[Reprinted from Fragments, 1964]
It is agreed that you have The Perfect Plan -- the final blueprint
for the Good Society. It is all there: Truth and Justice perfectly
balanced, and both sup-ported by Fundamental Economics. All the parts
are reinforced with Natural Rights. The beacon light of Freedom is
nicely placed at the pinnacle.
Your only job, then, is to familiarize folks with The Perfect Plan;
its adoption must follow from a recognition of its merits. But, in
this educational project you find yourself where you are in complete
control and must deal with people. They are either unwilling to
consider the goodness you offer them, free, gratis, or incapable of
comprehending it, and you find progress exceedingly slow. You are also
confronted with opposition from vested thought. What to do now?
Perhaps it would he wise to give up on the hope of participating in
the millenium; the very perfection of The Perfect Plan is an assurance
that it will keep, that in the fulness of time it will come into its
own. On the other hand, you might attempt to shortcut the difficulties
of education by the political method. On the theory that the end
justifies the means, you might seek power to impose The Perfect Plan.
The yearning to govern, the desire for power over others, is a most
perplexing human trait. Only when it is spurred by an economic purpose
does it make sense. When a man seeks political position for the
betterment of his circumstances, he is acting sanely, if sanity is
defined as normal behavior. We call a politician corrupt when he uses
his power for self-aggrandizement, but that is because we clothe
politics with a fanciful myth of supernaturalness. We have but to
remember man's natural tendency to satisfy his desires with the
minimum of effort to realize how political power will be utilized. It
would be more correct to say that we are all corrupt, and that the
politician is merely successful.
However, the craving for power cannot always be explained in the
rational terms of profit. Few men are so rich but that a little more
power over their fellow-men does not flatter their egos, and no man
who can command subservience considers himself poor. It would seem so
much more sensible to let people alone; the exercise of power in and
for itself is a thoroughly useless expenditure of effort. And most
irrational of all is the desire to govern others, "for their own
good" -- the excuse of reformers and, as history shows, the cause
of great harm to reformers, reformees, and the reform.
The case of Maximilien Robespierre is most illustrative.
Jean Jacques Rousseau sparked the desire to govern in many a young
man of his revolutionary day. One of these was Robespierre, whose
first love was literature, and who gave promise of doing something in
that line. The desire to do good turned into the desire for power to
do good, and so he did no good at all.
The career of Robespierre is highlighted by two uncommon political
experiences. First, though he rose to dictatorial power, he never used
his position for his material advantage, and lived frugally all his
life. Largely because of his scrupulousness in that regard, he was
called Incorruptible. Many of his bitter fights with other leaders of
the Revolution centered around the fact that they acted as rational
politicians, even to the point of accepting bribes from the nation's
enemies. The second Robespierrist oddity is that though he protested
loyalty to the ideals of Rousseau throughout his political life, he,
nevertheless, deliberately, and with qualms of conscience, compromised
these ideals when practical politics made it necessary.
A cardinal tenet of the Rousseau creed is the inviolable right to
life; therefore capital punishment is untenable. Yet, when Louis was
brought to trial, Robespierre voted for the death penalty, and was
impelled by his conscience publicly to proclaim the reason for this
about-face. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press were sacred to
Robespierre, because they were sacred to Rousseau; though he would
brook no laws of suppression, he found the guillotine equally
effective. When the "higher law" of the Revolution made it
necessary, he suspended his democratic faith long enough to have the
National Assembly arrested and some elected representatives of the
people decapitated. He opposed war, and waged it. And so, though
Robespierre has been called "Rousseau in power," the fact is
that whenever Robespierre found Rousseau an encumbrance, as he often
did, he found reason enough to put him aside.
The contradiction between political promise and performance is quite
understandable when we dig into the nature of the business, breaking
through the moral crust with which political institutions have
surrounded themselves. When we look to beginnings, we see clearly what
it is all about, for then the purpose of political power was
unencumbered with persiflage; the ruler and his henchman looted
The first lesson the crusader in office must learn is that the
crusade can wait; it always does.
And so, Robespierre in power was not sinful in betraying Rousseau. He
was in error in assuming that a different course was possible.
* * *
To return to The Perfect Plan. If it is as perfect as you say it is,
there is nothing you need do about it, for anything that is so sound
will get around on its own power. Euclidian mathematics never had the
benefit of a "movement," and entirely without legal blessing
it made headway. The only way in which the law can affect the course
of thought is to restrict, ban, and burn; the law can only be
negative, never positive, in matters of the mind. If you look over the
record of "the best that has been thought and said in the world,"
you will find that politics was helpful only when it got out of the
way. So, if you would protect The Perfect Plan from pollution, your
course is clearly indicated; keep it out of politics.
But if you insist on taking The Perfect Plan into politics, though it
will do no good, I offer the following admonition: