The Face of Evil
It may be better to live under robber barons than
under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's
cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some
point be satisfied; but those who torment us for our
own good will torment us without end, for they do so
with the approval of their own conscience.
-C. S. Lewis
Evil came to my door today. It arrived in a most mundane disguise.
It came in the form of a tiny, slender middle-aged woman -- a woman whose undistinguished face I've already forgotten, though she left only an hour ago. She said she was running for state legislature and wanted my vote.
I looked at the brochure she'd handed me, scanning for a party affiliation. I didn't immediately see one, but her list of qualifications -- wife and mother, advocate for children, schoolteacher, lobbyist for school funds, promoter of infant immunizations, organizer of the state's breastfeeding taskforce -- told her story.
I could see at a glance that, under the various issue listings, from Economy to State Lands, every bit of text was actually concerned, one way or another, with education.
"How do you recommend improving the schools?" I asked.
"Well..." she stumbled, as though the question were unexpected. "Well...class size is very important. We have to have smaller class sizes. That will be expensive, of course. But if teachers get more one-on-one class time, children will grow up to be better citizens and taxpayers."
"How much more will that cost than we're spending now?"
"Well..." The pause again. "Well...I don't know exactly. But smaller classes are _very_ important. We just have to have however much more money it takes. I think of it an investment. Better educated children will grow up to pay more taxes."
She looked up at me earnestly, as if, yes, all Baby Boomers would be delighted to know their children would someday pay even more taxes to support an even bigger government for their sake.
"Where would the money come from?"
"Well, you know, we'll just have to find it somehow if we want our children to grow up to be better citizens and taxpayers. Teaching children to write and things like that is very labor-intensive, you know, and there's no possible way to do it without more taxes of some sort."
I wished her luck and sent her on her way. I was stunned -- though not really surprised -- by her lack of depth in her alleged specialty and by her ignorance of the realities she intended to force on everyone. It was clear she had never given a thought to the consequences of her ideas. Perhaps she didn't even grasp that ideas, put into action, have consequences.
Confidently, she already possessed, or believed she had a right to take by force, everything needed to run the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Begin with a magical incantation -- "smaller class sizes." Add other people's money. And poof! she would in one swell foop govern an entire state and cure educational problems that a hundred years of other people's money has only exacerbated.
Above all, I was chilled by her assumption -- which she obviously expected me to share -- that the primary purpose of education is to mass produce efficient taxpayers.
My disturbance sent me to the computer to write this article. When the first sentence spilled out, I thought it was far too strong. Evil? Surely not evil, not this small bundle of earnestness. Impractical, yes. Shallow, yes. But ignorant, at worst.
Yet when ignorance seeks to rule, what results?
We know, intellectually, that great evils don't always come from ranting demagogues. We know they come, often as not, from earnest lawyers, bookkeepers and school teachers, who wish only to make us do what's "good for us," regardless of facts, regardless of logic, regardless of cost, regardless of our individual wishes and needs. This isn't news to most of us.
Yet, faced with such people, seeing their friendly expressions, hearing their mellow voices, observing the laugh lines crinkling around their eyes, we seldom allow ourselves to think, "This is the face of evil."
Just as we tend to like our own lawyer while saying lawyers in general should be shark bait, we like the politician at our doorstep, and in our district. We imagine it must be some evil "other" -- some bloated Kennedy; some dour, deal-making Dole; some smug Feinstein; some drooling Schumer -- who's destroying our country. We simply don't want to acknowledge that evil often wears a friendly, familiar, neighborly face.
So it felt strange to hear my own mind saying just that. Yet it's true. That woman -- whom I might have liked, had I met her at party -- was evil because she sought to rule me -- and you, and you, and you -- with the power of her vast, earnest ignorance.
It drives home C.S. Lewis' observation that all evil is ultimately banal. And it reminded me never to give any slack to a politician just because he or she happens to be sincere, pleasant mannered, or honestly committed to a cause.
On the contrary; that's the worst kind. That's the politician to whom we should commit our most unrelenting -- and unforgiving -- vigilance.