This article was originally published by George Ford Smith at the Mises Institute.
People say the government is corrupt. If it were corrupt, it would be acting in ways contrary and detrimental to its purpose, and it would be possible to right the course. In truth, government acts in ways that befit its nature.
Today’s governments are states ruling by legal coercion. There is another, unacknowledged “government” that works to govern our behavior peacefully, and it’s usually called the free market. But to states, the market—whether free or otherwise—is the farm from which they extract wealth and distribute it according to their perceived needs. States are plundering gangs that wouldn’t exist without something to plunder—a market. But can markets exist without states?
We might never know. States will not step aside—the setup is far too rewarding for those in charge. So, we watch as government runs off the rails in its drunken pursuit of power.
Given this arrangement, how is it possible states can maintain their grip on the minds of its captives? From the perspective of those under its thumb, it is an elaborate, interwoven mix of claims accepted as truths.
Let’s touch on a few.
Captives view everything government does as the fruits of democracy, as if the world around them came into being by free choice at the polls. Democracy is how people believe they maintain their freedom. It’s their check on state power.
Every fourth of July they wave their sparklers in government’s honor, as if today’s rulers were intellectual descendants of the revolutionaries of 1776 rather than the counterrevolutionaries of 1787. Government schools have done their job.
The state watches as some of its captives shoot and rob each other and propose that it’s only right to make it difficult for everyone to acquire guns. The thugs cheer and the crime rate goes up. States feel uncomfortable with their captives owning guns.
Some captives try to stick the Bill of Rights in government’s face. The Bill of Rights is a tourist attraction. Who sweats a document sequestered in the National Archives? Even so, who interprets and enforces the Bill of Rights? Elected stiffs from Woodrow Wilson onward, as well as a few appointed ones, have been telling them the Constitution is alive. In other words, their rights are dead.
Some captives still refer to government officials as their servants. How many politicians have the demeanor of servants? Politicians respect money and votes. Since most voters aren’t organized, it’s the politicians’ rich supporters who help pull the levers of power.
Captives believe it’s only logical that the state should have complete control of the military, police, and courts. What saints do they know personally who could be trusted with such power? And how will the state fund these various functions? Through voluntary trade on the market? Why should it mess with production and exchange when all it has to do is nudge them with a gun? The state is a monopoly of crime, a fact too shameful for them to admit.
Almost all captives complain about high taxes. But the state posts signs to assuage their grief: “Your tax dollars at work.” And it points to the military and its global presence, stirring patriotic fervor. Thus, some captives console themselves with what taxes provide, failing as always to look at the alternatives.
If they’d had better schooling, they might know something about Randolph Bourne, who in 1918 wrote the following:
The modern State is not the rational and intelligent product of modern men desiring to live harmoniously together with security of life, property, and opinion. It is not an organization which has been devised as pragmatic means to a desired social end. All the idealism with which we have been instructed to endow the State is the fruit of our retrospective imaginations. What it does for us in the way of security and benefit of life, it does incidentally as a by-product and development of its original functions.
But the captives, some of them, still have hope for freedom under state rule. They revive the memory of the Gipper, Ronald Reagan, their sole purported savior in recent history, who promised to get government off their backs. He pledged to abolish the departments of energy and education. Somehow it didn’t happen.
And rather than ditch the bankrupt Ponzi scheme called social security, he followed Alan Greenspan’s advice and increased taxes to postpone the bankruptcy. During the Gipper’s eight-year reign, the federal debt almost doubled and civil liberties diminished. Oh, those aching backs.
But wait—many captives point to Abraham Lincoln as a freedom fighter.
Let’s see. No Union lives were lost during the Confederacy’s thirty-six-hour shelling of Fort Sumter, an incident provoked by Lincoln’s ordering the fort reprovisioned instead of abandoned. A month earlier, he had ignored a Confederate peace commission that had traveled to Washington, DC, to negotiate a peaceful secession. But Lincoln had his ‘incident,’ got his war, and some eight hundred thousand people died, including civilians and slaves.
The end of slavery was never Lincoln’s objective, as he repeatedly stated, but rather one of the byproducts Bourne refers to. By 1840, the British Empire had ended slavery peacefully through compensated emancipation. During the nineteenth century, many other countries ended slavery without war. If manumission was Lincoln’s goal, why did the master statesman need a long, bloody war to achieve it?
Lincoln invaded the South to regain lost tariff revenue when the southern states seceded. Lincoln, in other words, murdered and imprisoned people to carry on his policy of predation, also known as Union mercantilism.
Moving ahead a half century, President Woodrow Wilson imposed a maximum twenty-year prison sentence for anyone criticizing the government during World War I. “Civil liberties” were synonymous with treason. “Make the world safe for democracy”? Why not “Make the world safe for freedom”? Why did Wilson ship a million conscripts packed like sardines overseas to join a war that had already killed five million men?
World War II was different—the so-called good war, even if it was the costliest conflict in human history. Civilian deaths outnumbered military deaths by over sixteen million, and total deaths on both sides exceeded seventy-two million. The good war saw the guys in white hats set the precedent for dropping nuclear weapons on mostly civilian populations. Who was being defended when we incinerated two hundred thousand people whose leaders had earlier asked to negotiate a conditional surrender, a condition we ultimately agreed to?
Was the state defending its citizens during the buildup to war when Franklin D. Roosevelt neglected to tell Pearl Harbor commanders Short and Kimmel that an attack was imminent? Twenty-four hundred troops lost their lives in that attack to join a war the president promised we would never join. The man who made the promise had an eight-point provocation plan to get Japan to attack the US.
Did the war in Vietnam stop communism in its tracks and keep other dominoes from falling? The only thing it stopped were the lives of 58,209 American soldiers and several million Vietnamese civilians. And these figures don’t include countless others who suffered and perished from Agent Orange exposure.
Were trillions of dollars in taxes at work on September 11, 2001, defending Americans from terrorist hijackers? And did they get their money’s worth later when the president invaded a country posing no threat to their security and having no connection to the attacks?
They grumble about inflation and never mention its role in the state’s growth and wars. They come out of college believing the Federal Reserve is our top inflation fighter. Ironically, it’s true but only because the Fed is the sole source of inflation. It’s a little like saying Al Capone was Chicago’s top crime fighter. To lower the incidence of crime, all Capone had to do was let up on it.
So, there you have it—the state in a nutshell. It is systematically antifreedom but poses as its defender. And the captives buy it. The only way the captives can eliminate their overlords is with ideology, but the state has the majority of ideologists, both left and right, on its side. They’ll have to educate themselves and enough others to pose a threat, which they’ve been trying since 1576 if not earlier.
You would think freedom would be an easy sell, but it isn’t. We keep trying because we can’t live without it.