What is the connection between Bobby Darin and Friedrich Nietzsche? The answer is Mack the Knife. It’s a bit more complex than that, though, as “The Ballad Of Mack The Knife” comes from a socialist critique of capitalism, namely the Threepenny Opera of noted German playwright (and socialist) Bertold Brecht, one that is a translation of an older opera from England called “The Beggar’s Opera.” The connection with Nietzsche comes from his own writing “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” where he wrote about the joy of the knife, the enjoyment that people had in murdering others. That this is not a joy we should have is obvious, but it is far more problematic in contemporary society to decide a good reason why some people should not be allowed to gratify this particular bloodlust. The problematic question, for those who do not believe in absolute standards of morality, comes in the question of the right to one’s own private happiness.
The issue of rights in general is problematic in contemporary society, because most of us want rights but we are not always willing to accept the rights of others. According to the Founding Fathers of the United States, rights were inalienable (that is, they could not be taken away) and were a bounty from God. These rights included the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which was often considered to be a polite way of referring to the right to property. Other fundamental rights were granted in a Bill of Rights added to the Constitution because of fears that the government would someday be powerful enough to threaten the rights to bear arms (and thus be an armed and potentially discontented populace) or the freedoms of speech and religion, or the right of state governments to possess those powers that the central government did not have. To be sure, those among the Founding generation who were suspicious of the power of the central government were right to be so suspicious. Any government that is powerful enough to protect citizens from the threats of domestic anarchy and random violence and from the purposeful and directed violence of enemies is going to be powerful enough to menace the rights of the people and their security in holding on to their personal and private property.
And in this process there is often a dialectic of anarchy and tyranny, in which the two sides are pitted against each other in a false dilemma that denies or neglects to mention the possibility of a third way that avoids the extremes of either. Just as the threat of random violence from criminals or terrorists encourages people to surrender their rights to a more powerful police state directed by government, so too the violence of the state directed against internal minorities spurs rebellion or emigration to areas with greater freedom. The only way a society can endure with neither anarchy nor tyranny is if it is self-governed and lives according to restraint, so that the dictates of conscience prevent widespread disorder, and if those same people are strong enough and take enough personal responsibility to provide for the common defense. Few societies, and certainly not our own at this time, have this mix of restraint and power. Most people are not willing to put forth the effort to gain strength without intending on using that strength to pursue their own interests. To pursue strength for the interests of others is viewed as folly at best, and insanity at worst.
And yet it is this sort of folly that is the best answer to those who would be hostile to our society and its well-being in general. It is not poverty that drives people to anarchy. To be sure, poverty does provide a pressure for theft, for those without property can hardly be expected to respect the property of others. Yet in a society where it is easy to obtain property because the well-being of all is considered by the great mass of society, even those without property may see that with a bit more discipline and even limited opportunities that their own needs and a great many of their wants can be met. Such virtue does not require socialism. Indeed, socialism in many ways hinders this virtue by encouraging people to let government handle generosity while one pursues one’s own profit without consideration of others who are less well off. If we have a God-given right to pursue happiness, that happiness must consider the well-being of oneself and of others, for to pursue something that may make us happy and harm others is not something we can claim as a right, but rather it marks us out as criminals who deserve to be stopped. The gang member and the terrorist and the kidnapper and whoever else feels the joy of the knife are not the figures that critique our culture, but they remind us that in order to be free we must also be good, and we must be strong enough to take upon ourselves the responsibilities of defense against evil, lest it fall into the hands of those who would seek power for the joy of the knife to use against us.