Real Evil vs. Story Evil

Having recently read The Lord of the Rings, one thing in particular struck me as odd; that is the depiction of Sauron’s evil. It’s the type of evil where the bad guy ruler keeps his subjects in poverty, misery and squalor. This sort of evil is not unusual in TV shows and movies. The best example of this in the LotR movie is where Frodo is given a glimpse into what life would be like under Sauron’s rule. We see Hobbiton turned into little more than a forced labor camp. Another example is Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon, here, in addition to being a dictator; Ming can take whatever he wants from who ever he wants at any time. I’m sure there are other examples. It seems like these rulers are motivated not by greed, but by their desire to subject their people to horrible living conditions. Sure, these rulers are the richest people in their domain, but they’re not as rich as they can be.

Consider… in a social order like that, the ruler is getting some percentage of the value of the output of everyone under his rule. He can’t take it all, because then his people will die. So if he’s motivated by the desire to inflict pain on a massive scale, he’ll leave his people with only enough to live on and keep the rest for himself. But if he’s motivated by greed this is a crazy strategy for at least 2 reasons. One, with all this money, what would he spend it on? What possible products could he buy from such a labor force? If they’re constantly on the verge of starvation the goods they produce will be 2nd rate at best. Two, each person’s net worth (before “taxes”) is low so the amount of money they give to their ruler is low. It’s much greedier to have a high tax rate for rich people than it is to have a high tax rate for poor people.

An example may help make this clear. Consider an agrarian society. It’s an ideal society in which to keep your people down. The labor is hard and can be done without much thought. Our ruler will have all the food he can eat and then some, but how luxurious will his castle be? Indeed, with only farmers and no metal workers nor wood workers… it is probably the case that our ruler’s “castle” is a thatched hut. Maybe the best in the land, but still… a thatched hut. Also, with his people barely getting enough to survive, will they come up with such innovations as irrigation, crop rotation, selective breeding and etc? Without these, the amount of food generated per person is lower than it could otherwise be.

Therefore I find these sort of villains to be unbelievable. Sure, it’s plausible to be motivated solely by a desire to see others in misery, but not if I gotta live in a thatched hut to do it. Additionally, there are no examples of this sort of evil in the real world. Well, maybe one.

It seems Saddam Hussein kept his people in just the sort of misery I was referring to above. Given all the torture and killings he’s accused of it’s also easy to believe that misery was the sole thing that drove him. Yet he also had access to billions of dollars. However, he didn’t steal this from his people, it appears instead that he stole it from the Oil-for-Food program. So unlike those fictional bad-guys, Saddam could keep his people in misery AND get arbitrarily wealthy, and that’s because the wealth he got was not generated by his people, but instead was generated by an outside agent.

As humanitarian as the Oil-for-Food program was it seems it was also an enabler. If Saddam were forced to leech off of the output of his people instead of stealing from the Oil-for-Food program, he would definitely have been a lot poorer but he may also have been motivated to improved the living conditions of his people.

—Mike Davis
May 2006


SCA fighters at Norwescon 2006

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