Big numbers are difficult to grasp. Everyone understands numbers they can relate to, 10 people, 100 people, even a thousand or 10,00 people is something that the mind can envision and understand. But once you start talking about millions the mind flicks a switch and begins to depersonalize. In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith identified this phenomenon,
Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connexion with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befal himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.
Smith couldn’t have foreseen monsters like Hitler, Stalin and Mau, when he continued in an optimistic vein,
To prevent, therefore, this paltry misfortune to himself, would a man of humanity be willing to sacrifice the lives of a hundred millions of his brethren, provided he had never seen them? Human nature startles with horror at the thought, and the world, in its greatest depravity and corruption, never produced such a villain as could be capable of entertaining it. But what makes this difference? When our passive feelings are almost always so sordid and so selfish, how comes it that our active principles should often be so generous and so noble? When we are always so much more deeply affected by whatever concerns ourselves, than by whatever concerns other men; what is it which prompts the generous, upon all occasions, and the mean upon many, to sacrifice their own interests to the greater interests of others? It is not the soft power of humanity, it is not that feeble spark of benevolence which Nature has lighted up in the human heart, that is thus capable of counteracting the strongest impulses of self-love. It is a stronger power, a more forcible motive, which exerts itself upon such occasions. It is reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct. It is he who, whenever we are about to act so as to affect the happiness of others, calls to us, with a voice capable of astonishing the most presumptuous of our passions, that we are but one of the multitude, in no respect better than any other in it; and that when we prefer ourselves so shamefully and so blindly to others, we become the proper objects of resentment, abhorrence, and execration. It is from him only that we learn the real littleness of ourselves, and of whatever relates to ourselves, and the natural misrepresentations of self-love can be corrected only by the eye of this impartial spectator. It is he who shows us the propriety of generosity and the deformity of injustice; the propriety of resigning the greatest interests of our own, for the yet greater interests of others, and the deformity of doing the smallest injury to another, in order to obtain the greatest benefit to ourselves. It is not the love of our neighbour, it is not the love of mankind, which upon many occasions prompts us to the practice of those divine virtues. It is a stronger love, a more powerful affection, which generally takes place upon such occasions; the love of what is honourable and noble, of the grandeur, and dignity, and superiority of our own characters.
Sadly, Smith got it wrong. “Reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct” have failed. The inner man that Smith heralded doesn’t teach us the real littleness of ourselves. God does that.
Within living memory, the world has experienced just such monsters as Adam Smith denied, willing to sacrifice the lives of a hundred millions. Since Smith’s time the world has indeed produced such a villain – in fact, it has done so multiple times. The mind boggles at this and cannot appreciate it.
It is unfortunate, because without meaning, words lose their power. We are losing the ability to recoil at concepts like “godless communists” and “evil empire.” We struggle to grasp the nature of true evil – the numbers were simply too big. How could someone order the extermination of millions (Mau)? How could Stalin export grain during a famine and uproot entire communities for collectivization and starvation? These and other historical events are forgotten, doubted, and marginalized as being irrelevant to the present – even though the same forces are still at play today.
Robert Conquest’s Harvest of Sorrow, documents the slaughter of 14.5 million people who died as a result of the terror-famine imposed between 1929-1932. Mau is conservatively estimated to have destroyed at least 100 million of his own people through similar policies. This does not count the countless others who died in “re-education” camps or in purges.
But communist regimes don’t just undervalue and devalue life in favor of implementing economic panaceas. They rule through terror. Terror is the policy and mechanism for maintaining control. If you want to understand the true nature of evil, you have only to study the Soviet Union. In his new book Roads to the Temple, Leon Aron documents some of the letters from people who lost family members to the communist regime. The Soviets conducted actual studies to determine the most terrifying time of night for the infamous “knock at the door.” Reading these letters and accounts brings the terror to a more understandable (and horrifying) level.
It is only by looking at the individual stories of people that one can begin to appreciate the magnitude and meaning. Such horror is the natural result of a government that makes it its policy to eliminate God from the national character. It happened in the France of 1789, it happened in Soviet Russia, and again in Communist China.
Conversely, the United States shows what flows out of a government which valued human life as endowed by the Creator. It is within human nature to search for meaning, and if this meaning is not derived from God, then it is from man. We now have historical examples the consequences of either approach.