I’ve been thinking a bit lately about America’s unique focus on the individual and not on the State. (I blogged about it here, when I was thinking about nations that turn on their own citizens.) The fact that power resides with the individual in America is one of the bulwarks we have against tyranny. Once you start chipping away at that power, even lovingly as with the nanny state, you open the door to totalitarianism.
I thought of that once again when I read Peter Glover’s excellent article about why we continue to have the death penalty in America. We have it because the people want it. What makes the article really interesting to me, though, is his point that, in England, the people want it but don’t have it, because the political parties refuse to bow to the will of the people:
Whatever view one may take about the use of capital punishment and its widespread adoption in the 38 US states which have reinstated it since 1976, there can be no doubt that it has broad public mandate. In stark contrast, as Joshua Marshall observed in The New Republic,
“There is barely a country in Europe where the death penalty was abolished in response to public opinion rather than in spite of it. In other words, if these countries’ political cultures are morally superior to America’s, it’s because they’re less democratic.” (TNR, 30 June 2000)
The UK is a prime example of what Marshall is talking about. Even though we Brits, as a nation, have never been quite as pro-death penalty as our American cousins, polls here too consistently reveal 50-55% support. Thus, in the UK at least, even though the people ‘have spoken’ consistently on the issue not one of the three major parties represents the will of the people.
One could say, of course, that the wise minds operating in government should work to prevent mob emotions from turning to savagery, but I’m not sure history carries that out. Savagery seems to occur when the state, through demagoguery, harnesses mob emotions to its own nefarious purposes. In this regard, I offer you the worst excesses of the Crusades, when crowds slaughtered Jews en masse at the behest of rulers anxious to avoid repaying their loans; the French Revolution, which occurred when the the intellectuals within government, the Marats and Robespierres, harnessed the people’s anger; Nazism, which reached its murderous apex through the government; the Rwanda massacres, which were planned at the government level; and Saddam Hussein’s genocidal regime, which aimed to knock out the entire Kurdish population.
Clearly, there are worse things than the will of the people, and one of those is probably the will of the State.