Periodically the issue is raised: who was the most evil human being that ever lived? As of this writing, the obvious answer would be good old Uncle Adolph. Granted, the man was not very nice. He deliberately murdered a few million innocent people, started a war that claimed the lives of tens of millions, and for a few years inflicted tremendous misery and suffering on even more. You would be unlikely to bump into a more evil person the next time you go shopping at Walmart (the CEO of that establishment is another matter, but he doesn’t shop there).
But as much as Hollywood loves Nazis, there are people whose evil arguably dwarfs that of the corporal from Austria.
A common candidate for Person-More-Evil-Than-Hitler is Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, or as he is more commonly known, “Lenin.” The argument is that Lenin started the communist revolution that spread death and terror across the world for nearly a century. I applaud those who allow themselves to think out of the box, and to consider that true evil might reside less in physical actions than in spreading a corrupt philosophy, but I respectfully suggest that Lenin and Leninism were not only not evil, but arguably somewhat noble.
Consider that when Lenin was growing up, he saw a vast country where most people lived as de facto slaves crushed into poverty, (de jure slavery had been ended previously, but changed nothing), lorded over by a corrupt and brutal elite. Lenin did what any decent person would have done: he asked himself how this situation could be improved. He formulated a philosophy, and successfully overthrew the ruling tsars and tried to do something better.
Now this is the key point: Lenin quickly realized that his theories of pure communism were unworkable, so he shifted gears into a “New Economic Policy” (NEP) that allowed a greater measure of economic freedom to individuals. Things improved, and before too long the Russian economy had rebounded from the utter collapse of the royalists’ bungling of WWI to better than pre-WWI Tsarist Russia.
Now some will claim that if only the tsars had lived that Russia would have turned into a prosperous paternalistic society like modern-day South Korea. And maybe if Pol Pot had lived he would have suddenly turned into a Jeffersonian Democrat. The record is that the tsars had stomped on the peasantry for centuries, and there is no evidence that they would suddenly have reformed. Note also that Lenin didn't overthrow the tsars: the tsars overthrew themselves, as their gross corruption and malevolence came to a head during WWI and crushed the Russian populace into the ground. Lenin could never have overturned a society like modern South Korea. And as far as killing the royal family: well, considering all the murderous brutality of the Russian ruling class for all the centuries before, turnabout's fair play, I should think?
But then Lenin died, and he was replaced by Stalin. Now, there was a butcher. He repealed the NEP and re-instituted orthodox top-down central planning no matter the consequences. He engineered famines of groups he didn’t like. He slaughtered and purged all of his enemies real and imagined. For a long time under Stalin a significant fraction of the Russian (then the Soviet) population lived in forced labor camps. It could be said that the Stalinist Soviet Union was an example of a slave state.
The British prime minister Winston Churchill said of Lenin that the greatest calamity to befall Russia was that he was born, and the second greatest calamity is that he died when he did. Churchill was no fan of Lenin, but even he saw that Lenin was far from the worst that there was. Churchill also wondered if, perhaps, Stalin was even worse than our favorite Teutonic bogeyman – Stalin could be said to have had a bigger kill total, although the issue is debatable.
Now one might say that even if Lenin himself was not that bad, that he was responsible for his theories being hijacked and used by evil people. I disagree. Currently there are many disgusting people who, under the banner of Adam Smith, are crushing billions into poverty and likely condemning the entire world to an age of almost unimaginable horror that will make Stalinist Russia look like a tea party. Is it Adam Smith’s fault that others have taken his words out of context, cherry-picking the parts about free enterprise, ignoring the parts about decency and morality, and using “The Wealth of Nations” to justify stealing from the working poor and middle class to bail out wealthy bankers? I don’t think so. Adam Smith did the best that he could at the time. If others have used his words to shield evil purpose, it is our fault for allowing that, not Mr. Smith’s.
Anyone of good spirit, who wants to make the world a better place, must worry that they might inadvertently make things worse. Doing nothing is not a solution. As the saying goes, ‘for evil to triumph it is enough that the good do nothing.’ If decent people refuse to act because they are worried about accidently causing harm, their place will be taken by those who are determined to cause harm, on purpose.
The only thing to do is, be cautious. As the physicians say: “First do no harm.” Anyone proposing to make the world better must have done their homework and seen how similar proposals have fared in the past. If their proposals are carried out, they must be ever mindful of any evidence that they have made a mistake, and be willing to reverse course, no matter the blow to their egos.
Imagine a physician who sees people dying of a disease, and they create a vaccine. They test the vaccine as thouroughly as they can, but despite their best efforts, the vaccine causes more harm than good. The physician immediately stops distribution of the vaccine, and works on minimizing the damage and determining how such a mistake might be avoided in the future. I would not call this person evil.
Now imagine a physician who does not test the vaccine. They see the vaccine doing more harm than good, but they refuse to admit it, they censor and attack any who question them (and maybe they make a quick buck from their stock in the vaccine company). I think that I would call this person evil.
The difference between good and evil may ultimately boil down to due diligence. If there are any lawyers reading this, you’ll understand.
You know it’s funny: there are all these conservatives railing about Soviet-style communism was the greatest calamity to befall the world, and yet look at the evidence. After Stalin died, the old Soviet Union was not that bad. It wasn’t that great, but look at the old pictures of 1970 East Germany. Now consider modern wonderful capitalist India, where there are a half a billion people who are chronically malnourished. Or Pakistan, or Bangladesh, or Egypt, or Nigeria, or the Philippines, etc.etc. There is no comparison. There are in the world today billions of people who would give their left arms to go back in time and live in 1970 East Germany or Czechoslovakia or even Russia. For someone to condemn communism as a failure, and then turn a blind eye to the vastly greater misery of today’s capitalist third world, the best that can be said is that this is an astonishing willful blindness.
Sometimes I hear that the problems with places like India or Pakistan is that they are ‘socialist’. Oh really? A society where you have to work like a dog for fifty cents an hour or starve, where anything and anyone is for sale, where multinationals flock to take advantage of all that cheap labor, where the rich build entire skyscrapers staffed with 600 servants as personal residences – this is no kind of socialism that I ever heard about. These places are the Neoliberal dream.
No, the greatest evil are people like Julian Simon, who willfully pushed the meme that people breeding like rodents is an unalloyed good. He attacked the idea that people should not have more children than they can afford to support, and instead pushed the notion that people should have as many children as they possibly can the instant they become fertile not worrying about whether they have a stable job or not because more people are guaranteed to always be better. He also pushed that the rich should control the population the same way that central bankers control the money supply, creating population explosions to flood the market whenever prosperity threatens their cheap-labor derived profits. Oh I know, Julian Simon didn’t phrase it that way, but that’s what he was providing cover for nonetheless.
The human suffering in modern India in just one decade dwarfs all the suffering created by Adolph Hitler, Mao Tse Tung, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, and Ghenghis Khan, combined, and by a large margin. And that's just for starters. And Julian Simon, and people like him, are to blame.
Now Adam Smith’s statement “The More The Merrier” has often been used by vile Neoliberal Economists to justify breeding people like cattle. Why don’t I call Adam Smith evil? Well, Mr. Smith was in mid-18th century Western Europe. At that time new technologies were coming on line, there were vast untapped physical resources and new lands to colonize, and the potential of economies of scale and division of labor had not been fully tapped. Under those unusual historical circumstances he had a point. But if today he were to see the misery of the overpopulated third world, and see with his own eyes how a massive population explosion has wiped out 500 years of technological and economic progress, I hope that he would have rethought his views on population. If not, I might rethink my views on Adam Smith, but of course, this is hypothetical.
Julian Simon, however, is another issue. He could easily see how rapid forced population growth drives many into poverty and a few into riches, and he took money to lie about it.* (You may argue that he was just a useful idiot – maybe – but at some point an ignorance so willful becomes a deliberate lie. IMHO). He didn’t need to – he would not have starved to death if he had told the truth – but it earned him favors from his wealthy patrons, and he made some extra bucks. He sold out.
We have developed the technologies such that the world today should be as near to a paradise as fallible human beings can make it. Instead it is heading into another dark age, and it’s not an accident or act of God. This population explosion was created and maintained as a deliberate and consistent act, by the rich and their desire to keep their profits and their status via a continued supply of cheap and docile labor. The ongoing population explosion is the greatest crime committed against humanity that has ever been committed – perhaps it will go down as the greatest crime ever – and Julian Simon helped make it possible.