Introduction - Freedom in Chains

Palgrave/St. Martin's Press 1999

"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 20th 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 more noble, more lofty 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 more 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 a lumbering giant grader that rips open the soil and ends up clear-cutting the lives of people it was created to help?

The effort to craft a political mechanism to force government to serve the people is the modern equivalent of the 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. Historian Henry Adams wrote in 1904: "Practical politics consists of ignoring the facts." Unfortunately, much of modern political philosophy also consists of ignoring the hard reality of the nature of government action. Too many political thinkers treat government like some Wizard of Oz behind the curtain, 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 from the wizard - to lay 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" that exists between the public and the politicians. This is the "Peter Pan" theory of good government - that government is not wonderful only because people refuse to believe that government has magical powers. Besides, far greater crimes have been committed in this century by those who were obeying the government than by those who were resisting government power.

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 seek progress by giving 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 modern citizen is to assume the best of the government, while government officials assume the worst of him - to assume that discretion is good for government officials and bad for private citizens - to assume that autonomy is good for bureaucratic fiefdoms but too perilous to permit to property owners. Congressmen are far more fretful about private gun ownership than about the FBI using 54-ton tanks to gas the children of gun owners. And the more the government presumes the citizen is guilty, the more the citizen is supposedly obliged to presume that the government is innocent.

The history of the rise and triumph 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 foot of the politician and bureaucrat. To glorify the State is to implicitly glorify coercion - the subjugation of some people to other people's will and dictate.

The notion of the citizen's inviolable right to liberty - the underlying principle of the Declaration of Independence - has practically vanished from the American political landscape. Attorney General Janet Reno, in a 1995 speech vindicating federal action 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." Reno's portrayal of freedom as a gift from the government epitomizes the shift in American political thinking away from the individual and towards the State as the fount of all good and all rights. If freedom is a gift from the government to the people, then government can take freedom away at its pleasure.

Welfare State freedom is based on the illusion that government can financially strip-mine the citizen's life - and the citizen can still miraculously stand on his own two feet afterwards. Modern political thinkers have assured citizens that dependence on government is the same as self-reliance, except better.

Today's citizen is obliged to find his freedom only in the narrow ruts pre-approved by his bureaucratic overlords. "Risk-free liberty" is the ideal of the Welfare State: citizens are permitted only liberties which have been declawed, defanged, neutered, certified and wrapped in benevolent restrictions. 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.'" 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 a person can make, the government has effectively confiscated part of their lives.

Democracy as Pseudo-Savior

Nowadays, "democracy" serves mainly as a sheepskin for Leviathan - 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 which 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 a citizens' liberties need - or deserve. Americans are implicitly taught in public schools that they will be able to control their government, regardless of how expansive it becomes. But the larger government grows, the more irrelevant the individual voter becomes. The current theory of democracy derives from a time when government was a tiny fraction of its current size - and is practically a parody of modern reality. The illusion of majority rule is now the great sanctifier of government abuses -- and perhaps the single greatest barrier for people truly 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 Congress automatically entitle the person to dispose of 38% of any voters' income??

Rather than "government by the people," we now have Attention Deficit Democracy. Less than half the voters show up at the polls; less than half of the voters who do show up understand the issues; and politicians themselves admit that they often have little or no idea what lurks in the bills they vote upon. 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 in order to continue expanding their power over all the people.

Modern democracy has become largely an overglorified choice of caretakers and cage keepers. We must ask whether citizens are still free after they vote to make themselves wards of the State. Supposedly, as long as the 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. And the demagoguery of many politicians helps many citizens confuse a right to vote with a license to steal.

Nightstick Ethics

Faith in the redemptive powers of government permeates contemporary political thinking.

In 1993, Food and Drug Administration 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 shortly after he was accused of bilking the government with expense account overstatements). Out of this glorification-of-government comes the belief that government should have practically unlimited power, since government is equated with righteousness.

"Fairness" has become a bewitching word, a talisman to lull people's critical faculties before politicians attach the latest "shackle-of-the-month." Modern political thought measures the triumph of good over evil by the number of citizens the government slaps with fines, penalties, and prison sentences-- as if the more activities are criminalized, the fairer society becomes. In a string of Supreme Court cases starting in the 1960s, obscene material was judged by the following test: Did it have socially redeeming value? (This test led to blue movie producers including vignettes of porn stars singing the Star Spangled Banner). However, when it comes to morally evaluating government intervention, no test is required: - intervention is routinely assumed to be automatically morally redeeming.

Private citizens have become the moral underclass in the modern State. The values of politicians and bureaucrats are presumably so inherently superior to those that they have a right to coercively impose them on others -- the same way that imperialists in the 1800s forcibly imposed their values on 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 aiming to maximize submission to the government. 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 can 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, socialist thinkers openly ridiculed the notion of a Night Watchman State - of a government limited to protecting the rights and safety of citizens. The Night Watchman State is long since 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. The government can now claim the benefit of the doubt when it seizes a person's car, batters down a person's front door, roams without a warrant over a person's land, and nullifies its contracts with a business. Public policy today is a vast maze of payoffs and kickbacks, tangling everything which 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 and foisting it on another group, from one generation to another, from the general populace to one specific occupational group (such as farmers). And when government defaults on its promises to the citizenry, it is not a question of "robbery" - but merely of "sovereign immunity."

Contemporary paternalism largely consists of forcing the individual to pay the salary of his own social jailkeeper. 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. James Byrne, president of the University of Chicago, warned in 1949 that, with the growth of government power and taxation, "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, and food, tax burdens are not an issue for the vast majority of American political thinkers.

To call contemporary governments "welfare states" is an oxymoron. The so-called Welfare State advances either by seizing more of people's paychecks or by punishing more of their actions. It was a common saying before the Civil War: "That government is best which governs least." Nowadays, the rule of thumb appears to be: that government is best which penalizes most. Salvation through increased State power means maximizing the number of Damocles swords hanging over each citizens' head - maximizing the number of individual lives that can be destroyed as a result of political edicts -- the number of people who can be locked away for "mandatory minimum" violations, the number of people whose homes and boats and wallets can be seized, the number of children who can be taken away from their parents, the number of people can be prevented from using their own land, and the number of people who 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. 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.

The Paternalist State maximizes the power of politicians and bureaucrats to punish citizens for failing to follow their selfinterest, as defined by politicians and bureaucrats. But the more power government acquires to protect people from themselves, the less able people are to retain any control over government.

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 antiprerogative parties - between those that favored an expansive interpretation of the King of England's power and those who 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 reduced or minimized.

The notion that government is 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 irrebuttable presumption of legitimacy to any exercise of government power not involving genocide or racial discrimination.

To govern means to control. Government, in practical terms, is largely a question of how some people acquire the right, power, and prerogative to control other people. The question of "how much government?" is largely "how much power should some people possess to control other people?" The question of the proper scope of government power is simply: "How many activities and behaviors should politicians be permitted to punish?"

Government is force, and we must determine 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? i.e., 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?

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; examine how putting government on a pedestal has fundamentally changed conceptions of justice, fairness, and equity; examine where government's right to command originates, and how far it extends; and conclude by reconsidering the forgotten blessings of liberty.

Modern political philosophy consists largely of glorifying poorly functioning political machinery - the threats, bribes, and legislative cattle-prods by which some people are made to submit.to other people. What are the political and bureaucratic mechanics through which idealistic goals are supposed to be achieved? It is a delusion to think of the State as a thing in itself - something loftier than all the edicts, penalties, prison sentences, and taxes that it imposes. Throughout this book, we shall focus on exactly how politicians and bureaucrats propose to save people from themselves. We shall take an uncompromising look at the mechanics of political salvation.

So much of political thought throughout history has consisted of concocting reasons why people have a duty to be tame animals in politicians' cages. "The mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God," as Thomas Jefferson declared. Each citizen has a natural right not to be made a government pawn. Does whether a person was born to submit or born to rule depend solely on whether he attended night school and received a Masters of Public Administration?

Each person begins with sovereignty over his own life, his own body, and his own talent. As Etienne de la Boettie, 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." Since the citizen is not born as property of some other group or bureaucracy or tinhorn dictator he owns himself - and thus has a right to run his own life, take his chances, and reap his own harvest. The challenge is to calculate how far the sovereignty of each person over their own life must be abridged in order to preserve civil peace.

Politicians and bureaucrats understand how to advance their own power far better than citizens understand how to defend their rights and liberties. Clear thinking is the first line of defense for individual liberty. Americans need a concept of freedom that does not intellectually disarm the citizen in the face of the State. A good definition of liberty should provide a barricade behind which a person can stand - as well as draw a line in the sand which 10,000 enforcement agents are not allowed to cross.

Have we transferred to government the rights that we previously condemned in slaveowners? We cannot understand the current system of government without examining the intellectual premises upon which it is built. We cannot understand present problems without again asking the burning questions that occupied the Founding Fathers in the era when this nation was born.