Words That Enslave

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Need and necessity

With respect to the State’s ends and means, a friend has pointed out to me the quotation of William Pitt ("The Younger") as follows: "Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves."

Mr. Pitt knew whereof he spoke, having introduced as wartime measures the suspension of habeas corpus, a heavy stamp tax on newspapers to stifle dissent, and a graduated income tax.

Necessity speaks of an end that justifies and brings on a means that infringes life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In our day the word "need" is substituted for "necessity" with the same result. When a politician speaks of needs, which is often, surely you hear the words of a tyrant.

President Bush: "We need to act now to fix Social Security permanently." Senator Kennedy: "Never has the need for veterinary medicine been greater." Senator Biden on the "rail security system": "We need to close these loopholes before terrorists exploit them." These false rulers divine our needs and promise deliverance from them that does not lie within their power, as they have nothing to give us but what they take from us. "For the idols speak delusion; The diviners envision lies, And tell false dreams; They comfort in vain." Zechariah 10.

A political need is the seduction of a tyrant’s tongue. It sways the listener to gain sympathy. When Congress acts upon these fake needs, it takes and wastes, constrains and meddles; it tyrannizes. Social Security can be fixed by phasing it out, whereupon miraculously people will learn to plan for their futures.

Most needs that politicians talk about are not rain, sun, air, and companionship, not necessities. And when they promise necessaries like fish and bread, can they deliver them? From whence? The needs they speak of are mostly wants. They are demands. The need to close rail security loopholes and the need for veterinary medicine are demands for costly goods. The needs for shelter and health care in old age are demands for goods. If the State directs spending onto them, then some other goods must be given up that people want. These goods that are given up or sacrificed are usually more valuable than what the State gets for us, because the State can’t rationally make decisions for a collection of individuals whose personal valuations of goods vary.

To ask a State to satisfy needs, as articulated by elected officials, is to get waste and squandering, dissipation of wealth, and greater unhappiness and frustration. It is to become lazy and greedy, to demand that others care for us. Such supplication is not only nonsensical superstition but also self-destruction.

How do we meet demands? In the ordinary, old-fashioned ways. Work, planning, saving, help, aid, cooperation, churches, religious organizations, charities, inheritance, gifts, family, insurance, neighborliness, etc. But not by the misapplied force of the State.

Velvet words of tyrants

Vice-President Cheney uses "need" in triplicate: Listen to him explaining to Wolf Blitzer that world opinion holding China in higher regard than America can be ignored: "I, frankly, don’t spend a lot of time, Wolf, reading polls." And: "I think we need to be guided by our principles. I think we need to make firm decisions about what we need to do and carry through and do those."

Ponder his words. Louis Quatorze made it clear to the Parlement de Paris who was boss: "L’etat, c’est moi." With democratic tyrants, the familiarity of their speech lulls the rational mind. We require translation.

What the Vice-President said sounds entirely sensible. Shouldn’t we all follow principles, make up our minds, and follow through? Yes, such a process has merits that are easy to endorse, although there are other ways to behave that involve experimentation, trying different paths, trial and error, playing around, and dropping paths that do not pan out. However, his comments are irksome and deceptive. They bear dissecting. What can possibly be wrong with what he is saying? The key is this. His words are spoken in a political context of rulership. That greatly changes their meaning.

What is right and works for you and me as individuals is not the same thing as when rulers speak for us. We as individuals freely decide on principles and actions. They as rulers choose the principles and then make us do things we do not want to do. However, they make it sound as if we, not they, have made the decision and acted upon it.

What Cheney means is you the underlings do the heavy lifting ("we need to do and carry through.") He after all is not paying and fighting. We will do what he says; "guided by our principles" means guided by his principles because he is making the decisions. The phrase "we need to make firm decisions" means that he will decide once and for all no matter what we think or what subsequent events occur. This is called leadership. It is tyranny.

To understand a man like Cheney is not all that easy, but it’s not impossible. His speech identifies himself with us or with "we the people." That is why he is "Dick" Cheney, not Richard Cheney, why William Clinton is "Bill," and why Ms. Rice is "Condi." They are one of us. Like Louis XIV, Cheney is the State, but with an important democratic addition: the State is all of us in his mind. So he shifts back and forth between we and I all day long and is never bothered by what he is saying. Neither are we, for we drink in his deceptions. We do not have to tell him what we need, because he already knows, since he is us. If we are told what to do, that is no different from him telling himself what to do. He is Big Brother.

Must

President Johnson preferred the word "must" to need or necessity. In his Inaugural Address, the word "must" appears nine times. Here are seven of them:"Families must not live in hopeless poverty…children just must not go hungry…neighbors must not suffer and die unattended…young people must be taught to read and write…We must work to provide the knowledge and the surroundings which can enlarge the possibilities of every citizen…If American lives must end, and American treasure be spilled, in countries we barely know, that is the price that change has demanded of conviction and our enduring covenant…Each of us must find a way to advance the purpose of the Nation." If you wish to view twice as many "musts," then look at any of President Bush’s State of the Union addresses.

Like the words of Cheney, LBJ’s words are unobjectionable as views put forward by individuals. If you or I said them, they would be designed to persuade others of our values and moral convictions. (I do not refer to the content of these views.) When a President says them, they mean something altogether different. They mean that rulers will decide all these matters in our stead. Then I strongly object. Poverty, hunger, suffering, death, education, advancing the Nation’s purpose — by what right do the President, the Congress, or any man or group of men speak for the individual on such matters? None, not in morality, not through election, not Constitutionally. For morally these are personal matters of choice.

If the rulers do possess such a right in all these matters, then it follows that everything affecting one’s life and liberty lies within their authority if they so choose. What freedom we have is by their let. To think one is free under these conditions is illusion.

A digression on Vietnam

It may be held that no objection can be made to LBJ.’s statement that "American lives must end" in countries barely known, since the Constitution gives the Congress the power to declare war. In this case the Vietnam War had officially begun a few months earlier, in August, 1964, as a result of the Gulf of Tonkin incident and the subsequent Congressional Resolution. This incident was a pretext for full-scale war and spurred on by a program of covert U.S. raids on North Vietnam.

However, U.S. interference in Vietnam traces back to 1954. The "non-election" of Vietnam in 1956 brought about the military invasion by the Viet Minh that eventually led to large-scale U.S. involvement.

In 1955 the U.S. entered into the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty, along with Thailand, the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand, France, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom. The treaty defined a "treaty area" that included "the general area of Southeast Asia," not just the territories of the signatories. This was part of the legalism that allowed the U.S. entry of armed forces.

Anti-communism was the accepted and popular end of the American State that brought about the Vietnam War. I state the obvious but amazing fact that Americans felt justified in trying to prevent the unification of Vietnam by strong nationalist-communist forces against a weak and corrupt regime. If American security is conceived to depend on the politics of distant nations like Vietnam, then actions in far-flung places like Kosovo and Iraq are simply part of a deep-set pattern. This pattern is not only faulty and mistaken but near-delusional and paranoid.

I also state the amazing fact that such actions are accepted as Constitutional. This means that the war-making power lodged in the American state is vast indeed and knows almost no bounds. The war-making power represents a huge error on the part of the Founding Fathers that we are still paying for. The U.S. Constitution does not delimit what wars are proper and what wars are not. It does not control a population that often thirsts for war. It does not control the incentives of industries that profit from war. The division of war-making power between Congress and the Executive, and the bi-annual re-election of the Congress have proven to be no bulwarks against calamitous war-making.

It is hard to imagine that anarchic self-government with competing defense agencies can produce any worse results than the blank check written to our rulers that we have now.

Promises

We come to the most common currency of today’s candidates and officeholders — the promise.

For perspective, one might profitably read Grover Cleveland’s First and Second Inaugural Addresses. At that point in time, the general welfare or public interest was narrowly understood by Cleveland to exclude "paternalism," "bounties and subsidies," "wild and reckless pension expenditures," and public expenditures that were not for "public necessity." Government functions "do not include the support of the people." He expected "the surrender or postponement of private interests and the abandonment of local advantages."

Tony Blair’s campaign speech last year exemplifies today’s rhetoric of the promise, today’s construction of what the general welfare means. Blair makes 10 promises, each of which contains several sub-promises. A brief sampling: "All patients able to choose their hospital, to book the time and date for treatment…Maximum waiting times down from 18 months to 18 weeks." Welcome to England’s National Health Service. "Universal, affordable and flexible childcare for the parents of all three — 14-year-olds who want it from 8am in the morning to six at night."

President Bush promised us "research funding…for clean, hydrogen-powered automobiles"and a new program to help "300,000 Americans" with drug problems. Maybe he was keeping up with Blair’s promise of "300,000 Modern Apprenticeships at the workplace." Also not to be outdone by Blair’s health initiatives, the President promised "$400 billion over the next decade to reform and strengthen Medicare."

We are used to hearing these many promises. They no longer shock and dismay. Many of us ignore them. Their meaning is lost to us after awhile. Yet we are living through an era of incredible disruption and twisting of normal patterns of life that date back thousands of years. In a number of years from 1934 onwards my mother chose her hospital, booked her own time and date of treatment and didn’t have to wait 18 months, 18 weeks or even 18 days. Doctors came to our living place in the 1940’s to treat us. Hospital bills were moderate. Mary bore Jesus without Medicare and cared for Him herself. If today’s parents cannot take care of a child or find a babysitter, traditional activities of the human race, then the once-commonplace has become the exception. The causes of this turmoil in everyday life trace back to the State’s multiple interferences.

A political consequence

The general welfare of Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution today includes everything: all the things we are said to need, all the things that are told are necessary, all that is promised, and more yet. The distinction between private and public interests has been all but lost. No American Constitution and probably most others in the world can mention welfare as an end without encountering this expansive view that justifies unimaginable intrusions into private life.

One direct result of the all-inclusive notion of the general welfare is that every politician has an incentive to shape campaign promises that build up a winning coalition of votes and that provide campaign funds from special interest groups. Every member of Congress has an incentive to jockey for committee assignments that bring in the most campaign money from those seeking to influence votes. With reasonable ability at playing the system, an incumbent can amass a war chest that prevents a challenger from running much of a race. It also now pays constituents to elect experienced representatives who know how to play the game and get their districts their share of the booty. The net outcome: turnover of Congressmen falls. Consequently, the ease of getting re-elected results in no member of Congress having an incentive to reverse the notion that the general welfare should include everything.

From one change in interpretation, from this expansive notion of what are acceptable ends of the State has flowed a remarkable political result: a Congress whose members seek and get term after term after term. The turnover rate of members has fallen drastically as the welfare State has enlarged.

Congress has the power to lay and collect taxes to provide for the "general Welfare of the United States." These are the innocent-sounding words that enslave.

Michael S. Rozeff [send him mail] is the Louis M. Jacobs Professor of Finance at University at Buffalo.

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