Here’s another flash from the past. Freedom in Chains: The Rise of the State and the Demise of the Citizen was hell on my moderate image.
Curious how the intellectual battle lines have shifted in the decade since I wrote this book. I recall some reviewers denouncing me as an extremist for focusing on government abuses such as Waco, Ruby Ridge, asset forfeiture, etc. And now we have torture, Guantanamo, and doctrines that justify laying waste to foreign lands based on mere suspicions of wrongdoing…
I reckon it takes more than positive thinking to assure that the government serves the people.
The history of political thought is the history of the moral evaluation of political power.
—Hans Morgenthau, 1945
Pervasive confusion over the nature of government and freedom has opened the gates to perhaps the greatest, most widespread increase in political power in history. If we are to regain and safeguard our liberty, we must re-examine the tenets of modern political thinking. We must reconsider the moral presumptions and prerogatives that have allowed some people to vastly expand their power over other people.
The State has been by far the largest recipient of intellectual charity in the twentieth century. 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 from 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 times 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. 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 help?
The effort to find a political mechanism to force government to serve the people is the modern search for the Holy Grail. Though no such mechanism has been found, government power has been relentlessly expanded anyhow. 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.
For many politicians and political commentators, government is not the problem; instead, the problem is people who don’t appreciate government or who are insufficiently docile to its commands. President Bill Clinton declared in January 1997 that people can “make [America] better if we will suspend our cynicism” about government and politicians. This is the Peter Pan theory of good government: government would be wonderful if only people would believe that it has magical powers.
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. Congressmen are far more fretful about private gun ownership than about the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) using 54-ton tanks to gas the children of gun owners.
The history of the rise of the idealistic conception of the State is inevitably also the history of the decline of liberty. We cannot put the State on a pedestal without putting the people under the heel of the politician and bureaucrat. To glorify the State is to glorify coercion—the subjugation of some people to other people’s wills and dictates.
The notion of the citizen’s inviolable right to liberty—the underlying principle of the Declaration of Independence—has vanished from the American political landscape. Attorney General Janet Reno, in a 1995 speech vindicating federal actions at Waco, informed a group of federal law enforcement officers, “You are part of a government that has given its people more freedom . . . than any other government in the history of the world.” If freedom is a gift from the government to the people, then government can take freedom away at its pleasure. Reno’s comment epitomizes the shift in American political thinking away from the individual and towards the State as the fount of all good and all rights.
Welfare State freedom is based on the illusion that government can financially strip mine the citizens’ lives without undermining people’s ability to stand on their own two feet. Citizens are assured that dependence on government is the same as self-reliance, only better. Today’s citizen is obliged to find his freedom only in the narrow ruts pre-approved by his bureaucratic overlords. In the name of “freedom,” the citizen is obliged to lower the drawbridges around his own life to any government employee who thinks he knows better.
The Supreme Court declared in a 1988 decision “Servitude means ‘a condition in which a person lacks liberty especially to determine one’s course of action or way of life.’”4 Yet, despite the vast increase in the number of government decrees restricting people’s “course of action or way of life,” there is little recognition of the growing servitude of the American people to the federal government. Lives are made up of choices. Insofar as government confiscates, nullifies, or decimates the choices that people can make, it effectively confiscates part of their lives.
Democracy as Pseudo-Savior
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 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. Does the appearance of someone’s name on a ballot for political office automatically entitle that person to dispose of 38 percent of any voter’s income?
Rather than “government by the people,” we now have Attention Deficit Democracy. Less than half of the voters show up at the polls; less than half of the voters who do show up understand the issues; and politicians themselves are often unaware of what lurks in the bills they vote for. The larger government becomes, the less democratic it will tend to be, simply because people become less able to comprehend and judge the actions of their rulers. The great issue for modern democracy is whether politicians can fool enough of the people enough of the time to continue expanding their power over everyone.
Modern democracy is now largely an overglorified 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. In 1993, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner David Kessler, a regulatory hero among modern Statists, declared, “This morality, this moral glue that binds us together . . . to a great degree comes from the governments that we choose to conduct our affairs. The morality that the best of governments has to offer is what defines us as a nation, what makes us different, for better or for worse, from our neighbors on this planet.” (Kessler resigned a few years later after news reports and controversy over alleged expense account overstatements.) Equating government with righteousness removes all the moral restraints to expanding political power.
“Fairness” has become a bewitching word, to lull people to sleep before politicians attach the latest “shackle-of-the-month.” The more activities are criminalized, 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.”
The Mirage of Paternalism
In the nineteenth 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 reengineer society, control the economy, and save individuals 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.
Like Tom Sawyer persuading his boyhood friends to pay him for the privilege of painting his aunt’s fence, modern politicians expect people to be grateful for the chance to pay for the fetters that government attaches to them. Former congressman James Byrnes warned in 1949 that “an individual will soon be an economic slave pulling an oar in the galley of the State.” Even though the average family now pays more in taxes than it spends for housing, clothing, transportation, and food combined,8 tax burdens are not an issue for the vast majority of American political thinkers.
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 Damocles swords hanging over each citizen’s head— maximizing the number of individual lives that can be destroyed by political edicts, the number of people who can be locked away for possessing prohibited substances, whose homes and cars and wallets can be seized without proof of wrongdoing, whose children can be taken away from their parents, who can be barred from using their own land, and whom the government has 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 actuaries, the more the State becomes a symbol of the superiority of some people over other people. 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. 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 authority 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.
To govern means to control. The question of the proper scope of government power is: “How many activities and behaviors should politicians be permitted to punish?”
Government is force, and we must consider the rightful limits and the moral sanction of that force. Government power is little more than political will enforced by bureaucratic aggression. What does the citizen owe the State? Or, more accurately, what does the citizen owe the politicians and bureaucrats who claim to represent and embody the State? By what metaphysical process does the government become superior to the governed? Does the creation of political machinery automatically void all prior restraints on the interference of one person with another person’s life?
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. This book will take an uncompromising look at the mechanics of political salvation.
Each person has a natural right not to be made a government pawn—a right to sovereignty over his own body, his own life, and his own peaceful actions. As Etienne de la Boetie, a sixteenth-century French thinker, observed, “It is fruitless to argue whether or not liberty is natural, since none can be held in slavery without being wronged.” The challenge is to calculate how far the sovereignty of each person over his own life must be abridged in order to preserve civil peace.
We will begin by seeking a clearer understanding of the nature of the State and of the meaning of freedom. We will then examine how the glorification of government leads to swollen democracies that crash and burn; consider how exalting government corrupts conceptions of justice, fairness, and equity; ask where government’s right to command originates, and how far it extends; and conclude by considering the forgotten blessings of liberty.
Have we transferred to government the rights that we previously condemned in slaveowners? We cannot understand the current system of government without examining the premises upon which it is built and the principles upon which it acts.