Against Leviathan

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~ H. L. Mencken (Living Philosophies, 1931)

H. L. Mencken would have delighted in Robert Higgs’s crisp and razor-sharp assessment of America’s political evolution, Against Leviathan: Government Power and a Free Society. The American body politic in the early 21st century seems somewhat inexplicable to many classical liberals, traditional conservatives, libertarians and others who appreciate the famous Marxist inquiry (Groucho, not Karl) of "Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?" Higgs, in forty concise chapters focusing on what has really happened in our historical, political and economic evolution as a Republic, ensures not only that we "know" and are no longer ignorant, but hints that Americans may also someday recognize that it is better to be free than to be a slave to the idea of the necessity of a centralized nation-state.

How did America migrate so far from the ideas of the founders, who believed government was a necessary evil to be constantly watched for signs of insincerity and encroachment? How did we change from a people who saw American presidents as presentable representatives abroad and models of moderation in all things governmental, into a people who worship activists from Wilson to Roosevelt to Nixon to Clinton and George W. Bush — each in their own way a national embarrassment abroad and utterly Bacchanalian in all things related to the state?

Higgs explains why this is so, by showing us the historical facts, the rich and widely available evidence of a growing and ravenous state, addicted to an all-it-can-eat diet of American national wealth, productivity and citizens, and the actions of the three prolific cooks in the kitchen — the judiciary, the legislature, and the executive. Whether the cooks are just doing their jobs, or are actually co-dependent with the chief customer and its insatiability, will be a question answered in one way by modern Republicans and Democrats, and another by the rest of the country. That the state has eaten extremely well in the last century will be denied by neither group.

In a particularly helpful way, Higgs explains how our Constitution exists in three realities — the literal paper document, the body of judicial evaluation and rulings accumulated over decades about what it meant to say, and the most important reality — Charles Beard’s idea of a living Constitution, "…what living men and women think it is, recognize as such, carry into action, and obey." In this last incarnation we find hope that it really can be the citizens in a republic who govern. Sadly, the hope Higgs offers in Against Leviathan must be gleaned along the model of the Straussians through the esoteric approach, using a kind of anarcho-libertarian inspired gnosis.

For those of us who have apprehended American history from television and public school texts, Against Leviathan explains political actions beginning the early 20th century in a way that makes real sense and is historically accurate. Specifically, Higgs analyzes various mythologies against econometric data not available or ignored when these story-lines were initially put forth. In particular the idea that World War II got us out of the depression, something I grew up believing without question, is firmly debunked on the basis of hard cold fact. As the irreverent Mencken and Jesus of Nazareth both understood, knowing the truth is remarkably liberating.

The past prepares the way for the future, and it cannot be otherwise. Woodrow Wilson, with a friendly legislature and judiciary, transformed his own electoral pledge to "keep us out of the war" into the classic tease practiced by all centralized states, where "no means yes." The federal government did not go from outlays of less than 2% of the gross national product in 1914 to the modern level of well over 20% without creative approaches towards confiscation and the elimination of citizen resistance, without a "crisis constitution" taking precedence over a "normal constitution." The massive conscription called by Wilson worked hand in hand with the Espionage Act of 1917, and its notorious Sedition Act amendment, to deliver bodies to the state while silencing complaints. Wilson’s dedicated work paved the way legally and intellectually for the New Deal, in both spirit and detail of the governmental excesses, and further paved the way for an American command economy between 1941 and the end of World War II. This militarized society and emerging centralized state led, in turn, predictably and irreversibly into the quasi-corporatist government we both fostered and endured as Americans throughout the Cold War. Today we witness an even more perfect progeny, the never-ending War on Terror.

After their passage and implementation, the 1917 Espionage Act and the 1918 Sedition Act were challenged in the courts as violating the first amendment, among other things. Both were subsequently upheld by the Supreme Court, although they were repealed in 1921, several years after WWI ended. Higgs points out that the Supreme Court has upheld most of emergency powers assumed by the state in post-hoc reviews, and he explains why in a way that is both disturbing and depressing. In part, reversing things like Roosevelt’s confiscation of privately held gold stock and invalidation of all public and private contractual language mentioning gold as a form of payment would have not only embarrassed the federal government, but completely shattered its finances, its authority and its credibility. In other words, had the Supreme Court acted to preserve the amendments to the Constitution that once protected life, liberty, and property, it would have brought down the government completely and chaotically. That several principled and stubborn justices at times came close to doing just that is heartwarming.

Robert Higgs covers a lot of ground in this comprehensive book. A relaxed reading is warranted by all Americans, whether they come to the book embracing the idea an activist state and feeling it is worth the cost, or loathing it as a moral and financial abomination. My favorite sections are those that address the political economy of the Leviathan; Higgs educates, entertains and enrages all at once. But there are at least three topics that are blazingly important to all of us as we consider present day-to-day challenges in our lives and for our families. In this election year, Americans are concerned about health care, crime and national security, and Against Leviathan enlightens on the state’s interest in and influence on all three issues.

The Food and Drug Administration seems a benign example of the Leviathan holding our individual interests foremost. Yet Higgs clearly shows how the FDA not only inhibits and warps scientific research and consumer choice, but is killing people daily with crimes of both commission and omission. Higgs carefully analyzes, with the help of FDA scientists and administrators themselves, the risk analysis conducted prior to every decision of the FDA, decisions that seem to place the needs of politicians and lobbyists as well as scientists and pharmaceutical CEOs over those of actual people who need to purchase drugs and get complete information about their health and their choices. This chapter is entitled in part "A Billy Club Is Not a Substitute for Eyeglasses" indicating that the FDA’s law enforcement agenda has superceded its better health agenda. Frankly, after reading this chapter it is not clear to me that the FDA would understand the metaphor, after decades of steeping in its own brand of moral superiority and bureaucratic infallibility.

In terms of crime and keeping Americans safe, Higgs relates the rise in public security spending with a threefold rise in private security employment and an astronomical rise in the incarceration rate of Americans and prison construction. Clearly, spending more for public safety from crime isn’t working out as planned, although the prison industry emerges as one of the new micro-corporatist entities that provide depth and character to American-style corporatism. Higgs points out that while the private sector has rushed to fill the public safety void left by government policing, government spending in this area grows, unabated by a lack of effectiveness. In a discussion of the military industrial congressional complex elsewhere, Higgs points out how "no failure goes unrewarded" and discusses how industries affixed to various federal teats actually define government requirements instead of responding to them. It appears this condition extends beyond the MICC and into domestic law enforcement and public safety.

In terms of national security, the Leviathan on steroids we have witnessed in our crisis constitution’s one thousand days since 9-11 tells its own story. Higgs, in defining the nature of government growth and the state’s natural-born tendency to infringe upon individual rights of speech, action and property, takes a bit of the mystery out of the Patriot Acts, the Department of Homeland Security, and a bloated federal budget that unguently merges the military state with the police state to make everyone feel better. It was all so predictable, and a unique value of Against Leviathan is its clarification and analysis of how and why government grows, not just that it does.

A weakness in the book may be that while its title suggests we could have a foothold against our Leviathan government, the contents are not as optimistic. Is the black market and a growth in contempt for law a means of rebellion against state controls and restrictions? Sort of, Higgs says, but not really, as these two are mutually dependent. The super-productive peasant gardens in vast barren state collectives in the old Soviet Union worked well in part because the state run collectives were owned by everyone, meaning owned by no one. Thus collective resources of time, effort and supplies were free to be used on individual plots. The mystery was symbiosis. Once the artificial resource flow made possible by collectives was eliminated, the super-productive peasant gardens were likewise changed irrevocably, and we no longer hear of them. What about incremental change? Higgs points out that the Third Way is more of the same, succumbing to the false god of central planning even while lamenting it. Perhaps a major crisis so massive the state would be unable to surmount it could crash the system and relieve us from the Leviathan. Even this is viewed as unlikely, because of the remarkable stability of state interests netted with other interests, whether business or values based. America quasi-corporatism is not fascism, because each industry is not a single actor able to negotiate wholly with the state, or to completely act with the state to pursue this aim or that. Our corporatism is far more fluid and multifaceted, but the Leviathan’s very widespread usefulness to all important political actors and factions makes it remarkably difficult to unseat it or even put it in a lurch. Only the individual is left out of the Leviathan equation, and most of us don’t recognize that crucial reality.

We have been acculturated and miseducated to accept patronizing massive central power and call it a Republic. The benevolence, magnificence and necessity of the nation-state has been preached every day from Washington for the past one hundred years. Robert Higgs aims to correct this dangerous circumstance, and baptize us all with truth. He has succeeded in Against Leviathan. One only wishes that Higgs’ next book will be entitled "Leaving Leviathan: The End of the Affair."

Karen Kwiatkowski [send her mail] is a retired USAF lieutenant colonel, who spent her final four and a half years in uniform working at the Pentagon. She now lives with her freedom-loving family in the Shenandoah Valley, and writes a bi-weekly column on defense issues with a libertarian perspective for She’s voting for Badnarik in November, as a matter of principle.

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