Codifying Our Worst Impulses: The Ideas that Started World War II

 

Yesterday was the 80th anniversary of the start of World War II, the deadliest violent conflict in human history.  Death tolls vary, but often reach 80 million souls.  What caused it?  Lists of proximate causes never end, but the only credible “root cause” is simply: ideas.  Three countries started World War II: Japan, Germany, and the Soviet Union.  While popular summaries rarely list the Soviets as initiators because Hitler double-crossed Stalin two years later, Molotov and Ribbentrop’s  so-called Treaty of Non-Aggression Between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was a Treaty of Aggression Against Poland, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Romania.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

What ideas led the leaders of Japan, Germany, and the Soviet Union to war?  The obvious answer is extreme nationalism – the view any action is morally praiseworthy if it advances the interests of your nation-state.  Heinrich Himmler said it best:

For the SS Man, one principle must apply absolutely: we must be honest, decent, loyal, and comradely to members of our own blood, and to no one else. What happens to the Russians, the Czechs, is totally indifferent to me… Whether other races live well or die of hunger is only of interest to me insofar as we need them as slaves for our culture; otherwise that doesn’t interest me. Whether 10,000 Russian women fall down from exhaustion in building a tank ditch is of interest to me only insofar as the tank ditches are finished for Germany.

…When somebody comes to me and says, I can’t build tank ditches with children or women. That’s inhumane, they’ll die doing it. Then I must say: You are a murderer of your own blood, since, if the tank ditches are not built, then German soldiers will die, and they are the sons of German mothers. That is our blood. That is how I would like to indoctrinate this SS, and, I believe, have indoctrinated, as one of the holiest laws of the future: our concern, our duty, is to our Folk, and to our blood. That is what we must care for and think about, work for and fight for, and nothing else. Everything else can be indifferent to us.

Almost everyone understands that Japan and Germany grew extremely nationalistic during the 1930s.  Few realize that the same holds for the Soviet Union as well.  Under Stalinism, anything that advanced the interests of the Soviet Union was the moral imperative – starting with the reabsorption of all the breakaway territories of the Russian Empire.

By itself, however, extreme nationalism need not generate war.  Rationally speaking, the best way to advance the national interest is with peace and consumerism.  The leadership of Japan, Germany, and the Soviet Union, however, all angrily rejected this bourgeois, “shopkeepers’” perspective.  Instead, they equated the national interest with the power and glory of the government – and angrily denounced Western “plutocracies.”

This was most obvious in the USSR, which deliberately eradicated the rich, business, and private property itself in order to build a totalitarian militarized society.  But Germany’s National Socialists had a similar vision.  Their goal was not to build an idyllic consumer society, but a mighty war machine.  Unlike the Soviets, however, the Nazis had the common-sense to harness the rich, business, and private property rather than destroy them.   As Hitler told Nazi defector Hermann Rauschning:

He had no intention, like Russia, of “liquidating” the possessing class. On the contrary, he would compel it to contribute by its abilities towards the building up of the new order. He could not afford to allow Germany to vegetate for years, as Russia had done, in famine and misery. Besides, the present owners of property would be grateful that their lives had been spared. They would be dependent and in a condition of permanent fear of worse things to come.

The same holds for Japan: Its leaders equated the national interest with the power and glory of the Japanese government, not the safety and prosperity of the Japanese people.  So while the Japanese government happily used the domestic rich and domestic business, it truly bled them dry during the war.  As Walter Scheidel explains in The Great Leveler:

Japan was once one of the most unequal countries on earth. In 1938, the country’s “1 percent” received 19.9 percent of all reported income before taxes and transfers. Within the next seven years, their share dropped by two-thirds, all the way down to 6.4 percent. More than half of this loss was incurred by the richest tenth of that top bracket: their income share collapsed from 9.2 percent to 1.9 percent in the same period, a decline by almost four-fifths.

However rapid and massive these shifts in the distribution of income, they pale in comparison to the even more dramatic destruction of the elite’s wealth. The declared real value of the largest 1 percent of estates in Japan fell by 90 percent between 1936 and 1945 and by almost 97 percent between 1936 and 1949. The top 0.1 percent of all estates lost even more—93 percent and more than 98 percent, respectively. In real terms, the amount of wealth required to count a household among the richest 0.01 percent (or one in 10,000) in 1949 would have put it in only the top 5 percent back in 1936. Fortunes had shrunk so much that what used to count as mere affluence was now out of reach for all but a very few.

What’s the right word for “equating the national interest with the power and glory of the government rather than peace and consumerism”?  There are many candidate labels  – “statism,” “romanticism,” “populism,” “communitarianism,” “anti-capitalism.”  But none is quite right, so we might as well stick with the label that activists who equated the national interest with the power and glory of the government have preferred throughout the 20th century: socialism.  Obviously, there are many kinds of self-identified socialists – including socialists who unequivocally seek a peaceful, consumerist society.  Historically, however, these are rare – and since I’m not a socialist, I say that “real socialism” equals “what most self-styled socialists do when they have power.” Whatever label you prefer, the key point is that all the regimes that started World War II praised the power and glory of the government to the skies – and brought traditional elites – the rich and business – to their knees.  Or their graves.

Before you join me in blaming World War II on nationalism and socialism, though, there’s an obvious objection: These ideas have been ubiquitous for ages.  My response: The emotional impulses behind nationalism and socialism – impulses like xenophobia and anti-market bias – are indeed long-lived and widespread.  Far more children dream of being warriors than merchants.  But the initiators of World War II turned these knee-jerk feelings into bodies of thought.  They codified humanity’s worst impulses into explicit, militant, self-conscious ideologies.  And they took their ideologies seriously enough to kill for them – and often to die for them.

Does this mean that every latter-day nationalist and socialist is morally comparable to the architects of World War II?  No; that’s absurd.  The reason for this moral non-comparability, though, is disturbing.  The rhetoric of modern nationalism and socialism remains grotesque.  Anyone who says “By any means necessary” is, by implication, saying, “If it takes 80 million deaths for us to win, then so be it.”  The saving grace of latter-day nationalists and socialists is that almost all of them are hypocrites.  They may say, “By any means necessary,” but thankfully few have the stomach for it.  As I’ve said before, if your ideas are bad, hypocrisy makes them less bad.

Still, I am dismayed by the renewed popularity of nationalism and socialism.  I don’t think World War III is coming this century.  If it does come, however, I will blame the nationalists and socialists who take their scary slogans to heart.

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Education Needs Separation From State

Once again we approach that saddest time of the year: when the majority of parents send their kids back to school; back into the local government concentration day-camps.

If you’re someone who mistakes schooling for education you probably believe this is good.

School is a socialist babysitting system funded by your neighbors. If you’re OK with forcing others to fund things you want, then go ahead and support the government schools. I can’t support socialism.

Schooling is also a system where organized bullying is cheered while the freelance competition, provided by the victims’ peers, is officially frowned upon. I oppose all bullying.

I’m not saying education doesn’t happen in schools, but when it does it’s in spite of the schooling, not because of it. Kids are automatic learning machines and it’s almost impossible to short-circuit their hunger to learn. They’ll usually manage to learn everything they need to know, and more, even under the worst conditions.

The fact that many people still believe schools educate — because kids come out knowing more than they knew when they went in — is evidence of this.

The real goal of schooling is to train kids to be useful, and not too dangerous, to politicians. Don’t question too much, and only within approved boundaries. Sit down, be quiet, obey the bells, and be force-fed authoritarian propaganda.

This style of training — called the Prussian Model, after the country America copied — creates adults who are unlikely to break free from this early indoctrination and will largely comply with arbitrary orders from politicians and their attack dogs. This is useful to governments and is why governments everywhere want to control schooling.

They use the unsupportable claim “it’s for the children;” if they can also fool the adult population into believing it’s about education it works even better.

This isn’t to say the teachers are bad. Most have good intentions, they are just saddled with a toxic system. A system that shouldn’t exist. The teachers are victims almost as much as the under-aged inmates, but at least they get paid.

There are good teachers, but there are no good schools. If this claim angers you, congratulations — you are showing symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome, where captives (and former captives) begin to relate to their captors, even taking their side, defending them from criticism. Stockholm Syndrome makes people loyal to “their” school.

My appreciation for education explains my opposition to schooling. It is essential to separate education from the state before the damage is irreversible.

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“España Es Como Una Madre”

Our most memorable Uber driver in Madrid was a young Pakistani man.  We gave him twenty minutes; he gave us his odyssey.  Too bad I failed to record the conversation, because this would have been a great interview to broadcast on Spanish radio.

Our driver’s story: Back in Pakistan, he lived in hunger, so he left home to seek his fortune.  In popular parlance, he became part of the “European migrant crisis.”  He traveled solo, journeying from Pakistan to Iran to Turkey.  Then he zigzagged around the EU, passing through Greece, Romania, Germany, Italy, and France.  Our driver gave few details, but each of these countries treated him badly.  He had to hide from the authorities, and could not legally work.

After three months, however, he reached Spain – and his life turned around.  My Spanish sources tell me that migrants must normally wait three years to receive work permission, but my driver somehow managed to get his work papers almost immediately.

Three years later, he speaks Spanish, has plenty to eat, and loves his new home.  Indeed, he practically describes Spain as a libertarian paradise: work hard, don’t hurt people, don’t steal, and you’ll have a good life.  Using his Spanish travel documents, he was even able to visit Britain.  He liked it, but saw no hope of ever legally working there.

My Spanish is very poor, but I had no trouble understanding our driver when he gushed, “España es como una madre” – “Spain is like a mother.”  He didn’t say a word about government benefits; he was overjoyed to live in a country where he could live in peace and get ahead by working hard.  Though we didn’t even have a language in common, he was my kind of guy.  The American Dream is also the Spanish Dream, because both are the World Dream.

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Don’t Fall For The Borderists’ Dishonest Trap

I recently encountered a question asked by a borderist. He wants to trick you into falling for his trap. I’ll spare him the embarrassment of mentioning his name.

Here’s the dishonest setup followed by the dishonest question:

“The question that no open-borders advocate has ever answered is, How many illegals should be allowed into the United States?”

He’s a liar.

The question is phrased dishonestly so as to manipulate his audience.

have answered a similar question. Many times. I’ve seen several people answer such a question in excellent ways. It’s just that the correct and honest answer to a more honest version of the question doesn’t serve his agenda so he’ll never acknowledge it, no matter who answers.

But I’ll answer the “question” again.

I’m not an “open borders advocate”, I’m simply against government “borders” and for property rights. Those two things are completely at odds with one another, and the borderists should know it. They just pretend they can have it both ways. All I know is I’m opposed to his position of maximum statism. But call my position “open borders” if it makes you happy.

Second, there can be no such thing as an “illegal” if you are referring to people deemed so because they ignored unconstitutional and unethical statist “laws” against crossing an imaginary line. Just like there’s no such thing as an “illegal gun” regardless of the unethical and unconstitutional “laws” the anti-gun bigots have made up. Counterfeit “laws” are without foundation no matter what they pretend to address. Again, he’s using a lie to trap you into answering the wrong question.

Third, “should be allowed”? “Should” in this context is a word calculated to trip you up. No one “should” be dictating numbers of visitors to other people’s property. And government “borders”? Who has the “authority” to “allow” or forbid people to cross these imaginary lines? The criminal gang known as government? Make another joke. The only ones with the right to allow or forbid entry onto their private property are the property owners making this decision for their own property. Period. Government doesn’t qualify.

This is why I can’t take borderists seriously. Not even when they are reasonably principled on other issues. They can’t even ask an honest question where government “borders” are concerned but have to pile lies on top of lies to get the narrative they hunger for. Borderists simply aren’t credible, and they’ve done it to themselves.

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School Will be Remembered Like Leeches and Cigarettes

We humans have little knowledge of the past or imagination for the future. Present bias makes us dumb, accepting creatures. We assume what is is what must be.

People think schooling and education are the same thing. This is revealed in the way statistics are presented. “Educational level” is measured by years spent in institutional schooling.

Yet school as we know it is only about 150 years old.

Wait, what? How did humans learn stuff the other several thousand years of civilization? How were 80% of colonial Americans literate with no standardized institutional schooling, and when books were rare and costly and most jobs didn’t even require reading? How did people invent stuff, start businesses, write books, create great art, and expand the corpus of human knowledge for thousands of years without certified teachers and grades and degrees?

Really we should ask the opposite. How does anyone retain any of the natural, insatiable human hunger for learning after years in compulsory academic prison cells?

Schooling is a blip on the learning radar in human history. It will die, then we’ll look back on it like other blips. Remember when smoking cigarettes was good for your health? Remember when leeches were needed to suck out the bad blood and cure disease? Remember when people all the sudden thought, despite thousands of years of evidence to the contrary, that nobody would learn anything without being stuck in cinder block cells for 50 minute segments and forced to turn the wonders of the universe into horrible tedium?

Weird epochs in human history.

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Could Such a Man Care?

Nicolas Maduro now rules a land of chronic hunger, horrific crime, terrible fear, and mass exodus.  How does he maintain his dictatorship?  With a pact of steel between his ruling party, the military, the secret police, and on-site foreign allies – especially Cubans.  You would have to be mad to think that Maduro’s doing all this for the good of his people, or the good of the world.  His only credible motivation is power-lust gone wild.  Maduro is a pervert for power.

He’ll never admit this, of course.  He still claims he’s doing it all for the people and the higher good.  Here’s Maduro in an interview this February:

Venezuela is a country with dignity. We are patriots, revolutionaries. We have an ideology, that of Simon Bolivar. Our movement came from the depths from the Venezuelan people. We’ve been governing democratically for 20 years. Everything that we are, everything that we have, we have because of the popular vote.

Which raises a deeper question.  Namely: Deep in his soul, when did Maduro stray from the path of decency?

For Maduro’s former fans, it’s tempting to sigh, “Power corrupts.”  Power turns a good man bad.  He – like his mentor Chavez – started out as an idealist.  Yet ironically, he ended up a tyrant.

On reflection, however, this “ironic” account is absurd.  Think about the nicest, sweetest person you personally know.  Can you seriously imagine that this person, given power, would forge a brutal police state, destroy the economy, and cling to power with fire and blood?  I can’t.

Indeed, think about the average person you know.  You can probably imagine that this person would go along with great evil out of cowardice.  Still, would the average person you know take the initiative to commit these horrors?  That doesn’t make sense to me.

The lesson: Maduro was never an idealist.  Indeed, he was never an average person.  The average person in his shoes would have done far less evil, and relinquished power long ago.  What Maduro has done reveals what Maduro has always been: insatiably hunger for power.

So what?  Well, while this is all clear in hindsight, Maduro used to have millions of fans all around the world.  Millions of fans who took his rhetoric at face value.  Millions of fans who thought he was a noble man.  And these fans would have called me paranoid and unfair for calling their idol a power-luster.

The fans’ error would have been understandable if Maduro were the first politician to start with idealistic rhetoric and end in savagery.  In fact, however, history provides countless examples of this pattern.  Which means two things.

First, while extreme power-lusters are a small fraction of humanity, they are a large fraction of successful politicians.

Second, regular human beings are awful at the detection of extreme power-lusters.  When humans hear flowery words, their impulse is to take them at face value, instead of reminding themselves, “That’s just what a power-luster would say – and politics is packed with power-lusters.”

You could object, “Well, popular gullibility is for the best.  If the man in the street assessed politicians realistically, political progress would be almost impossible.”  The tempting reply is, “Yes, but political disaster would be almost impossible too.”

This reply, however, gives gullibility too much credit.  Imagine a world where people were ever-mindful of politicians’ proclivity for power-lust.  What would happen?  Politicians would compete for popularity by promising and doing things that power-lusters hate to do.  Things like: Respecting individual freedom, welcoming dissent, defining crime narrowly, heeding international criticism, avoiding even the appearance of demagoguery, and yes – shrinking government and cutting regulation.  And given the documented dangers of politicians’ power-lust, that is just what anyone who cares about human welfare should be hoping for.

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