Destructive capacity of individuals and states

From Modern Times:

The destructive capacity of the individual, however vicious, is small; of the state, however well-intentioned, almost limitless.

7 thoughts on “Destructive capacity of individuals and states

  1. Nick Barrowman

    So much for individuals and states. What about the destructive capacities of corporations?

  2. Corporations generally have less potential for harm than governments because government actions are winner-take-all. Elections have one winner. Even in a multi-party parliament, each local race has one winner, and each parliamentary vote has one winner.

    Corporations are more dangerous when they are monopolies. But governments are always monopolies and corporations usually are not. In fact, the most common way for a company to become a monopoly is with the assistance of government.

  3. Nick Barrowman

    Thanks — these are all good points. As you note, governments sometimes serve corporations. But corporations always serve themselves, that is their owners or shareholders. Because of this, I see their collective potential for harm as much greater than governments.

  4. Nick Barrowman


    I’m not sure I understand. Are you saying that corporations serve the profit motives of their employees (since employees choose to keep working for corporations so as to keep getting paid), and therefore corporations are less hierarchical than governments? I don’t think that follows. Ultimately a corporation’s behavior is decided by the owners, not the employees. Corporations are inherently hierarchical; governments need not be.

  5. Nick, I think you have it backwards. Corporations always serve the profit motive of all of the people working in the corporation. Whereas governments work according to the chain of command of whomever is on top.

    History is pretty clear here. It has been all too common for governments to cause immense destruction through wars, tyranny, and genocide,whereas even the most powerful corporations have at their worst done far less.

  6. By the way, I’m not an anarchist. There are obviously some things that society as a whole must decide. States need to decide which side of the road everyone will drive on rather than leaving this up to individual choice. But states don’t need to decide which model of car everyone should drive.

    My inclination in politics is to first ask whether something should even be a political issue. Is this an issue like choosing which side of the road to drive where there has to be one winner? Or is this issue more like choosing a brand of car that can be left to individuals to decide?

  7. The asymmetry between states and individuals is not so simple. The larger the state, the more friction, inertia, and entropy mitigate its ability to project power. My neighbor can burn my house half a dozen times before the county sheriff can get around to deciding whether to slap his wrist for so doing.

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