Death by government

Did you know that during prohibition, our government was responsible for the poisoning deaths of as many as 10,000 people?  They poisoned industrial alcohol which was frequently stolen and resold as drinkable spirits.  Of course, we know from history what the utter, disastrous, dear-Lord-what-where-they-thinking failure prohibition was, but this is beyond the standard unintended consequences.  They had to kill the people to deliver them from the demon rum.

As horrible as the deaths caused by lone maniacs and small bands of terrorists are, you have to admit, they’re pikers when it comes to killing in large quantities.  If you really want to rack up the numbers, you have to be in government.

Even leaving out war, where countless soldiers and civilians have lost their lives in battle from time immemorial, the numbers are staggering.  Governments have murdered their own citizens and foreigners alike in genocidal campaigns and in well-intentioned disasters.  From the Holocaust to the Killing Fields, there is no shortage of examples of government killing the innocent.

Ironically, perhaps the worst example of death by government comes from an attempt to benefit the country.  Mao Zedong’s Great Leap forward was meant to bring China into the modern age.  It resulted in tens of millions of deaths caused by man-made famine.

When it comes to death on a large scale, you need the bureaucracy you can only find in government to achieve truly impressive results.

I want to be clear: I am not a conspiracy theorist nor an anarchist.  I believe governments are necessary and general beneficial.  As a Christian (and someone who desires to live in a peaceful society), I am generally called to submit to governing authorities.  But I have no illusions that those individuals who compose governments are somehow more virtuous or more intelligent than the average Joe.  Governments are the average Joe.
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While the United States Government has been rightly described as “of the people, by the people, for the people,” the fact is that all governments from monarch to totalitarian dictators are just that: people.  It is not the uniquely gifted people who make up government.  It’s neither a few brilliant souls nor a few bad apples that create the governments and societies we inhabit.   Sure, there are individual leaders who are particularly charismatic, brave, virtuous, brilliant or cruel, but governments are by definition more than just one person.  And even the most charismatic of leaders cannot rule on his or her own.  Government is us.  It is the reflection and the logical conclusion of the culture from which it arises.

Which makes the atrocities committed by governments even more chilling, doesn’t it? Of the people, by the people, for the people.

This is from the foreword from one of my children’s history texts Story of the World, Volume 4 by Susan Wise Bauer:

“As you read, you will see, again and again, the same pattern acted out: A person or a group of people rejects injustice by rebelling and seizing the reins of power. As soon as those reins are in the hands of the rebels, the rebels become establishment, the victims become the tyrants, the freedom-fighters become the dictators. The man who shouts for equality in one decade purges, in the next decade, those who shout against him…

Again and again, while researching this book, I was reminded of the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who spent eleven years in the labor camps of the Soviet Union, and who, when he became powerless, finally understood that revolution never brings an end to oppression. Solzhenitsyn wrote, “In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer and an oppressor….And it was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good….Even in the best of hearts there remains…an unuprooted small corner of evil. Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: They struggle with the evil inside a human being….And since that time I have come to understand the falsehood of all the revolutions in history: They destroy only those carriers of evil contemporary with them.”

Revolution shatters the structures; but the men who build the next set of structures haven’t conquered the evil that lives in their own hearts. The history of the twentieth century is, again and again, the story of men who fight against tyrants, win the battle, and then are overwhelmed by the unconquered tyranny in their own souls.”

That’s why “this time it will work” is eternally wrong.  When building the perfect society, the challenges aren’t technology or science or better understanding of how systems work.  The challenge is the tyranny in every human heart, and no government program will ever overcome it.

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