witness the uninhibited massacres and unabashed serial deceit (incredible even in the context of state conduct) that have recently been the stock in trade of Israel concerning Gaza and Ukraine concerning the Donbass.
The Gollums in Blue and their Magic Jewelry
The corrupting nature of state impunity can be most vividly seen at the “business end” of the domestic state: the police. Instead of a ring, the “magic” jewelry they wear is a badge. And, for all the recent justified worries about military gear in the hands of cops, it is actually the badge (or what it represents) that is the most dangerous item in their arsenal. It allows them to pass under the moral radar of the populace they afflict. This “moral exceptionalism” grants cops a near-total impunity that is buttressed and codified by the legal doctrine of “qualified immunity.” (To paraphrase Gershwin: You say immunity. I say impunity. Let’s call the whole state off.) Corrupted by their moral-invisibility-granting costume jewelry, cops swagger through the world as if they were, in Plato’s words, “gods among men.” As I’ve written recently, they are,
…legally nigh untouchable. As long as they are clocked in, the worst that a cop will suffer for aggressing against an innocent, no matter how egregiously, is losing his job. He’ll almost never be charged with a crime, and he’ll more likely just be given some paid vacation before being reinstated. This near total impunity frequently has precisely the effect one should expect: reckless disregard for the rights of others and rampant childish indulgence in one’s basest urges, which means violence induced by hyper-sensitive pride, indignant scorn, steroid-addled rage, “officer safety” paranoia, power-mad sadism, and even rapacious sexual lust. Just look through the archives ofPoliceStateUSA, Copblock, The Free Thought Project, or Liberty Crier to see countless instances of this playing out.
Put Not Your Faith in Ring-Bearers
With state impunity, just as with the Ring of Gyges, as Plato’s Glaucon put it, “…no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice.” This sheds light on the futility of looking to “libertarian” politicians to help us win freedom from the state. That would be like Gyges not only abstaining from injustice, but outright destroying the ring that would crown him king, as Frodo was tasked to do with the One Ring.
Ron Paul was the only politician who could have been expected to be an exception to Glaucon’s rule. He is the ultimate outlier in that he is probably the only man of our times who has both political acumen and the principled beliefs and “iron nature” necessary to resist the corruption of great power, were he to attain it. He was our one and only Frodo, and he has retired from his political journey; nobody else in politics evinces even an increment of what it would take to bear the Ring of Impunity without being enthralled by it, and to ultimately destroy it.
Virtually any other power-bearer ostensibly tasked with destroying power would instead develop a permanent dependency on impunity-enhanced aggrandizement, like Gollum’s crackhead addiction to the invisibility-granting One Ring. When human beings find themselves with the ability to safely exploit not only their own persons and property, but that of millions of others to pursue their goals, they will always be loathe to close that vast vista of opportunities. They will make excuses for not relinquishing power, like Bilbo did when pressed by Gandalf to surrender the Ring. Like Boromir, they will rationalize exercises of power under the pretense of “doing good,” including especially the pretense of using power to allegedly combat power and enlarge freedom. Even Gandalf feared this outcome for himself, when he rejected the Ring and said,
“Don’t tempt me Frodo! I dare not take it. Not even to keep it safe. Understand, Frodo. I would use this ring from a desire to do good. But through me, it would wield a power too great and terrible to imagine.”
And if ever presented with the unlikely opportunity to dismantle from within the state apparatus upon which their career, income, and prestige depends, “libertarian” politicos will reliably choke, as Isildur did when, at the last moment, he refused to cast the One Ring into the fires of Mount Doom. Even Frodo made the same refusal, fell into the Ring’s thrall, and technically failed his mission. It was only by accident that the Ring fell into the lava, as Frodo and Gollum struggled over it.
State power is impunity, impunity corrupts, and absolute impunity corrupts absolutely. It not only attracts the already-corrupt, but it debases every soul that it touches. State impunity is a hell of a drug, and the only one deserving of absolute prohibition. Libertarians especially should stay off the stuff.