February 27, 2015: How bureaucracy warps human nature

Lent, Day 10: Still in Chapter 4 of What I Believe

Are the teachings of Jesus a dream or a fantasy? An impossible ideal? Sweet but meaningless blather? Let’s take a look at what Tolstoy has to say about these popular opinions. Tolstoy says, “Every doctrine is a dream for those who are in error.” But why would you execute someone for talking about a crazy dream? Because Jesus teachings, dream or not, were somehow a threat to power.

In the first few generations after the crucifixion and resurrection, the teachings of Jesus began to catch on. Small communities grew all over the Roman world and the Christians lived according to His teachings, which they understood in their correct sense, as best they could. Once the faith grew and became accepted by the authorities, suddenly the teachings about non-violence and not judging, were no longer palatable and had to be reinterpreted. “….there are many among us who say, as I did myself formerly, that this doctrine of Christ is chimerical [fantastical] because it is incompatible with the nature of man.”

Here are a few things people like to say are incompatible with human nature:
• Turning the other cheek when struck
• Giving up property so someone else might be less poor
• Working for others instead of oneself
• Not worrying about self-protection or protection of family and property.

“….in other words it is the nature of man to struggle for life. Learned lawyers prove scientifically that the most sacred duty of man is to protect his rights – i.e., to struggle.” Well yes Mr. Tolstoy. If my life, family, or property is threatened I instinctively want to defend what is mine. When I see one of those stories in the news where an 80-year-old woman whips out a pistol and shoots the home invader who intended to do her harm I applaud. Are you telling me, Mr. Tolstoy, that Jesus has a problem with that?

Stop, says Tolstoy, and try looking at things from a different angle:

“We need only for one moment to cast aside that the present organization of our lives, as established by man, is the best and most sacred, and then the argument that the teaching of Christ is incompatible with human nature immediately turns against the arguer. Who will deny that it is repugnant and harrowing to a man’s feelings to torture or kill, not only a man, but also even a dog, o hen, or a calf?….And yet our lives are so organized that for one individual to obtain any advantage if life another must suffer, which is against human nature. No judge will undertake to strangle with his own hands the man whom he has condemned to death. No magistrate will himself drag a peasant from his weeping family in order to shut him up in prison. Not a single general, not a single soldier, would kill hundreds of Turks or Germans, and devastate their villages – no, not one on them would consent to would a single man, were it not in obedience to discipline and the oath of allegiance.”

Illustration for Tolstoy's novel Resurrection by Fritz Eichenberg

Illustration for Tolstoy’s novel Resurrection by Fritz Eichenberg

To tell the truth I don’t think this is Tolstoy’s strongest argument. Personally I do find killing and torturing dogs, hens, and calves repugnant and therefore I do not eat meat. However, I find myself in an extreme minority on that score. I have had many a carnivore proudly inform me that he would gladly gut his own game. As for judges and magistrates I think it is true the bureaucracy shields most officials from the consequences of their decisions, but someone has to do the dirty work. There do seem to be plenty of people walking around who don’t have a problem with personally strangling, beheading, harassing, torturing, or throwing people into prison. But I do agree with Tolstoy that bureaucracy magnifies our capacity to do harm to others on a large scale.

“Cruelty is only exercised (thanks to our complicated social machinery) when it can be so divided among a number that none shall bear the sole responsibility, or recognize how unnatural all cruelty is. some make laws, others apply them; others again, drill their fellow-creatures into habits of discipline – i.e., of senseless passive obedience; and these same disciplined men, in their turn, do violence to others – killing without knowing why or wherefore. But let a man even for a moment shake off in thought this net of worldly institutions that so ensnares him, and he will see what is really incompatible with his nature.”

A key to Tolstoy’s vision is that idea that bureaucracy is the engine of evil because it shields us from individual responsibility and prevents us from seeing the truth about how we should live. In his time and place it was clear and visible that the rules of society were greatly skewed in favor of the upper classes, who lived off the labor of the much larger peasant class. He himself witnessed plenty of peasants being disciplined and executed publicly. In the United States and other western nations this sort of thing is not as visible, but to the extent that our clothing, food, and luxury items come to us at the cost of near slave labor somewhere far away, it is not such a different scenario. I have read that the working condition in Chinese iPhone factories are so horrible that workers have committed suicide. I want to believe that they have improved working conditions since then. I want to believe that most of the workers are happy and would be worse off if they did not have those factory jobs. Because I want to keep my iPhone.

I have to ask myself some uncomfortable questions: If something is wrong for one person to do, does it become right if a whole community does it together? Is killing a man okay if the there is a chain of laws and procedures that occur before ending his life? Is it okay to benefit from someone else’s misery if there is a chain of events and lots of miles between me and the miserable person? Can you think of anything we are willing to do in the name of the collective through the mechanisms of bureaucracy that we would not choose to do as individuals?

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