The notion that government protects us, that if we only trust it with the right powers and enough resources, it can shield us from the dangers of life, underlies every statist argument for every government program. Some people focus on laws to protect us from inequality, economic instability, and greedy forces in the business world. Others are more enamored with government programs to protect society from what they see as pernicious cultural influences. Behind every state activity, there is the propaganda that whatever problems might arise as a result of it, the dangers, threats or evils that it preempts would be worse.
It seems fitting, then, to ask whether government does protect us — whether it does prevent civilization from falling into catastrophe. In the long run, the moral argument against the state — that taxation is theft, theft is aggression, aggression is wrong, and the state is inherently aggressive — is the one that will most chip away at statist culture. But in the short term, it is urgently crucial to explain that, even if one allows exceptions to basic morality for the state’s operations, those operations do not really protect us from the perils of the world. The state is not our salvation — not from predatory corporations, not from undesirable counter-cultural elements, not from an alternative reality that has the old and infirmed dying in the streets, their diseased corpses contaminating the unregulated drinking water.
The most agreed upon function of the state is the defense of life and liberty against foreign and domestic aggressors. There is near universal approval of the government’s maintenance of a standing military and a robust criminal justice system at home to keep the domestic peace. If it could be shown that the state does not even fulfill its most elementary and stipulated role in making us safer from violence, much of society’s statism would dissolve and, having lost much of its express and tacit consent among the people, the state itself would accordingly wither away, or at least shrink a good deal.
It follows, then, that one of the key tasks of the libertarian is to demonstrate how the state does not in fact protect us from actual violence. It is not the state that has allowed for a relatively civil society. It is not primarily the state that keeps the rapists and murderers and robbers from running rampant. It is surely not the state that protects us from terrorists — for its foreign policy over the last half-century could have scarcely been better designed if its sole purpose had been to promote terrorism.
Now, many a libertarian might object that I am going too far. Libertarians all oppose government protecting us from our own stupidity, indiscretions and bad investments — it is all well and good to demystify public schools and Social Security — but it would appear that I am imprudently deriding the lone government function that even libertarians concede as proper: the defense of life, liberty and property against violence. However, any perceptive libertarian, even if he believes in a limited role for the state, can agree that, as of now, the state is not protecting us on balance, even in the ways some of us might tolerate.
By acknowledging that the state not only takes on many tasks that libertarians do not favor but also fails to protect life and liberty as much as some of us might want, we see that the state is simply not the source of our freedom and security. This realization will help us avoid all the pitfalls of conservative "limited" government — especially the warmongering and affinity to the police state.
Consider violent street crime. We owe civil society to the market, community, family, property rights, private security firms and agents, private ownership of firearms, and a widely if not consistently upheld ethical tradition of natural law that has been taught and learned and shared and cultivated and refined for thousands of years. The common law itself developed chiefly from market transactions and spontaneously emerging community standards, not from the state; the state merely absorbed and co-opted law as it has so many other functions of the market and civil exchange.
In the hardly policed setting of the so-called Wild West, contrary to Hollywood portrayals, the towns regulated themselves and violent crime was much less pervasive than in the cities today. City police forces, as we know them, are largely a 20th century phenomenon — to a great extent an outgrowth of the Progressive Era. The prison system, too, is quite unique to modern America, having no counterpart comparable in size throughout history or the world, unless you want to count concentration camps and Gulags. Whatever one might think of the proper role of domestic government, the prison establishment, as it exists, is an outrage, a holding cell for everyone that the system deems unfit for the streets for one reason or another, a factory that turns minor criminals into serious ones all while subjecting hundreds of thousands to rape and abuse by their more vicious cellmates.
As for the actual street crime, we can blame at least half of it on the state and especially its crusades against victimless crime. More fundamental (and usually ignored) is the fact that the streets themselves and all the crime on them represent a tragedy of the commons. Depoliticizing common space, turning it over to private and community ownership, would go a long way in reversing the problem of crime on the socialist street corners.
First the state steals our resources — wealth we could have used to defend ourselves. Then it uses the loot to undermine our private property rights in every conceivable way. On top of the state muddling everything up with its "public property" — which really just means "owned by the government" — it has also fabricated the designation of "commercial property," a class of property heavily regulated by the state but maintained by private owners, much more fitting of a fascist nation than anything resembling a free society. The human right to freely associate and exclude has long been supplanted by a confused and draconian web of "Civil Rights" legislation — an incoherent mix of political egalitarianism in the public sphere and, most conspicuously, positivist claims on other people’s private property. This undermining of private ownership has struck brutishly at the core of civil society. Even as the state claims to protect private property from invasion, it uses the resources that it has swindled to enforce its authoritarian edicts upon the property it has left untaken.
To add injury to injury, the state has used a large fraction of our resources to prop up violent black markets and subsidize gang warfare, most notably through its war on drugs. Dispense with any ambivalence toward the hazards of this ignoble experiment; its evils could hardly be exaggerated. Your home is now as prone to be invaded by battle rifle—wielding anti-drug storm troopers with the wrong address on their rubberstamped search warrants — assuming they even bothered with such a formality on that given day — as by freelance thugs. The drug war is a direct cause of crime, since the entire enterprise is a criminal racket ripe with theft, wrongful kidnapping, extortion and the occasional murder. Compound all the crime and domestic turmoil both directly and indirectly caused by the drug war, and we see that it has done more to tear America asunder than almost any other homegrown malady since the Civil War. Only the rapidly expanding war on terror and general militarization of America’s police threaten to compare in destructiveness.
Meanwhile, the cultural morality of America, which is the true safeguard against criminality, has been undermined steadily by the corrosive welfare state, which finances and encourages the exact irresponsible behavior that it is claimed to be combating; the regulatory state, whose destruction of fruitful economic opportunities for the poor only worsens the problem; the warfare state, which upholds "might makes right" as the country’s implicit ethical credo for all private criminals to emulate; the police state, which similarly exemplifies aggression as a socially legitimate means to an end; and public "education," which has succeeded like nothing else in socializing and nationalizing the minds of America’s future voters and taxpayers, stamping out their individuality and discouraging honest, productive work in every last thing that it does.
And then the state has the audacity to disarm us, making those of us who follow the law that much more defenseless against the political class’s lesser soul mates, those violent private criminals that terrorize the streets and rob denizens of the money that the politicians didn’t get to first.
It might be objected that while all this state activity makes us less safe, overall the police and courts and prisons protect us and prevent true disaster. This is hogwash.
We should always remember that the state does not regard any of us as having a right to police protection. In 1982, in Bowers v. DeVito, the Seventh Circuit Court found that
". . . there is no constitutional right to be protected by the state against being murdered by criminals or madmen. It is monstrous if the state fails to protect its residents against such predators but it does not violate the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment or, we suppose, any other provision of the Constitution. The Constitution is a charter of negative liberties; it tells the state to let people alone; it does not require the federal government or the state to provide services, even so elementary a service as maintaining law and order.u201D
This is a coherent position, actually, since there can be no positive right to anything for which someone else has to pay. It’s a shame that the government does not seem to have this strictly anarcho-libertarian attitude toward such things as public "education" and other "services" it provides.
The state acts consistently with the principle laid out in Bowers. Whenever civil order deteriorates, we see just how much the government comes to the rescue. During the L.A. riots, the police pulled out of whole neighborhoods, leaving merchants and tenants to fend for themselves. Thankfully, many small business-owners were at least left free by the state to protect their lives and property with "assault rifles" — weapons that would soon be made illegal. On the day of the Columbine shootings, which of course occurred in a federally-mandated "gun-free zone," there was a mysterious period of a couple hours during which the SWAT teams failed to storm in with all their personnel and search the entire school, even as a sign placed in the window by a student alerted the onlookers that someone inside was bleeding to death. During the Washington, D.C., sniper shootings in 2002, federal and local investigators got bogged down in politically correct racial profiling and general incompetence and so didn’t even follow up on multiple leads that fell right into their laps; only the private-sector media finally put an end to the terror by publicizing the killers’ vehicle information and making it impossible for the government to continue dragging its feet. In the aftermath of Katrina, all the government could do to restore order was to force people into densely packed buildings, issue orders to shoot the recalcitrant on sight, and disarm the native population of their only real defense against criminals. We see in Iraq the abject failure of the U.S. to maintain order in a country where civilization has been destroyed by the governmental evils of tyranny, war, sanctions, bombings, and military occupation — and yet many still think that government is all that’s preventing the relatively civil American society from falling into similar disorder.
Foreign policy is just another example of government’s failure to protect us. None of the government’s multi-billion-dollar weaponry, its imperial foreign bases, its aircraft carriers and thousands of nuclear bombs could defend the 3,000 Americans who lost their lives to a handful of fanatics with enough crazed determination and a few dollars worth of box-cutters. The ridiculous and horrifying military industrial complex offers no real protection against terrorism. Nothing that it is doing can stop another attack. The U.S. government’s diplomatic and military policy is not defense at all, and only puts us in great danger by inciting half the world to hatred and resentment and making the other half uneasy about being friends.
The state is a protection racket, not much different in kind from any organized crime syndicate. Just as the state fails in its ancillary functions, such as schooling and caring for the poor, so does it fail in its advertised primary function as an institution of protection. That’s why it’s a racket. That’s why it’s a fraud.
Even if one thinks the state can be set up so as to protect people’s rights more than it abuses them, a libertarian should probably look at the current situation and conclude that the state does not, in fact, protect us on balance. As it now stands, we’d be safer without the government’s cops or its soldiers, especially if the lion’s share of the state apparatus were brought down, its wholly inimical functions eliminated and its few desirable ones privatized. The state now seizes about half the wealth in the country. Does it not seem odd that the organization claiming to protect our lives and livelihoods needs to expropriate an entire half of our resources to do so? And what is it protecting us from, again? Could private criminals on their own really steal the trillions of dollars in wealth consumed annually by the bureaucracy, kidnap as many innocents as the police state, and kill as many as the federal war machine? To ask the question is to answer it.
Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He is a research analyst at the Independent Institute. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.