A story to consider next time you attend a local meeting of the Masons...or that of any other so-called "secret" society.
Let's make up a story. Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far, away, there was a world that turned in natural balance, its sustainable tool-using population fed, clothed and housed in a simple manner that left much time for contemplation, artistic pursuits, and the enjoyment of life. As years passed, these people invented government as a way to do works for the common good, like roads and medical schools and hospitals. But then, to enforce the rulings of these governments, religions and police departments and judges came along. And banking and business was not long in following, taking advantage of the opportunities the new government presented. Among these people, four came up with an idea. One of them happened to be a judge, and another was a businessman, and one was a doctor and the last was a priest. And, by chance, each of them had been born without a conscience. They were such very good friends, they told each other everything. The judge pondered with them the nuances of the law, and how sometimes the law requires the guilty to go free, or the innocent to hang. The businessman explained the market and economy, and how sometimes the consumer must suffer so the business could thrive. The doctor admitted that sometimes it was necessary to euthanize a patient who would otherwise spend many years in great pain, unable to enjoy his life. And the priest revealed that what he taught his congregation, was not what he, himself, believed to be so. There was an important official who lived in that town, who was abusive to his wife. In fact, he beat her brutally at least once a week, and made her remain at home so no one would see her bruises. But one day, he went too far, cracking her skull with a heavy candlestick. The doctor was called in and saw immediately that nothing could be done. The woman's brain had been permanently damaged. She might be kept alive for years, but she could never regain consciousness. Filled with regret at what he knew he must do, he ended the woman's life. However the official, fearful that he would put put on trial for his wife's murder, charged the doctor with murder instead, producing as a witness a servant who had witnessed the euthanasia. The police promptly arrested the doctor, and a trial date was set. As it happened, the trial was presided over by the judge who was the doctor's good friend. However, no one knew that but the judge and the doctor, so the judge did not recuse himself. The evidence was presented, and it seemed clear enough: Though the woman's wounds were inflicted by her husband, her actual death was at the hands of the doctor; and euthanasia was a capital crime. However, in this land (as in most) a judge's decision is regarded as final. And so the judge found for the defendant. The doctor went free. Afterwards, the four friends celebrated the trial's outcome. But they had to admit it had been a close call. "If I had gotten any other judge, I would have been hung by now," the doctor pointed out. After having a few drinks together, the friends declared that their mutual friendship was more important than anything else, even more important than the law, or the market, or medicine, or religion. And they took a mutual vow to never let anything get in the way of their friendship, and to always help each other advance any way they could. And they did. The businessman gave his most lucrative contracts to people who attended the priest's church, which enabled them to increase their monetary tithes. When the judge's unmarried daughter got pregnant, the doctor performed an illegal abortion. The priest recommended the businessman as being devout and favored by the gods, so that his congregation bought the businessman's goods and services. As the years passed, the mutual good the friends could do each other increased, and their lives were enhanced accordingly. They never had cause to regret their decision to put their mutual welfare ahead of the conventions followed by most people. However, the day came when the businessman died, and it was a blow to the others in several ways. Not only had they lost a friend; they had lost an invaluable resource to the group. "We need another businessman," said the doctor. "I agree," said the priest. "Though, frankly, I think a policeman would be even more valuable to us." "I know several policemen," the judge admitted. "But I don't know which of them, if any, can be trusted. After all, if we reveal ourselves to the wrong person, we could compromise our entire scheme." After much debate, the priest presented a suggestion. "In my religion," he explained, "initiates are taught in levels, like concentric circles. The outer layer consists of the congregation, who believe everything we tell them but don't know the secrets. From among them we spot individuals we think would make good priests, and take them into the next circle, where they learn a few basic secrets, primarily to see if they can keep them. The few who can, are brought into a more inner circle, where they learn more secrets. Then there's the circle of the priesthood, to which I belong. I can assume there are circles even deeper, for the bishops and archbishops, but I don't know there are--because I am assured, by my bishop, there are not." "That requires a lot of members," the doctor protested. "Our scheme won't work if everyone is a part of it." The priest nodded. "Which is why the outer circles aren't told anything. They think they've joined a club; only a few of them will be allowed to advance into the inner circles. And only a very few will be permitted to become part of the innermost circle, after they've proven they are trustworthy and willing to do what it takes to put the welfare of the Inner Circle ahead of the laws, morals and ethics of the land. No one else must ever know there even is an 'inner circle'." The three remaining friends hammered out the details of their "club" and began canvassing for recruits the very next day. They only invited people they thought might become valuable members some day: Youngsters who could be taught, guided and mentored to become successful businessmen, doctors, judges and priests but who might also have instilled into them loyalty to the club. People who heard about the club hoped for an invitation because they knew the founding members were pillars of the community, and the opportunity to network with the very successful was desirable. It just made sense to join the club if one could. And, as the priest had suggested, a few of the new members were, after a year, judged worthy of being chosen for "special training." A year later, a small number of those were again advanced. Members in the outer layer began to hope for selection, as word of the inner levels trickled out. Of course, the people who leaked the information were never advanced further. So members knew that levels existed, but didn't know exactly how many there were, or what was taught in a level higher than one's own. Finally, many years afterwards, a young businessman who had proven himself worthy in every way, was invited to join the innermost sanctum with the original three. They explained to him the real purpose of the group; that he must put the welfare of those in this innermost circle above all other obligations, even to his family and country and gods. And he agreed, and they knew he would, because they had observed him so closely for so long. The new businessman did not reveal that he was in the innermost circle...though he had to laugh each week, as he attended the club meetings, that so many people were involved in what amounted to a public screen that only existed to hide a secret core with what the public group would likely find to be a nefarious purpose. When the doctor decided to retire and move to a seaside town, he started a branch of the club there. And the priest was ordained a bishop, and moved to the capital of the land where he organized another branch. So the members could always identify each other even when they came from different towns, secret handshakes, passwords and other techniques were introduced. What's more, these signs were very subtle so that if one member met another who was in a deeper level, he would only recognize him as a member at his own level. Each member vowed, as part of his or her initiation, to be true and helpful to the other members. Of course, most members had consciences, and did not put the welfare of a club member ahead of the law of the land or good ethics, no matter what the club dictated. But a few took the club oath more seriously, and might help another member avoid a parking fine or other minor embarrassment. This not only helped bond the members of the club, but also prepared them for promotion into the innermost circle, where the favors might require more serious actions such as murder, treason, or worse. As for the outer circles, they justified their existence by contributing to their communities: Raising money for the sick, building houses for the poor, raising awareness of fire safety...all good works that made a good reputation for the club as a whole, without impacting the profits or plans of those in the innermost circle. In time, the remaining original members died; but the club went on. As the good name of the club spread far and wide, membership reached the hundreds, then thousands, then millions. The innermost circle grew, too, to a maximum of twelve individuals, who retired to an entirely private life. They now gave instructions to lieutenants in the next circle out, who passed them on further. Club members began to infiltrate the highest offices of the government, the banks, the religions, the media. It wasn't an intentional takeover; but a judge who was a member might recommend a policeman who was also a member to become chief-of-police, who might then recommend a lawyer who was a member to become a judge. And because no one outside the club could tell who was in the club, there was no obvious indication that cronyism was taking place. By the time a thousand years had passed, the innermost circle--known to themselves as The Twelve--effectively ruled the planet, although no one other than themselves knew it. It was publicly known that there were thirty-three circles, but in fact there were sixty. No one made it past the 33rd circle without being able to keep a secret, and no one with a conscience made it past the 34th. Virtually every king, president, CEO and religious leader was in the 50th circle. And they followed the advice of their very intelligent and trustworthy advisors who--unknown to them--were in the 51st circle or higher. And all this--all this--was to benefit The Twelve, who were unknown to everyone else, and thus perfectly safe from assassination or reprisals of any other kind. The Twelve were very, very rich; but even better was the sense of power each held. It's very heady stuff, knowing that you direct the fall of a kingdom here, the rise of a democracy there, a civil war in this other place. Can there be any greater reward for a person with no conscience, than to know he or she can send others to their death for no genuine reason? Now, because The Twelve's influence was so pervasive, persons who believed they were not in the club at all, essentially composed an unofficial, outermost circle of the organization. They knew of the existence of the club (the next circle in) but nothing else. They also didn't really care, since their lives were spent trying to keep their heads above water regarding health care, schooling, and food. Everything seemed stacked against them. Some were workers, some were managers; but the really successful managers and all the major CEOs were members of the club. So no one outside the club had a lot of money. Oh, they weren't all miserable. It depended on whether they happened to live in a country currently favored with a high standard of living by the plans of The Twelve. But everyone had to work long hours, since the majority of their labor enriched those in the inner circles, leaving them little time for contemplation, artistic pursuits, or other enjoyment. Still, those outsiders with conscience made time to try and improve their world. And anyone with a conscience knew that wars were wrong and stupid; that there should be enough food for everyone; that it made no sense to withhold health care from anyone. (The apparent stupidity and lack of sense were perceived only because the population knew nothing of the wealth these things brought to the Twelve.) And these people, the outsiders who composed the majority of the population, blamed the most visible source of problems: The governments. But then, after centuries of abuse the outsiders began to realize that the only way to win a game with the government, is not to play. So slowly, here and there, in twos and threes and hundreds, people began to simply ignore their government. They did this quietly, so as not to inspire retaliation; for the only thing government fears is being ignored. But these individuals withheld taxes, refused to join wars. They bartered for as much as they could, to avoid the banking system. And, recognizing that churches and governments work hand-in-hand, they also stopped going to church, preferring to worship in private and to tithe their time, instead of money, directly to the disadvantaged, where it would do the most good. And because this anarchy began in such a small way, The Twelve never saw it coming. After all, they were accustomed to monitoring members of the Club--not those outside it. And so, when the movement had grown logarithmically in its unmonitored, below-the-radar way--suddenly, seemingly overnight, the number of people who refused to cooperate with any government, exceeded those who still bought into the perceived "need" for one. A civil war was declared, but few citizens could be persuaded to shoot other citizens who refused to shoot back or even wear a uniform. There was no organization to the anarchy--how could there be?--and so no one to negotiate with. Several times, the governments tried broadcasting the "news" that the anarchists had lost and the war was over--but the anarchists no longer listened to broadcasts and so never heard the lie. Finally, there was no one left to fight. Even members of the club, whose superiors had attempted to whip them into a fevered frenzy over the one-sided conflict, simply quit the club in disgust. The Twelve now were wealthy--but no one used money any more, so their wealth was impotent. They had power--over no one, because with no governments to stand between them and the populations they wished to control, there was no way to organize big, dramatic wars. Manufacturing (and the need for it) collapsed, with the weapons industries the first to go. Cities dissolved as people returned to the country, where they could grow their own food. There was indeed a period in which many people died, mostly those who could not adapt to the new way of life. But the anarchists didn't fear death, since there no longer allowed priests to tell them that everlasting punishment awaited them beyond that door. Finally, in a world that was once again in natural balance, the sustainable population fed, clothed and housed itself in a simple manner that left much time for contemplation, artistic pursuits, and the enjoyment of life. The cycle might run again. It would certainly happen on other worlds. It's a cycle that happens in any tool-using species that has the possibility of being born without a conscience. It happens with the regularity of ice ages, which come and go as the planet itself shrugs off its snowy mantle. It might even happen here.
Paul S. Cilwa is a computer programmer and author of four technical books and two novels (with another on the way). His specialty is putting the pieces together.