Designed for good, thrives on evil

Let us start this piece in Jeopardy style:

Category: Riddles

Clue: It is an institution designed for human good, but it thrives on evil machinations.

Answer: What is politics?

Still amazed by, and unable to wrap my head around the paradox of an institution which is designed for good but continues to thrive on evil, today, I set my gaze one more time on how politics deliberately dispenses with moral values and what this means for our humanity.

One of the unproven narratives woven around the legendary political juggernaut of Oyo State, the late Chief Lamidi Adedibu was the question that he allegedly once posed to an aspiring politician who sought his blessing for an elective position. “So, you are interested in politics?” the Chief allegedly asked his guest. On an affirmative response from the man, the chief followed with series of neck-breaking quizzes: “Are you strong? Can you tell lies? Can you slander? Can you kill?” The message conveyed by these rhetorical questions apparently was that politics is not for the moral purist, neither is it for the weak-kneed. It is for the strong and ruthless. It is for liars and ego-driven maniacs. Is this right?

Assume it is right, an obvious question is why would such an institution even be needed in the first place? What would recommend it as an alternative to the anarchy that might prevail without it? Why leave a state of anarchy in which you could creatively outsmart others for a supposedly civilized polity where you hand over your rights to ruthless hustlers bent on making you subservient forever?

But there is a short answer to the question whether politics is for the strong and ruthless, liars and ego-driven maniacs. No, not in its original intent. As nearly every political philosopher conceptualizes it, the political community is borne out of a desire to escape a state of insecurity where the exercise of freedom is fraught with severe risk and danger. At which point, rational nature kicks in and individuals decide to go into a contract of association with others so willing. The union so formed cannot at the risk of irrationality include ceding our rights to liars and ruthless hustlers.

Chief Obafemi Awolowo, ever so thoughtful, is characteristically lucid in his account of the historical trajectory of the state especially in our own corner of the world. After an exhaustive discussion of the evolution of the state with the transition from one family to a collection of families, and the establishment of a full complement of state functionaries, the sage concludes that “it is the passionate desire for peace amongst them, and for mutual defence or protection against those outside their union, as well as for the procurement of economic benefits, which led to the emergence of, first, the village states, then the city-states, followed by the nation-state or multi-nation states.” (The People’s Republic, 81).

The significance of the foregoing summary of Awolowo’s observation should not escape us. People come together to form a state or political community in order to maximize their common interests in security and socio-economic benefits. If this was their intent, we cannot expect them to accede to the conduct of their affairs by liars and ruthless hustlers—if it is up to them.

Modern democratic republic is the outcome of the people’s struggle against the old idea of the divine right of kings, a conception that was thoroughly refuted by John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the 18th century. But even the idea of the divine right of kings is often combined with a moralistic view of politics. Kings are generally counseled to dispense judgment with moral considerations and to use their power from a foundation of moral virtue. Those that fail to do so are rebuked.

The beginning of our modern obsession with power without morality is traceable to the Italian political theorist, Niccolo Machiavelli who made a bold distinction between political power and morality. Moral philosophers have drawn a distinction between power and authority, understood as the rightful use of power. Machiavelli dispensed with this distinction, arguing that there is no moral basis for the distinction and the only point of interest to the ruler is power, however it is achieved or used.

Machiavellians populate our modern political world, and especially our own corner of that world. This is an explanation for the many aberrations that we experience. The concern of many in politics is to secure power for its sake. For some others, power is the means of personal enrichment at the expense of the common interests of all. For yet others, seeking and securing power is to inflict the most harm to perceived enemies.

You may already be thinking that these various purposes of power-seeking could be counter-productive and you may be right. If a politician seeks power to inflict harm on perceived opponents, does he or she not think of an end to his or her power? And what if his enemies then take over power? Of course, a rational being would take this prospect into consideration. But it is precisely why we have the phenomenon of perpetual power-seekers. Think of Mugabe and Biya, the latter, just sworn in to another seven-year term at age 85.

Those who seek power for personal enrichment have “good” personal reason to hustle and give it whatever it takes. Unconcerned with any enduring legacy, they will lie and kill to get what they want. For them, it is important to secure a future for their family, many generations into the future. They forget that no ill-gotten wealth lasts long, and the would-be beneficiaries may not have the skill set to make the most of such wealth. Of course, the certain curse of a bitter public is bound to impact negatively. Consider the plight of the Mobutus of the world.

What if you just love power and seek it for its sake? Are you likely to be bothered by moral concerns? First, as odd as it may sound, it is not unusual and not out of the question for people to just want to have power without any further purpose or reason other than occupying a position of prestige. If Hobbes is right, and there is a natural propensity for glory-seeking, this is understandable. And since it is not for any moral purpose, it cannot also be constrained by moral concerns.

Unfortunately, there are lots of folks in this category, at every level of our governing institutions from local government to the highest offices in the land. They want power because it is glorious to have it, without a clue what they want to do with it. And they will get there by hook or crook, shuffling aside moral compunctions.

Let us give Machiavelli the benefit of the doubt. Let us imagine him simply analyzing the reality of power politics as opposed to offering injunctions about how rulers should conduct themselves. In other words, the Prince, the Prime Minister, or the President is just a human agent with power using that power for ends that he/she designs as he/she deems fit and without appeal to moral norms. If this is so, Machiavelli cannot be blamed for exposing the reality of political power as a political scientist might.

We must now decide whether in our political community we want to embrace Machiavelli’s analysis of power-usage. It is important to note that even the ruler whose use of power Machiavelli theorized about (or endorsed) is not expected to be honest about his motives. For, if he does, the people are not likely to be pleased. Therefore, the ruler is deliberately deceptive.

We have a clue, then, to what our attitude ought to be toward deliberate deception and lying on the part of politicians and political leaders. Deception takes citizens as fools. Lying is a moral flaw and a rejection of the humanity of its object. And there is no greater way of objectifying citizens than putting a price on them. This is what happens when they are incentivized to sell their votes. It is a flagrant disrespect for the humanity of fellow citizens.