At a time when the Obama administration is endorsing one horrendous Bush policy after another, from targeted killings to state secrets to indefinite detention to endless war, it is time to recognize how the “conventional wisdom” has led Americans to the political slaughterhouse time and again. Pervasive confusion over the nature of government and freedom has opened the gates to perhaps the most sweeping increase in political power in history. Changing the name of the president is almost pointless unless Americans radically change their attitude toward government.
The State has been the largest recipient of intellectual charity during the past hundred years. The issue of government coercion has been taken off the radar screen of politically correct thought. The more government power has grown, the more unfashionable it becomes to discuss or recognize government abuses- as if it were bad form to count the dead brought about by government interventions. There seems to be a gentleman’s agreement among some contemporary political philosophers to pretend that government is something loftier than it actually is – to practice noblesse oblige and to wear white gloves when discussing the nature of the State.
The great political issue of our time is not liberalism versus conservatism, or capitalism versus socialism, but Statism – the belief that government is inherently superior to the citizenry, that progress consists of extending the realm of compulsion, that vesting arbitrary power in government officials will make the people happy – eventually. This was the source of many of Bush’s worst abuses, and it is rapidly become Obama’s Pandora’s Box as well.
What type of entity is the State? Is it a highly efficient, purring engine, like a hovercraft sailing deftly above the lives of ordinary citizens? Or is it a lumbering giant bulldozer that rips open the soil and ends up clear-cutting the lives of people it was created to protect?
The effort to find a political mechanism to force government to serve the people is the modern search for the Holy Grail. No such mechanism has been found, and government power has been relentlessly expanded. Yet, to base political philosophy on the assumption that government is inherently benevolent makes as much sense as basing geography on the assumption that the Earth is flat. Too many political thinkers treat government like some Wizard of Oz, ordaining great things, enunciating high ideals, and symbolizing all that is good in society. However, for political philosophy to have any value, it must begin by pulling back the curtain to bare the nature of the State.
Trusting contemporary governments means dividing humanity into two classes: those who can be trusted with power to run other people’s lives, and those who cannot even be trusted to run their own lives. Modern Leviathans give some people the power to play God with other people’s lives, property, and domestic tranquility. Modern political thinking presumes that restraints are bad for the government but good for the people. The first duty of the citizen is to assume the best of the government, while government officials assume the worst of him.
Nowadays, “democracy” serves mainly as a sheepskin for Leviathan, as a label to delude people into thinking that government’s big teeth will never bite them. Voting has changed from a process by which the citizen controls the government to a process that consecrates the government’s control of the people. Elections have become largely futile exercises to reveal comparative popular contempt for competing professional politicians. The question of who nominally holds the leash has become far more important than whether government is actually leashed.
The ability to push a lever and register a protest once every few years is supposedly all the protection citizens’ liberties need – or deserve. Americans are implicitly taught in government schools that they will be able to control their government, regardless of how large it becomes. But the bigger government grows, the more irrelevant the individual voter becomes. The current theory of democracy is a relic of an era when government was a tiny fraction of its current size. The illusion of majority rule is now the great sanctifier of government abuses — and perhaps the single greatest barrier to people’s understanding the nature of government. No amount of patriotic appeals can hide the growing imbalance between the citizen’s power to bind the government and the government’s power to bind the citizen.
Modern democracy is now largely an over-glorified choice of caretakers and cage-keepers. Are citizens still free after they vote to make themselves wards of the State? Supposedly, as long as citizens are permitted to push the first domino, they are still self-governing – regardless of how many other government dominos subsequently fall on their heads. Democracy is further corrupted by a demagogy that portrays a right to vote as a license to steal.
Faith in the redemptive powers of government permeates contemporary political thinking. “Fairness” has become a bewitching word to lull people to sleep before politicians attach the lat-est “shackle of the month.” The more activities government criminalizes, the fairer society supposedly becomes. The tighter the regulatory thumbscrews are twisted, the higher citizens’ souls presumably rise.
Private citizens have become the moral underclass in the modern State. The values of politicians and bureaucrats are presumably so inherently superior that they have a right to coercively impose them on others, the same way that imperialists in the 1800s forcibly “saved” the backward natives in Africa and Asia. But now, instead of the “white man’s burden,” we have the “bureaucrat’s burden” – consisting of endless Federal Register notices, entrapment schemes, and abusive prosecutions. In practice, justice has become whatever serves the political or bureaucratic needs of the government. Every new definition of fairness becomes another trump card that politicians and bureaucrats play against private citizens. Public- policy disputes routinely degenerate into morality plays in which the government is almost always the “good guy.”
In the 19th century, socialists openly ridiculed the notion of a night-watchman State — a government limited to protecting the rights and safety of citizens. The night-watchman State has long since been junk-heaped, replaced by governments zealous to re-engineer society, control the economy, and save persons from themselves. Unfortunately, rather than a triumph of idealism, we now have highway-robber States – governments in which no asset, no contract, no domain is safe from the fleeting whim of a bevy of politicians. Public policy today is a vast maze of payoffs and kickbacks, tangling everything that the State touches in political intrigue and bureaucratic dependence. Modern societies are increasingly dominated by political money laundering – by politicians commandeering scores of billions of dollars from one group to foist on another group, from one generation to another, or from the general populace to specific occupational groups (such as farmers). And when government defaults on its promises to the citizenry, it is not robbery, but merely sovereign immunity.
Paternalism and Happiness
It was a common saying before the Civil War: “That government is best which governs least.” Nowadays, the rule appears to be “that government is best that penalizes most.” Salvation through increased State power means maximizing the number of swords of Damocles hanging over each citizen’s head — maximizing the number of individual lives that can be destroyed by political edicts and the number of people who can be locked away for possessing prohibited substances — people whose homes and cars and wallets can be seized without proof of wrongdoing, whose children can be taken away from them, who can be barred from using their own land, and whom the government devises pretexts to forcibly disarm.
The Welfare State offers an “under my thumb” recipe for happiness. Paternalism presumes that the path to the citizen’s happiness consists in increasing the number of government restrictions imposed on him and the number of government employees above him. The more power government acquires, the more a symbol of the superiority of some people over others the State becomes. Every expansion of government budgets and statute books is another step towards the nationalization of the pursuit of happiness. While earlier types of government coerced people to keep them in their place, the Welfare State uses coercion to make them happy – in their place. But the success of the Welfare State cannot be measured by the number of citizens who rattle their tin cups when politicians pass by.
The issue is not whether government should or can be abolished; instead, the issue is whether the use of force should be minimized and limited. In the American colonies from the early 1700s onwards, fierce disputes raged between prerogative parties and anti-prerogative parties – between those that favored an expansive interpretation of the king of England’s power and those that sought to restrain or roll back the monarch’s power over colonists. In the future, the grand division in American politics will be between those who champion increased government power and those who demand that government power be slashed.
The notion that governments are inherently entitled to obedience is the most costly entitlement program of them all. Seventeenth-century English philosopher John Locke, who inspired the Founding Fathers, declared, “Tyranny is the exercise of Power beyond Right.” Locke recognized that governments that oppress citizens destroy their own legitimacy. Yet there now seems to be an irrefutable presumption of legitimacy for any exercise of government power not involving genocide or racial discrimination.
Modern political philosophy largely consists of glorifying poorly functioning political machinery — the threats, bribes, and legislative cattle prods by which some people are made to submit to other people. It is a delusion to think of the State as something loftier than all the edicts, penalties, prison sentences, and taxes that it imposes. The rhetoric emitting from the White House, decade in and decade out, usually achieves little more than muddling people’s perceptions of the dangers they face.
Have we transferred to government the rights that we previously condemned in slaveowners? If not, then we must radically reduce the power that some people have captured over everyone else. Merely changing the name of the person residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is no substitute for putting a leash on politicians of all parties.