Statism, the Greatest Threat

Anthony Freda Illustration

James Bovard
Campaign For Liberty

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 reject the tenets of modern political thinking. We must repudiate the moral presumptions and prerogatives that allow some people to vastly expand their power over other people.

The state has been by far 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.

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.

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 will and dictates.

Welfare-state freedom is based on the illusion that government can financially strip-mine the citizens’ lives without undermining their 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.'” 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 govern- ment nullifies or demolishes the choices that people can make, it effectively confiscates part of their lives.

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