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Evil Is Rising, but Despair Is Not an Option
Lawrence W. Reed

Virtually every manifestation of evil involves a desire to dominate and control.

To many people, the world seems to make less and less sense with each passing day. Values we once cherished and that bound civil society together face daily bombardment. Offensive things are routinely said and done today in ways intended to inflame and divide. Freedoms we took for granted – freedoms of thought, speech, press, religion – are under relentless assault as intrusive government and cancel culture gain ground. 

“Orwellian” is no longer just an adjective derived from a work of fiction more than seven decades ago; it describes some new development in our lives every day. Words and thoughts, once neutral or perhaps disagreeable but not actionable, are treated now as if they are crimes. History itself is being rewritten to serve political agendas. Petty tyrannies are morphing into bigger tyrannies as governments play an ever more intrusive role in the lives of their citizens. There’s an awful lot of bad behavior going on – and perpetrators getting away with it, too. From lying to looting, it feels like an epidemic.

That’s not very scientific, I admit. Steven Pinker, in his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined made a strong case that humanity is actually more humane today than ever. Statistics exist for murders and thefts, and Pinker provided bushels of them, but how does one measure bald-faced lies, silencing by intimidation, the “canceling” of dissenting opinions, and the like? Where are the data on hate, spitefulness, callousness, and discourtesy? I worry that amidst the good news Pinker revealed, something is amiss.

We are witnessing an alarming collapse of social cohesion that is propelled, as if it were consciously planned, by something bigger and more menacing than simply falling standards of character. I call it “evil,” and I sense that it’s on the loose and on the rise. Rabbi Gershon Winkler of the Walking Stick Foundation in Colorado writes,

Today, absolute evil flourishes in clever guises: for instance, distorted versions of social equality, or the officially sanctioned proliferation of outright lies and their costly consequences for the economic and physical well-being of entire communities. This form of evil is of the worst sort, since it is deceptively camouflaged by rhetoric disguised as humanitarian concern and compassion. Even the serpent in the Garden of Eden could not match the evil of draping the wool over the eyes of an entire population and allowing it to slip-slide into passive naiveté. Dishonesty and deception have time and again caused the fall of great civilizations.

“Evil” is a very muscular term. It is intensely pejorative. I wouldn’t know how to describe something that is worse than evil, so I use it as a synonym for “as bad as it gets.” Its gateway drug is disdain for the truth, the little white lies that lead to bigger ones, that then open the door to more heinous offenses.

Moreover, I do not deploy the term casually to represent actions or outcomes that result from inanimate forces – e.g., “The hurricane’s evil destruction laid waste to the town.”

Evil is inseparable from morality and moral agents. A hurricane is not a moral agent. Only individual human beings are, and therefore both their conscious choices and actions can be judged by a moral code or law.

The most logical next question is, “Where does a viable, defensible and universal moral code come from?” The Judeo-Christian perspective argues that its source is the Creator, and his moral rules are spelled out in the Ten Commandments. A secular perspective claims that a moral code can be deduced from man’s nature (particularly the unique and sovereign individuality of each person), apart from anything supernatural.

One can argue that there are other perspectives too, rooted in various philosophies and religions. In the interest of full disclosure, readers should know that I personally embrace both perspectives I reference above. For me, they are compatible, sufficient, and compelling.

In other words, I am comfortable maintaining that lying, stealing, injuring, enslaving, and murdering are moral wrongs because they violate at the same time both God’s law and man’s nature (his rights in particular). This premise is not the main point of this essay, but if interested readers wish to do so, they can explore my reasoning further in Science is Affirming Creation, Not Accident.

Is there a bright line between “bad” and “evil”? Good question, but a good answer is beyond my expertise. I’ll venture this much, however: There is an inextricable connection between evil and power.

Every manifestation of “evil” involves a desire to dominate and control, to compel another individual to bow to one’s will. Evil often starts out small and draws its victims in one bite at a time. Deception about where it’s really headed only magnifies the evilness. The longshoreman philosopher Eric Hoffer poignantly noted, “It is by its promise of a sense of power that evil often attracts the weak.”

Sometimes evil is manifested in an act so horrible no one can excuse it, such as a school shooting. Then evil goes to work to get people to ignore real causes and support fake solutions, like disarming the innocent. Evil’s allies include fear, corruption, chaos, intolerance, deception, and envy. What the Wall Street Journal’s Vermont Royster once called “the prevalence of evil” seems so palpable to me that I’m tempted to capitalize the word. That may offend some who don’t believe that either God or a Devil exist as real entities. You, the reader, can make that call.

In a May 2023 article at, Lachlan Brown identifies the traits of evil people. They revel in the misfortune of others. They bully and manipulate. They fabricate and dissemble, conceal their real selves, and “leave you with a weird feeling when you’re around them.” They’re mean to both animals and people. They show no remorse. They evade responsibility for their actions.

They also crave power and when they get it, it becomes their means for institutionalizing terrible things.

An evil person believes his ends justify any means. He divides the world between offenders and the offended and sells himself as a savior. He steals, injures, maligns, deceives, deconstructs, or even kills whatever stands in his way. He accuses the innocent of the very crimes he commits. He distorts language itself in order to confuse rather than enlighten.

The mortal enemy of evil is truth. Evil is profoundly reactionary and pessimistic. It is at war with human nature because it deals with people not as the unique and precious individuals they are (endowed with rights) but as pawns, dupes and tools. Evil is invariably a foe of individual freedom and an ally of collectivist socialism and its authoritarian impulses.

Evil is on the loose. The restraints with which civilized society shackled it seem to be dissolving. Do not be depressed by this fact, for a defeatist spirit will fatally disarm you, and that is precisely what evil wants. The last thing evil desires is an informed citizenry eager to resist. It is not inevitable that evil should win – unless good people give up.

Evil is not a fantasy. It is real. Wherever you believe it comes from, do not submit to it. We must confront it with, at the very least, an unwavering dedication to truth, solid personal character, and good ideas.

Remember the wisdom of Edmund Burke: “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.”

Written by Lawrence W. Reed for Foundation for Economic Education ~ May 23, 2023


Lawrence W. (“Larry”) Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, Humphreys Family Senior Fellow, and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. Reed served as president of FEE from 2008-2019 after serving previously as chairman of its board of trustees in the 1990s and both writing and speaking for FEE since the late 1970s. Prior to becoming FEE’s president, he served for 21 years as president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Michigan. He also taught economics full-time from 1977 to 1984 at Northwood University in Michigan and chaired its department of economics from 1982 to 1984.

He holds a B.A. in economics from Grove City College (1975) and an M.A. degree in history from Slippery Rock State University (1978), both in Pennsylvania. He holds two honorary doctorates, one from Central Michigan University (public administration, 1993) and Northwood University (laws, 2008).

A champion for liberty, Reed has authored nearly 2,000 newspaper columns and articles and dozens of articles in magazines and journals in the United States and abroad. His writings have appeared in The Wall Street JournalChristian Science MonitorUSA TodayThe Epoch TimesThe Washington ExaminerBaltimore SunDetroit News and Detroit Free Press, among many others. He has authored or coauthored eight books, the most recent being Was Jesus a Socialist? He is frequently interviewed on radio talk shows and has appeared as a guest on numerous television programs, including those anchored by Judge Andrew Napolitano and John Stossel on FOX Business News.

Reed has delivered at least 75 speeches annually since 1985 in virtually every state and in dozens of countries from Bulgaria to China to Bolivia. His best-known lectures include “Seven Principles of Sound Policy” and “Great Myths of the Great Depression,” both of which have been translated into more than a dozen languages and distributed worldwide.

His interests in political and economic affairs have taken him as a freelance journalist to 86 countries on six continents. He serves on the boards of directors of and Montana’s Frontier Institute and as an advisor to numerous organizations around the world. He served for 15 years as a member of the board (and for one term as president) of the State Policy Network. His numerous recognitions include the Champion of Freedom award from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and the Distinguished Alumni award from Grove City College.

He is a native of Pennsylvania and a 30-year resident of Michigan, and now resides in Newnan, Georgia.


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