Our Enemy, Leviathan

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If one sentiment dominates today’s political discourse and unites the mainstream political punditry and the two major presidential campaigns, it is the belief that government should protect us, serve as our guardian angel, and shield us from all sorts of threats and hazards. Modern conservatives and liberals seem to agree that government should maintain law and order, ensure that our food and water are healthy and uncontaminated, keep illicit drugs off the streets, prevent greedy, profit-thirsty entrepreneurs from exploiting their workers and selling their consumers tainted prescription drugs, provide a "safety net" for the poor and elderly, manage international trade, educate the children, serve as a check on Big Business, and defend us from terrorism. The talking heads might disagree on priorities and methods. Conservatives speak more about government protecting the country’s cultural and moral fabric and defending us from aggressors; liberals are more concerned with economic equality. As a rule, however, Republicans these days favor government intervention in the economy, and Democrats support most government measures implemented in the name of “national security.”

President George Bush recently said at the GOP national convention that "government must take your side," and his party rank-and-file erupted in exuberant applause. Senator John Kerry accuses Bush of betraying working families and failing to "create" enough new jobs. Very few Americans, from the public schoolteachers to the conservative talk radio hosts, have pointed out that perhaps it isn’t the government’s function to create jobs.

More government. That’s what the Republicans have given us, and they promise to continue the trend. More government. That’s what the Democrats propose America needs, but with them in charge. On the fundamental question — the role of government in our everyday lives — there is little disagreement on Capitol Hill, in the national debates, and on the network and cable news channels. More government is the answer.

Liberals might not like all features of the Patriot Act — but they agree that government must have new powers at home to thwart terrorists. Conservatives might resent their tax burden, but rarely do they call for the elimination of any major government programs, the way they used to.

Bush has expanded Head Start and Medicare. Kerry would likely expand the War on Terrorism, if he were to become president. Clinton accelerated the Drug War, Bush the First signed new gun control legislation, Reagan raised the payroll tax to "save" Social Security, Carter assisted the Muhajadeen in Afghanistan, Nixon imposed wage and price controls and created the EPA.

More and more government to protect us from every conceivable threat to our livelihoods, our jobs, our health, our economic welfare, and our security.

In response to all the supposed threats out there, in its declared efforts to maintain stability, economic fairness and safety, the federal government now spends more than two trillion dollars a year. It funds police forces, schools, and charity programs; it regulates industry, prints money, controls international trade and breaks up businesses; it tells us which drugs are bad for us and says we had better listen if we know what’s good for us; it pours money into projects to house the homeless and feed the hungry; it sends Americans abroad to fight foreigners and erects large agencies at home to smooth out the rough edges of capitalism.

But can’t government be a threat, too? Of course it can, and it is. "Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil," as Tom Paine said. Even at its best, it is evil. It is bad.

"In actuality, it is a vast web of deceit and humbug, and not for a good purpose, either," writes Robert Higgs in the introduction of his newest book, Against Leviathan: Government Power and a Free Society (Oakland, CA: The Independent Institute, 2004). "Indeed, its true purposes are reprehensible and its noble claims are false. Its stock in trade is pretense. The velvet glove of its countless claims of benevolence scarcely conceals its iron fist of violence and threats of more violence. It wants to be loved, but it will settle for being feared." (xv)

Strong words. But just how bad is the US government? How arrogant, bloated, expensive, expansive, violent, mismanaged, and destructive has it become? What are the most egregious particulars of the American welfare state, regulatory state, and national security state — what Higgs groups together and calls "Leviathan"?

On every page of Against Leviathan, a brilliantly researched and written, and quite readable, new collection of forty of his essays, studies and book reviews, Higgs shatters political, economic, and historical myths and challenges the most accepted political beliefs in academia and mainstream America. Virtually no major federal program or cherished statist superstition escapes the author’s scathing scrutiny.

In the first several chapters, Higgs takes on the welfare state, attacking its immoral foundations and analyzing its social destructiveness. He forces the reader to question the widely accepted notion that economic equality is necessarily a positive good, and to consider nineteen under-appreciated ways in which income redistribution leads to serious ill consequences, including diminished wealth creation, fewer private charities, and an ever-growing entrenched bureaucratic class and an increasingly dependent welfare-recipient class, both of which provide inertia to an economically and ethically bankrupt welfare system. The country becomes poorer, and the people less individualistic and more desensitized to further encroachments on their freedom. Income redistribution forces money out of the hands that earned it and into government coffers, and while some of this money goes to the poor, a startling amount of it goes to the well-to-do and politically connected. And yet, run-of-the mill welfare statism in America is hardly the worst of the government’s assaults on liberty and the free market; nor is it the one that earns Higgs’s greatest animosity, as the reader soon discovers.

Higgs addresses the many ways that Americans have surrendered their liberty for security, predictably ending up with neither, and nowhere is this more stark than in his analysis of the tyrannical Food and Drug Administration. American pharmaceutical testing policy is to err on the side of not approving safe and effective treatments, rather than to err on the side of approving unsafe or ineffective ones. Higgs explains why the bureaucrats are motivated to err in this tragically lethal manner, and shows that although many tens of thousands of Americans have died due to having been deprived of life-saving medical choices, the FDA has provided absolutely no protection whatsoever: FDA-approved drugs are still a leading cause of death in America. Along with driving up the cost of prescription drugs, the FDA has caused far more premature deaths than it can claim to have saved lives. Even more disgusting, the US government has in recent years pressured countries with more pharmaceutical liberty to adopt America’s lethal standards. Only a decade ago, "Americans had somewhere to seek refuge from intolerably harmful regulation…. Once global regulatory harmonization has been achieved, however, [the] FDA’s victims will have nowhere to run." (80)

Higgs exposes, in several essays, the sickening nature of the U.S. "therapeutic state" — a term coined by libertarian psychiatrist Thomas Szasz. The therapeutic state is embodied quite clearly in the so-called War on Drugs, Higgs argues, showing how it has contributed more than 400,000 inmates to a swelling prison-industrial complex that houses more than two million Americans, made the prison guard union one of the most powerful in the country, and corrupted police officers who use asset forfeiture laws as "a convenient opportunity to supplement their salaries" with seized assets. (98)

Higgs fleshes out an excellent case for economic liberty, comparing the over-regulated labor markets in Europe to the somewhat less over-regulated, and therefore somewhat healthier, ones in the United States, and drawing on lessons from Japan to show that government public works projects inflict great harm on economic prosperity. Against Leviathan contains a number of fascinating international comparisons on taxation levels and economic liberty, giving the American reader at least a bit of relief not to live where economic conditions are even worse, but most of the chapters focus mainly on economic troubles in the United States. Higgs explores in several essays the US mercantilist-quasi-corporatist state, obliterating the case for the Export-Import Bank and showing how Big Government has often bolstered the profits of Big Business through anti-competitive interventions such as antitrust law, regulation and corporate subsidies.

Developing a theme from his earlier book, Crisis and Leviathan (1987), Higgs documents countless cases in which wars have provided major opportunities for the American government to grow. He shows how America’s biggest wars have brought on the most significant increases in taxation and inflation in the nation’s history, as well as the oppressive institution of conscription. Conscription, as Higgs calls it, is "the keystone" to war and Leviathan: "The formula, applied again and again, was quite simple: if it is acceptable to draft men, then it is acceptable to do X, where X is any government violation of individual rights whatsoever. Once the draft has been adopted, then, as Justice Louis Brandeis put it, u2018all bets are off.’" (166) Higgs shows that government has always grown fastest and become most despotic during wartime, and never fully shrinks back to prewar levels. War allows for nationalization of the economy, price controls, an abandonment of many of the Constitutional limits on government that operate during peacetime, and massive corporate welfare, all masked under a façade of necessity, establishing precedents for future government expansion during wars and other "crises." In one chapter, "The Cold War Is Over, but U.S. Preparation for It Continues," Higgs examines a "military-industrial-congressional complex" "replete with foolishness, corruption, and cupidity" that shamelessly wastes resources and grows inexorably on its own inertia (260); in "The Era of Big Government Is Not Over," he reports that the government is still growing, and fast, and offers some scenarios in which it might, one day, decline.

Almost no political sacred cow is spared. Against Leviathan has chapters that take on the New Deal, the Civil War, welfare, regulation, blind egalitarianism, government statistics, central planning, the very notion that "government protects us," and the economic fallacies surrounding "war prosperity," trade deficits, and government "solutions" to national emergencies. Politicians from Franklin Roosevelt to Richard Nixon get the harsh treatment they deserve, and widely embraced statist ideologies from Left and Right fall under Higgs’s unyielding assault.

This book is urgently important. Covering numerous major political issues that rarely receive the attention they demand, and combining meticulous historical research with exciting economic analysis, ornamented by the occasional eloquent polemic, Against Leviathan has something in it for every libertarian as well as for every open-minded, intelligent, and concerned reader who wonders what has made such a mess of American society. Possessing a wealth of facts and historical information you won’t find elsewhere, the book serves well as a comprehensive argument for liberty and against Big Government. Higgs makes it difficult for both conservatives and liberals to continue buying into the false political mythologies that pit them against each other in today’s artificial battle between Left-statism and Right-statism. As we see from reading Higgs, celebrated liberal politicians are as much to blame for diminishing civil liberties as their conservative counterparts, who are likewise as much to blame for Big Government as their nominal adversaries.

Perhaps most fundamentally, Higgs’s new book, like his classic, Crisis and Leviathan, illustrates the connection between crises, real and imaginary, and expanding government. Government’s size and abusiveness toward human rights grow in nearly direct proportion to how scared its subjects become of perennial and episodic threats — be they poverty, economic collapse, predatory capitalists, recreational drug abuse, social instability, or foreign aggressors. This book can help us show the bamboozled masses that, in the end, the threats that government grows to protect us against pale in comparison to the danger of an emerging total state. As the state grows, our property, liberty, and even our lives become sacrificed to the ultimate threat to our well-being — our enemy, Leviathan.

Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He earned his bachelor’s degree in history at UC Berkeley, where he was president of the Cal Libertarians. He is an intern at the Independent Institute and has written for Rational Review, Strike the Root, the Libertarian Enterprise, and Antiwar.com. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.

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