The Ebola epidemic or other infectious diseases?
Natural disasters like hurricanes or earthquakes?
The correct answer is the abuse of power.
It finds expression in chronic international and domestic strife, persecution based on race, religion, ethnicity, gender, nationality, and political persuasion, and the crushing of fundamental liberties such as free speech and association, due process, or freedom from physical restraint.
Victims of power abuse number in the billions.
At present, there are ongoing wars or serious domestic strife in 24 countries: Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Nigeria, South Sudan, Israel-Gaza, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Libya, Ukraine, Somalia, Uganda, India-Kashmir, Algeria, the Central African Republic, Mali, the Philippines, Russia, Ethiopia, Turkey, Thailand, Burma and Colombia.
Approximately 2.2 billion people inhabit unfree nations — for instance, China, North Korea, Iran, and Russia. Another 1.3 billion reside in partly free countries.
According to Anti-Slavery International, more than 20 million persons are held in bondage.
Abuses of power originate in the DNA of the species. It craves domination for the sake of domination, which gratifies an innate need for self-importance and feeling of superiority to others. This primitive lust can be dispelled or thwarted only by moral philosophy. But it has gone the way of the dinosaurs, and never influenced more than a handful. Just ask Socrates.
We cannot declare war on DNA and hope to succeed. That would be like shouting at the weather.
What must be done is to architect a diffusion of power to ensure that no one faction or sources of authority are able to oppress or inflict injustice on a minority. James Madison, father of the Constitution, described the formidable challenge in Federalist 51: “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this; you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”
The task is far easier said than done. It requires vast wisdom and a mastery of human nature in all its sundry moods and tenses. The 55 attendees of the constitutional convention represented collectively the greatest intelligence ever gathered under a single roof to construct a form of government that would frustrate tyranny at every turn. On its centenary, British statesman William Gladstone effused: “The American Constitution is, as far as I can see, the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.”
Despite its greatness, the U.S. Constitution was materially defective. It omitted a Bill of Rights, which was repaired by the first Congress. And it took a Civil War, the Civil War Amendments and the Civil Rights Movement to remove the stain of slavery and racism.
Identifying and unifying against tyranny is commonplace. But replacing an unjust or oppressive government with something superior is hugely challenging. The French revolted against King Louis XVI and got Emperor Napoleon. Russians overthrew Nicholas and Alexandra and got Lenin and Stalin. The Chinese rallied against Chiang Kai-shek and got Mao Zedong. Iranians joined to oust Shah Mohammad Rezi Pahlavi and got Ayatollah Khomeini. Egyptians rebelled against Hosni Mubarak and got Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
We need institutions for the study of power to diminish the world’s misery index. Even small gains in knowledge should return rich dividends in lessening wars, persecution and tyranny.
Resistance to such an endeavor can be expected. Politics attracts personalities that keenly relish control over others, not moral philosophers. The last thing most political leaders want is a store of knowledge that could frustrate their zeal for limitless power.
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