Much has been made of polls showing that American trust in government has increased following the terror attacks on New York and Washington.
On the one hand, the reason for such poll responses makes sense. When fearful of external enemies, who else to turn to but the monopoly provider of defense services? On the other hand, when your monopoly provider has failed to protect you, and thousands are dead, why continue to put your faith in him?
Worse, why put your faith in him when, by his own admission, he is unable to protect the lives of yet more innocents?
John Ashcroft, as well as the FBI and the CIA, have all stated publicly that more terror attacks are not only likely, but nearly certain to occur. This is very bad. As MSNBC reports,
Based on what officials described as credible new information, the FBI and the CIA have assessed the chances of a second attempt to attack the United States as very high, sources said Thursday.
At a briefing Tuesday, in response to a senator’s question about the gravity of the threat, one intelligence official said there is a “100 percent” chance of an attack should the United States strike Afghanistan, according to sources familiar with the briefing.
This is, however, only the tip of the iceberg. So far, we have discussed only a practical reason not to trust the State, namely, the State has declared that it will not be able to protect all of those in its care.
As an aside, this is not an attack on the competence of Tom Ridge, who happens to be a friend of my family, and who is a good man. My father and uncle went to grade school and high school with Ridge, his brother is a prominent criminal defense lawyer where I live, and I happen to belong to the same parish where Ridge grew up. I have had the pleasure of meeting Governor Ridge. Although Ridge himself has declared that further terror attacks are likely, he has also quoted Benjamin Franklin’s statement that those who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.
In short, I have no complaint about Governor Ridge. I have a complaint (well, more than a few) about the federal Leviathan that has promised security and failed to protect innocents. What happens when Tom Ridge is gone from his new office? Imagine an Office of Homeland Security with Hillary Clinton in the White House. And then recall Travelgate and the FBI files scandal, to say nothing of Janet Reno’s record.
Returning to the main argument, in addition to the practical reason not to blindly trust the State, there are sound legal and theoretical reasons not to trust the State to secure your life and property.
First, the legal reason not to put blind faith in government: unless you are in the witness protection program, or the government has undertaken a special duty to protect you in particular, the government has no legal duty to protect you. In the event that you end up beaten or dead, you, your heirs, and loved ones will have no recourse. Consider the following court cases, Chapman v. City of Philadelphia and Warren v. District of Columbia, both decided 20 years ago.
In Chapman, a man was robbed and beaten “on the platform of the Wayne Junction Railroad System.” Chapman, 434 A.2d 753, 754 (Pa. Super. 1981). He later died. The complaint filed by the man’s estate was dismissed. The reason? As the Pennsylvania Superior Court stated,
The duty of the City of Philadelphia to provide police protection is a public one which may not be claimed by an individual unless a special relationship exists between the city and the individual. A special relationship is generally found to exist only in cases in which an individual is exposed to a special danger and the authorities have undertaken the responsibility to provide adequate protection for him…[The plaintiffs] urge this court to proclaim a sweeping duty of protection in the law of tort, far beyond anything any court or indeed our own State legislature has been willing to recognize. Chapman, 434 A.2d 753, 754-55 (Pa. Super. 1981).
In Warren v. District of Columbia, the facts are even more disgusting. As the D.C. Court of Appeals related,
In the early morning hours of March 16, 1975, Carolyn Warren, Joan Taliaferro, and Miriam Douglas were asleep in their rooming house at 1112 Lamont Street, N.W. Warren and Taliaferro shared a room on the third floor of the house; Douglas shared a room on the second floor with her four-year-old daughter. The women were awakened by the sound of the back door being broken down by two men later identified as Marvin Kent and James Morse. The men entered Douglas’ second floor room, where Kent forced Douglas to sodomize him and Morse raped her. Warren, 444 A.2d 1, 2-3 (D.C. App. 1981).
The women called the police, who drove by the house without stopping, then knocked on the door, leaving after five minutes. Recall that the women were upstairs, the criminals were downstairs.
It gets worse. The women who had called the police, having retreated out onto a roof, returned into the house to call the police again. As the court detailed,
Believing the police might be in the house, Warren and Taliaferro called down to Douglas, thereby alerting Kent to their presence. Kent and Morse then forced all three women, at knifepoint, to accompany them to Kent’s apartment. For the next fourteen hours the women were held captive, raped, robbed, beaten, forced to commit sexual acts upon each other, and made to submit to the sexual demands of Kent and Morse. Warren, 444 A.2d at 4 (D.C. App. 1981).
As in Chapman, the D.C. court upheld the dismissal of the victims’ complaints on the grounds of “the fundamental principle that a government and its agents are under no general duty to provide public services, such as police protection, to any particular individual citizen.”
It gets worse, at least in terms of economic theory. As one of the judges wrote,
Courts which have had the opportunity to consider comparable situations have concluded that a request for aid is not in itself sufficient to create a special duty…The creation of direct, personal accountability between each government employee and every member of the community would effectively bring the business of government to a speedy halt, “would dampen the ardor of all but the most resolute, or the most irresponsible in the unflinching discharge of their duties,” and dispatch a new generation of litigants to the courthouses over grievances real and imagined. An enormous amount of public time and money would be consumed in litigation of private claims rather than in bettering the inadequate service which draws the complaints. Unable to pass the risk of litigation costs on to their “clients,” prudent public employees would choose to leave public service. Warren, 444 A.2d at 6 (Memorandum Opinion of Hannon, J.).
The case against monopoly government provision of security cannot be stated more clearly.
As the Pennsylvania Superior Court observed in Chapman, Americans could ask their legislatures to pass new laws creating liability in such cases. Rather than take such steps, the legislatures should instead allow for private police protection. Public safety is too important to be left to a bureaucracy, and should instead be provided by private firms in the market, which would actually provide people with what they want, precisely because they will go out of business if they fail to satisfy their customers. (See Ludwig von Mises, Bureaucracy). The profit motive provides an incentive for performance which tax-funded bureaucracies lack.
Notice that Judge Hannon actually worried that the government would be run out of the security business if it were held legally responsible for failing to protect people. Heaven forbid.
(For the record, Warren was a 4-3 opinion regarding the case of the three women. The dissenting judges found that the calls to the police, and the “specific assurances of police protection,” if proven, could have created a special duty to the victims).
What is the reason for paying taxes to fund the police, you might ask. What, indeed. Why, the duty is to “the public at large,” but no members of “the public” in particular.
By the way, how much has the protection of life and property improved in DC in the 20 years since the Warren decision? Freed from fear of civil liability, have the police, as Judge Hannon wrote, spent their time “bettering the inadequate service?”
In short, if you are relying on the government to protect your life or your property, your trust is misplaced. This is the reason for the rise of gated communities and private security companies, and the reason that politicians and celebrities rely on private bodyguards.
Note: this is not a knock on the men in blue. My family is comprised of a great many police officers, including my cousin, who is NYPD (he has been working on the rescue and clean-up at ground zero, and lost 14 friends at the World Trade Center) and my uncle, who is a chief of police, and former NYPD, and who received a commendation for risking his own life to save people jumping off of bridges.
Also note: the three women were attacked at knifepoint in DC, which has some of the most restrictive gun laws in America. If the government had not disarmed the victims, their terrible ordeal might never have happened.
Contrast the government monopoly on security services with the case of a private insurance company. You buy insurance to protect against a risk. If the risk becomes reality, i.e., if you crash your car, the company is contractually bound to pay you for your loss (depending on fault, etc.). If the company refuses to pay, you can sue it for breach of contract, or for bad faith in dealing with your claim. The net result is that a private company is likely to do a better job of protecting you, especially in a competitive marketplace.
If the government fails to prevent a terrorist attack, however, or to save you when you are being beaten and raped in your own home, you have no recourse. The federal government, allegedly created (at least in part) to protect Americans from external enemies (or, rather, to do a better job of this than the sovereign states), cannot be held legally responsible for failing at the task for which it was created. At most, it can be held politically responsible: its promises of pie-in-the-sky, utopian programs should not be believed, and it should be scaled back to its Constitutional limits, i.e., to those powers enumerated in the Constitution. It should also be scaled back geographically, i.e., the United States should imitate the British devolution of powers to its constituent states (England, Scotland and Wales; Northern Ireland is another story). In the meantime, politicians who fail to deliver on their constitutional promises should be run out of office.
Second, the theoretical reason not to put blind faith in government: the government must seize your property through taxes in order to protect your property (well, somebody’s property among “the public at large”). Notice that the representative nature of American democracy, i.e., the republican form of government, has failed to check the massive growth of taxation, the massive growth of criminality (compare America circa 1950 with America circa 2001), or the breakdown of social order. In other words, the present system has failed to protect your property. Where Americans once paid little taxes, if any, they now pay perhaps 50% in total taxes.
As Professor Hans-Hermann Hoppe argues in his new book Democracy: The God that Failed, it is a necessary feature of monopoly providers of security that they will charge a high price and deliver very little security in return. In other words, if we use the proper principles as our starting point, the current state of American society is exactly what we should expect.
As Joseph Stromberg writes in his review of Hoppe’s book at Mises.org,
Aided by a few certain propositions sometimes confined to a narrow conception of economics, Hoppe seeks the inner logic of political-economic change over time. Thus, we act in a world of scarce resources, and our actions inevitably involve time preference, disutility of labor, and other things grounded in the nature of human action. Two chapters apply these concepts to shed light on the origins of civilization. Development of resources by first appropriators, who exchange goods among themselves, leads over time to falling rates of time preference, and thus to the growth of civilization. To the extent that property is secure, capital accumulation and higher incomes follow, for those participating.
Private property and free trade (liberty and property, for short) are thus the basis of human civilization.
There is a terrible danger posed to civil society and Western civilization by unlimited democracy, and by the monopoly provision of security by the state. As Stromberg continues, quoting Professor Hoppe,
The natural order arising there from calls up feelings of social solidarity, rather than the other way around. He has already noted that democracy, by blurring the distinction between ruler and ruled, lessens people’s ability to grasp the political causes of social breakdown. The functional difference between the state and the public persists (p. 83), yet people dream that they “are the government.”
Here is the problem: “Qua expropriating property protector, a tax-funded protection agency is a contradiction in terms and will inevitably lead to more taxes and less protection…Motivated (as everyone is) by self-interest and the disutility of labor but with the unique power to tax, a government agent’s response will invariably be the same: To maximize expenditures on protection, and conceivably all of a nation’s wealth can be consumed by the cost of protection, and at the same time to minimize the actual production of protection” (pp. 81-82).
Even worse, “the selection of government rulers by means of popular elections makes it practically impossible that any good or harmless person could ever rise to the top” (pp. 89-90). Governments now “protect” us from all manner of hypothetical harms, even from our own bad thoughts, but flagrantly fail to protect “life and property” (p. 89).
The solution? As Stromberg notes,
Hoppe sketches out how people in free societies might organize protection of their lives and property in the absence of states, those paradoxical “expropriating property protectors.” Following up on the work of Molinari, Morris and Linda Tannehill, and Rothbard, he develops a private law model in which private agencies perhaps linked with insurance companies would provide the services that can allegedly only be provided by states.
In short, there is no logical necessity for the status quo. Things can be different, and things can be objectively better.
(Note: this is one of the dividing lines between classical liberals and conservatives, libertarians and neo-conservatives, between Old Right and New Right, between LewRockwell.com and NRO).
Three other items. First, a glimmer of hope amid the predictions of further terror attacks is reported by MSNBC:
One senior official said some of the new intelligence is “very real.” But the official cautioned that some of it may be braggadocio or even intentional disinformation designed to discourage the United States from retaliating for the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington.
Second, it is good to see Charley Reese back in the fray. As a fellow Old Right, League of the South member who enjoys Rebel Yell bourbon, I have missed reading his work since he retired from the Orlando Sentinel. Reese is smart, courageous, and his voice of reason is needed in these dark days. His cautionary article on an Afghan invasion is perhaps the best that I have read to date. As Reese writes,
We have a multibillion-dollar Army, Navy and Air Force. We have a multibillion-dollar intelligence operation. Yet, for about $30,000 worth of flight instruction and maybe another $30,000 in living expenses, these 19 guys killed more than 5,000 of us, caused more than $2 billion in just physical damage and brought the world’s last remaining superpower to a standstill.
Don’t think for one second that there aren’t a lot of terrorists in the world feeling very much encouraged by all of that. That’s why it’s so important to go after them, but saying it is a lot easier than doing it. And nowhere will it be harder than in Afghanistan.
Reese is a seasoned journalist, whose unique turns of phrase go to the heart of the matter. It is good to read him again (objections of Bob Murphy duly noted).
Third, watching the president’s speech in which he declared war on “global terror,” it occurred to me that this would include the Irish Republican Army. This occurred to me because Tony Blair was present, and because several IRA men had recently been apprehended in Colombia (where the US, if it is not careful, may also recreate the disaster of Vietnam). Although I am not surprised to see the “Real IRA” listed on MSNBC among the terrorist organizations whose assets have been frozen by Uncle Sam, I wonder: should Americans be concerned about “mission creep” in their war against “global terror?”
In closing, if Americans are placing more trust in their government for the duration of the war on terror, they ought to consider all that this entails. To quote Professor Hoppe once again, “Qua expropriating property protector, a tax-funded protection agency is a contradiction in terms and will inevitably lead to more taxes and less protection.”
For Further Reading
Ludwig von Mises, Bureaucracy.
Hans-Hermann Hoppe, “The Private Production of Defense” in PDF.
National Rifle Association, “Refuse to Be a Victim” program.
Mr. Dieteman [send him mail] is an attorney in Erie, Pennsylvania, and a PhD candidate in philosophy at The Catholic University of America.
© 2001 David Dieteman