On the Other Hand...

Government as Grim Reaper

by Jim Davies

I've just read a truly dreadful book, and I strongly recommend it.

Normally, when recommending a book, one might say, "Enjoy!" - but here, I have no illusions. You will not enjoy "Death by Government" by R.J. Rummel; you will be horrified by it, as I was. And that's why you MUST read it.

Normally, when I pick up a good book I read it right through, sometimes at one sitting, leaving it only for priority interrupts. This was an exception; I was so appalled at what Rummel was showing me, that after reading a few pages, I had to lay it aside to recover from what I'd just read. Truly and literally, it is a dreadful and moving book, and that is why I so strongly recommend it. If you read only one book in the rest of 1996, let this be the one. Published by Transaction Publishers of New Jersey, its ISBN is 1-56000-145-3.

I guarantee, it will radically change the way you look on almost everything going on around us. In particular, the phrase "good government" which has been held up to us as a desirable norm or at least as an ideal since the first day in kiddie-civics class, will certainly go right in the trash. The best any of us will be able to hope for from government after reading Rummel is that ours, if any, may be small, weak, divided and tightly constrained.

A Catalog of Slaughter

Professor Rummel has given us a scholarly catalog of slaughters performed by the world's governments; of state-sanctioned murder. It is unique. There are of course libraries full of history books recounting wars, and the death and dismemberments occasioned by wars waged by the world's governments; but Rummel excludes battle deaths from the counts he catalogs.

Nor does he limit his counts to "genocides", about which many works have also been written. Instead he proposes a new word, "Democide", to define all the killing of people in its power that a government may do, except military and judicial killing (such as execution for murder.) Rather, this word describes the wanton slaughter of defenseless and innocent civilians who just have the misfortune to be at the mercy of a government that dislikes them.

He digs out such counts wherever he can find them, regardless of era or nation. He treats them all with the critical care of a true scholar; always obtaining cross-checks and multiple sources, almost always discounting both the highest and the lowest estimates. That's appropriate, for when a government slaughters huge numbers of people, it will either boast of the number, so exaggerating the truth, or else conceal it, so documenting an underestimate; depending on the public impression it wants to create. So Rummel studiously catalogs a "probable middle" for each of the hundreds of democides he describes.

The result is utterly appalling: one hundred and sixty nine million human lives have been prematurely ended by the institution of government. And remember, that does not include the deaths of any soldiers. Remember too, that that's a "probable middle" estimate; the truth could be twice as high.

Let me just pick a few examples. We're all familiar with the Nazi slaughter of Jews in the early 1940s; and that is one case where Rummel accepts the common count of six million, even though some recent estimates are substantially lower. But, interestingy, this is the ONLY democide of which most government-school graduates have usually heard! - and much work has been spent on creating the impression that Hitler was a wicked dictator, a sub-human monster, and that his government was a rare exception. W-r-o-n-g!

On the contrary, his government had actually been democratically elected to power by a process quite comparable to ours; and he did little when in power that he had not openly promised to do while campaigning for it, in widely published literature such as "Mein Kampf." In contrast, Rummel finds, our WW-II "friend" and ally Josef Stalin, and his government, slaughtered even more of "his" people than "our enemy" did in Germany. So much for the "rare exception."

I learned from "Death by Government" of democides by Christian governments of Jewish victims; by Moslem governments of Christian ones (the massive, open and brutal slaughter of Armenian men, women and children by Turks); of Communists by Nationalists (in China); of Nationalists and many, many others by Communists (in China, the USSR, Vietnam and Cambodia); of Brits by Germans, of Germans and Japanese (as at Dresden and Nagasaki) by Brits and Americans, and of Americans by Americans (as in the slaughter of the "Indians".) Many of these democides were done under cover of war, and sometimes with the "excuse" of war aims (as at Hiroshima) but in every case, the victims were defenseless and the killers consisted of government agents, acting deliberately to rob them of life.

Degrees of Evil?

As a true scholar, Professor Rummel draws few conclusions from his research, leaving the reader to draw his own. The one he does draw is unavoidable: that the more power a government has, the more it will kill, and vice versa. He calls it his Power Principle: "Power kills; absolute power kills absolutely."

Other conclusions are not hard to draw. It seems perfectly obvious to me from the Power Principle that the only good government is a non-existent government; that if we want to eliminate democide, we have no choice but to eliminate government. That would have the enormous bonus of eliminating war at the same time, along with a host of other deprivations large and small.

Thomas Paine, the self-taught scholar who became the intellectual genius behind the American Revolution and Union, put it plainer than most: on the very first page of his "Common Sense", he made clear that "Government, even at its best, is... evil." Would that every civics teacher had those words engraved on his forehead! But Paine inserted three other words, which I left out; he said it's "but a necessary" evil. No blame on Paine; he was at least a century ahead of his time. But now, in the light of Rummel, it's time to omit them for ever.

© Copyright Jim Davies 1999

Jim Davies lives in New Hampshire,
and enjoys contemplating which way is up.

The above is Edition # 156

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