Childhood Instincts and the Nature of Government

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Previously, I doubted the merits of homeschooling. However, I now believe it may be the best hope for our future. If parents cannot homeschool their children, they should at least do what mine did and teach them to form their own opinions, regardless of what they learn in government schools. If left alone by government, kids will develop a far more realistic understanding of its nature than most American adults. Allow me to explain.

I began having doubts about the nature of government at an early age. When I was about three or four, I remember discussing the military with my mother. I told her that I would never join. She told me I would probably never have to. When I asked what she meant by "probably," she said America had not had a draft since Vietnam and would probably never have another. I responded by saying I would not join, drafted or not. I could not understand why anyone would kill and risk being killed for a cause in which they did not even believe. Mom, somewhat agitated, told me I would understand when I grew older. Not wanting to make her angry, I ended the conversation, still wondering why people would go to war simply because their government said they should. Leaving the country or even going to jail made more sense.

A few years later, I complained about taxes, telling Mom I believed the government was "too dependent" and needed to earn its own money. She laughed, and when I asked why, she said we pay taxes in order to receive services from the government, such as roads. This struck me as odd for two reasons. First, if we pay private businesses for some services (a haircut, for example) why could we not pay them for others as well? Second, I wondered why, if the government was so good at providing services, people consistently complained about its laziness and incompetence. For example, it was popular at that time (and still today) to chastise people for "sitting around like a bunch of state workers." However, being so young, I assumed I simply did not fully understand things and would when I matured.

When I entered grade school I, like every American who attends public school, was forced to learn the Pledge of Allegiance and recite it on a daily basis. Over the years, I began to consider this requirement rather absurd for several reasons. First, I could not understand why children should be forced to pledge allegiance to any government. To me, promising to follow someone anywhere they decide to take you made no sense; they could, after all, lead you over a cliff. I knew that even the "great" American government our teachers expected us to revere had, at times, started pointless wars that killed thousands of its own citizens (even in public schools, you get the impression that Vietnam was a mistake).

Furthermore, it struck me as the same sort of behavior that leaders of "bad" governments, like Iraq, utilized to manipulate their subjects. When I saw thousands of Iraqis cheering while Saddam Hussein fired a pistol into the air, I thought it made little sense for Americans to behave in a similar manner (though admittedly on a smaller scale). Nonetheless, I concluded that something was wrong with me, and I would understand when I grew older.

During the mid and late 1990s, however, I began to wonder just how old I would have to get before I learned the true, benevolent nature of government. I increasingly saw politicians as liars of little or no moral character who say anything to get elected. I reached this view partly because of the endless scandals that plagued the Clinton years, but also because I spent a great deal of time reading history. Seemingly every presidency before Clinton’s had involved a major lie and/or scandal. With George H.W. Bush, there was the infamous "Read my lips: no new taxes" pledge that was suddenly forgotten after the campaign ended. With Reagan, there was the Iran-Contra scandal. Other recent presidents had been serial adulterers (Johnson and Kennedy), broken campaign promises (all of them), and lied the country into war (Johnson in Vietnam, George H.W. Bush in Panama, etc.). Despite all this, however, I still believed that, someday, I would understand why I should be willing, under any circumstances, to kill and be killed for my government.

After September 11, 2001, though, I found that belief even harder to sustain. After the attacks, most Americans pledged unconditional support for President Bush, and Congress passed a bill giving him the authority to take military action against anyone he deemed responsible for the attacks. This blind allegiance, however, struck me as the same behavior that produced the attacks in the first place. It should have been clear to anyone that we had done something to provoke Al Qaeda; nineteen men would not commit suicide, killing thousands in the process, out of mere jealously of our freedoms. Clearly, they had been motivated by America’s seemingly unconditional support for Israel’s violent suppression of the Palestinians, its propping up of brutal dictators, and, most importantly, its frequent interventions in Arab affairs. If America’s willingness to blindly support politicians while they pursued barbaric foreign policies led to September 11, how could we expect an escalation of that support to prevent another September 11? But, I decided that, since I was only a senior in high school, I would learn why I should give complete allegiance to the government at some later date.

Then, my junior year of college, I was lucky enough to have a professor who assigned Albert Jay Nock’s classic essay "Anarchist’s Progress." As I read Nock’s work, I noticed that, as children, Nock and I had remarkably similar interpretations of government. For example, Nock’s boyhood home bordered a political headquarters called the WigWam, and he quickly formed a low opinion of the people who went there. When he asked his parents why, on Election Day, hundreds of drunken, obnoxious buffoons passed their house, they said, with a "disparaging tone," "politics." Later, he noticed that those who seek political office are usually corrupt, incompetent, or both, yet most people think nothing of it and, despite having a low opinion of politics, pledge blind loyalty to the government.

Nock’s essay, which I highly recommend, led me to a startling conclusion. Children, when allowed to think for themselves, form a much more accurate and honest analysis of the nature of government than most adults (who attended government schools). Government schools, for obvious reasons, teach children that government is a benevolent institution that sometimes (though not very often) makes terrible mistakes, such as wasting billions of dollars and killing thousands of its own citizens in a senseless war. These mistakes, however, do not occur because governments are composed of parasites that steal wealth instead of creating it, but because politicians always have our best interests at heart; they just make honest mistakes. In Iraq, for example, the Bush administration just wants to help the Iraqis build a free society like ours; never mind that the Iraqi people reject our definition of freedom. Government schools do not tell children that, during the 1980s, the same people who rail about Saddam’s tyranny today supported him during his worst atrocities.

The behavior of several students at my college during a presentation I gave last semester supports this conclusion. My presentation criticized the war in Iraq, pointing out the fact that the same people who defended the war for humanitarian reasons went out of their way to support Saddam Hussein a little over a decade before. Most of the students had no clue about this crucial aspect of very recent American history. Many did not believe me; they questioned my sources. When I demonstrated that this fact was not even debatable, they responded with the standard patriotic blather about criticizing the government during wartime. No one even bothered to offer a rational critique of my position, and I believe this is because, throughout their lives, they have been taught to uncritically support their government during war, whether they agree with the cause or not.

The key to peace and liberty, then, is to encourage children to form their own opinions, independently of what the government schools and the media teach them. Children have great instincts, often better than adults, and those instincts, if left alone, could prevent America from bankrupting itself and pursuing a policy of endless war.

Andrew Young [send him mail] is a senior history major at Kentucky Wesleyan College in Owensboro, Kentucky.

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