Liberty Matters

Men of System, Busybodies, and Predators


I would like to raise a couple of points which came out of my reading of the very interesting Chapter 3, “Reunderstanding Intermediate Groups,”[32] where Jacob asks himself what kind of people rise up the ranks of intermediate groups and centralized states to reach positions of power and authority over others. His answer is, respectively, “busybodies” and “men of system.” A cynical Hayekian response, which is closer to my own jaundiced view of the world, would be to add “the worst.”[33] An even more cynical Bastiat-like response would be to say that Jacob seriously underestimates the kinds of people who are attracted to institutions with power and that a realist would have to add a third category, namely, “the plunderer,” or what I prefer to call “the predator.” And since a predator cannot come to power and exercise it efficiently on his own, he needs a substantial body of what I call “henchmen” to carry out his orders, to eliminate his enemies, to maintain “law and order,” and to gather resources to carry out his policies. If the 20th-century experience has taught us one thing, it is that the modern centralized state has attracted the worst kinds of predators to seek, gain, and wield massive power over others. The names Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot immediately come to mind, but I would also have to say that “Western democracies” have also had their own share of ruthless political predators, such as Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.
In smaller and more local intermediate associations, there is less opportunity for predators to be successful because of the limitations imposed upon them by the local scale of the organization and by the existence of local opposition, such as other groups and associations in their vicinity, or even by their own groups’ memberships. However, when one studies the careers of successful political predators, one can see that smaller local intermediate bodies have provided stepping stones to higher orders of power. They might even be seen as incubators of power. On the Left in many European and Commonwealth countries, trade unions are one way in which aspiring politicians (often starting their careers as union lawyers) can gain experience, political contacts, and a political reputation before breaking into national politics. Of course, the perversion here is that what had once been voluntary and private associations formed to promote the legitimate interests of their members, such as by providing insurance, health care, and vacation and savings opportunities, became over time rent-seeking monopolies protected by the state. On the Right, the equivalent conduit for aspiring political predators has been Chambers of Commerce, banks, large law firms, and so on.
The perennial question is: how does one prevent intermediate associations from overstepping their bounds (regarding their own members and the local people around them who are not members) and becoming threats to liberty in their own right? One answer is to have as much competition between rivalrous associations as possible, as well as to have some opportunity for exit (admittedly often costly for individuals), that is to say, to have as many “interstices,” or “jurisdictional gaps,” as possible into which dissidents and nonconformists can escape.[34] One could then see how there might be a continuous tug of war among the busybodies who rise to the top of associations, members who resent the activities of the busybodies, and the individuals and competing associations around them who have their own different ideas about how to arrange their lives. A modus vivendi among the various groups and their leaders might evolve over time which might be quite stable.
My rather sad conclusion is that the very existence of a powerful centralized bureaucratic state which “encloses,” as it were, the myriad private associations within its seamless jurisdiction creates the possibility, or, I would say, even the inevitability of intermediate institutions like unions, business groups, single-interest groups, and even churches turning into stepping stones for ambitious political predators toward the higher stages the centralized state has created for them. The busybodies will be left behind to continue to pester the local membership while the predators will move on to greener political and economic pastures.
[32.] Levy, RPF, pp. 56-83, especially p. 82.
[33.] “X. Why the Worst get on Top,” in Friedrich A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (The University of Chicago Press, 1944), pp. 134-52.
[34.] E.L. Jones uses the wonderful term “interstices” in The European Miracle (2nd ed. 1987), p. 91.