Why The Worst Get On Top And What To Do About It

August 26, 2012

Economics, Economy, Government, Politics, State

My wife grew up in Lithuania when it was part of the Soviet Union, so she had plenty of opportunity to observe the new Soviet man that the ideologists of the Communist Party thought they had created in their planned society.  She was not impressed and nor were the rest of the Soviet people. Popular culture and specifically anti-Soviet jokes, found plenty of ways to pillory the idea of the new Soviet man as in the saying “They pretend they are paying us, and we pretend we are working.”  Since then I have always been interested in the effect that governments have on the character and manners of its citizens.

H.L. Mencken wondered why it was that most people would consider theft from the government to be a less serious crime than theft from an individual.  He answered the question in his usual inimitable way:

“When a private citizen is robbed, a worthy man is deprived of the fruits of his industry and thrift; when the government is robbed, the worst that happens is that certain rogues and loafers have less money to play with than they had before.”

Is there any justification for this assumption that government is full of ‘rogues and loafers’ or is this just a political statement by a notoriously crotchety essayist?  Nobel Prize winning economist Friedrich Hayek thought the former. In his classic work ‘The Road To Serfdom’  he included a chapter called ‘Why the Worst Get on Top’. Although Hayek was trying to explain the rise of totalitarian governments his arguments are pertinent to the makeup of all powerful governments. To attract a large group of supporters with similar views, Hayek claims that governments have to appeal to people with less education and intelligence. This is simply because people with more intelligence and education tend to have more varied and distinct views and to find a large enough group of people with identical views you have to appeal to people with lower standards where ‘the more primitive instincts prevail’. Secondly, to expand the number of its supporter’s government must appeal to people who have no strong beliefs of their own and so are more willing to accept someone else’s neatly packaged views. In addition, the easiest way for a government to bind its supporters together in a close-knit group is to have a negative agenda in which ‘we’ are contrasted favorably with ‘them’ whether they be Jews, kulaks, ‘terrorists’, the rich, the one percent, environmentalists, welfare recipients, private employers or illegal immigrants.  Finally, as government has a monopoly on the use of force in society, it makes sense that only people who are comfortable exercising such force or power, would be attracted to work in government.

According to law enforcement examiner Jim Kouri, politicians share a number of traits with serial killers.  Kouri writes:

“What doesn’t go unnoticed is the fact that some of the character traits exhibited by serial killers or criminals may be observed in many within the political arena.  While not exhibiting physical violence, many political leaders display varying degrees of anger, feigned outrage and other behaviors.  They also lack what most consider a “shame” mechanism.  Quite simply, most serial killers and many professional politicians must mimic what they believe, are appropriate responses to situations they face such as sadness, empathy, sympathy, and other human responses to outside stimuli.”

If you still believe that Hayek’s arguments are no more than the musings of an ivory tower academic, then consider the following quotations, and ask yourself whether our system of government was in some way responsible for bringing to positions of supreme power these two men, from both sides of the political spectrum, who were either totally lacking in integrity to start with, or who valued it so lightly that they were willing to throw it away for the sake of a lie.

“Now, I have to go back to work on my State of the Union speech. And I worked on it until pretty late last night. But I want to say one thing to the American people. I want you to listen to me. I’m going to say this again: I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie, not a single time; never. These allegations are false. And I need to go back to work for the American people. Thank you.”  Bill Clinton, 1998

“I was not lying.  I said things that later on seemed to be not true.”  Richard Nixon, 1978

If we accept that our government consists largely of ‘rogues and loafers’ what should we do about it?  Just because integrity does not mean much to them does not mean that we should abandon ours.  If we keep true to ourselves, honoring our word, being measured in our speech and refusing to put a spin on anything, we surely earn the right to demand the same of our ‘servants’ in government.  A citizenry confident of its own integrity would not tolerate the absence of integrity in its leaders.  Until that time comes we are likely to be stuck with the rogues and loafers.


Man will make it his purpose to master his own feelings, to raise his instincts to the heights of consciousness, to make them transparent, to extend the wires of his will into hidden recesses, and thereby to raise himself to a new plain, to create a higher social biologic type, or, if you please, a superman.  Leon Trotsky

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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

View all posts by Malcolm Greenhill


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8 Comments on “Why The Worst Get On Top And What To Do About It”

  1. Jonathan Sharp Says:

    Much as I would like to agree with von Hayek’s assessment as it conveniently explains the existence of the Republican Party, I simply cannot accept the bigoted view that all people in politics are liars, cheats and scoundrels (even Republicans).


  2. Malcolm Greenhill Says:

    Jon, thank you. Neither Hayek nor I said that that “all people in politics are liars, cheats and scoundrels”. The point at issue is whether the system of big government attracts a particular type of person and /or provides an incentive for politicians and bureaucrats to act in a certain type of way that is not conducive to the interests of society as a whole.

    Most people in the private sector share a motivation to produce something that other people want to buy at a price that at least covers the cost of making it. To fetch this price, the product or service has to have certain qualities that meet expectations. Competition is not perfect but it generally ensures that in most cases expectations are met or the company goes out of business.

    Politicians have an incentive to get elected/re-elected which means they are motivated to support, or appear to support, policies that voters want implemented. Once they are in office the incentive disappears and some politicians will choose to renege on their campaign promises with very little downside risk. Many politicians will choose to take bribes on behalf of sectional interests, disguised as campaign contributions. Others will act in a way that maximizes their chance of a future well-paid job in a regulatory agency or lobbying firm. Government bureaucrats may seek government employment either because they are public-spirited or because of the benefits. Once they are employed there is little or no risk of them losing their job so their behavior often changes. They do the minimum work necessary and become committed to expanding their department and its budget.

    In short incentives matter and the incentives of big government do not promote the public interest.


  3. Christian Wignall Says:

    Regarding the observation that political movements to get the broadest support must appeal to the less educated and less intelligent: Hitler’s support was lowest in the most sophisticated, most cosmopolitan city in Germany, Berlin. Although the backroom deals muddied the process by which voting enabled Hitler to assume the powers of a dictator, the representatives from Berlin were among his most consistent opponents. And there was also anecdotal evidence, such as unenthusiastic crowds at events before the war.

    I believe I read this in ‘The Fall of Berlin’ by Anthony Beever.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Christian, thank you for providing this example to support Hayek’s argument. I recall that Mao Zedong was also not a great fan of the intelligentsia, sending them all off to the farms to be ‘re-educated’.


  4. Dapper Dan Says:

    I loved Road to Serfdom! So much so that I’m now planning to read some of his other books.


  5. authorbengarrido Says:

    Hey Malcolm,

    Looking this over, I might have a different angle on Hayek’s analysis. If the standard of goodness requires impotence, perhaps we need a new standard.


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