Ten Righteous States

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Or even one?

Can we find ten righteous states? Can we find even one? Can we find a state that does not steal? Can we find one that does not make itself an idol, or one that does not dishonor mothers and fathers? Can we find a state that upholds basic canons of justice?

And if righteousness and justice are concepts that are too arguable for modern man’s skepticism and relativism, then can we find ten states that are benign or benevolent? Can we find even one?

Perhaps there is a Liechtenstein, a Monaco, or a Pacific island nation that qualifies or at least approaches benevolence. I do not know. If there are, they can’t look anything like the United States, California, Burma, Uganda, Russia, or India.

Domestic hegemony

For a state to be both powerful and benevolent in its foreign policies is so very difficult that we may as well say it is impossible. A state that projects power beyond its borders will no doubt use that power to get its way, and its way can’t be the way of those whom it exercises power over or else no power would be needed. But all states have domestic power too, even those that restrain themselves in foreign affairs. Can a state be both powerful and benevolent in its domestic policies? If benevolent foreign hegemony can’t happen, can benevolent domestic hegemony happen? The same logic holds. If power is required over some subjects, they cannot happily be the subject of it or else no power would have been needed. Benevolent domestic hegemony is not possible. It’s like benevolent dictatorship, a myth. There are cases in the business world where someone is trusted and given power, but only so long as she uses that power well and does not abuse it. The "subjects" can revoke it. This is hardly dictatorship. A state with power domestically is highly likely to use that power to get its way. It will not be benevolent much less righteous.

Whatever has made us think otherwise? Whatever has made us think that a one-sidedly powerful institution in our midst will not act powerfully for its own sake and not ours? We probably made the mistake of thinking we could control this center of power. We could vote the rascals out or hold them to their constitutional word. Maybe we even thought that we’d take the risk of creating a potential ruling Goliath because of the beguiling possible gains it would bring of peace, security, and order. Perhaps we were short-sighted. Perhaps we were tricked. We made one or more errors of some sort. The American experiment with state verifies that benevolent domestic hegemony is just as impossible as benevolent global hegemony. And probably only those who mistakenly thought that the state was "good" in the first place could think that the selfsame state would be good when imposed on foreign lands.

It is a most basic error to think that self-interest stops operating inside the hearts and minds of those who operate the state. If the free market’s openness and competition harness that self-interest and turn it to cooperation, we should infer that the closed state without competition turns it to tyranny. The Founding Fathers were suspicious of power, and they tried in the Constitution to mimic the free market (giving them the benefit of doubt). But they knew that keeping a republic would prove an uphill battle. Jefferson knew that establishing rights on a permanent or legal basis would be difficult and that the ultimate guarantees of self-government lay in the minds of those governed.

Domestic insurgencies

The unhampered market maximizes well-being. The unhampered state minimizes well-being. The completely unhampered state is the most complete totalitarian tyranny. States hamper markets and diminish well-being. When citizens hamper and restrain states, they increase well-being.

Attempts at foreign hegemony reduce the well-being of those ruled, if only because they resent foreign rule. They give rise to rebellions and insurgencies in order to restrain and hamper the state. Shackling the other side is a two-way street. Rebellions can be quelled, sometimes by concessions (more freedom) and sometimes by greater suppression. This is the art and skill of emperorship. Over time perhaps, with the education of one or two generations, the empire can change people’s minds, erase old loyalties, buy off the discontented, kill off the more vocal opposition, or even bring an economic improvement. Many things are possible. It is even possible to bring about even greater improvements without the pains and costs of foreign rule.

What about attempts at domestic hegemony? The same theory holds. Our own governments rule us and reduce our well-being. They too give rise to rebellions and insurgencies. Our domestic states also quell them. They then ameliorate the discontented political situation by changing people’s minds (education), shifting loyalties from individual regions and states to the Federal government, buying off the discontented (e.g., intellectuals), killing off the opposition (the Confederacy), etc.

It seems we do not or no longer think in these terms about domestic politics. We do not see these things. We are too close to them. We have been quelled by the means just mentioned. Most of us don’t think of our own central or state governments as interlopers. But they are. America has had its Whiskey Rebellion, its slave rebellions and uprisings (such as Nat Turner’s rebellion and the Black Seminole rebellion), its Great American Rebellion (1861—1865), its many military resistance movements, and its African-American rebellions against segregation. The natives can grow restless even today. Many are.

Basic economics applies. The greater the suppression, the greater the reduction in well-being of those suppressed. Suppression controls the population, but it also increases the benefits of rebellion because the discrepancy between one’s well-being in the suppressed condition and the free condition is enlarged. We can’t predict which effect will predominate, the suppression or the increased tendency to rebel. When we start to see Oklahoma bombings, local militias, underground economies, draft card burnings, secessionary and separatist movements, broadsheets, and radical and dissenting publications, we are seeing the insurgencies and rebellions rising. These and other forms of unrest and peaceful dissent give us clear signals that domestic hegemony is producing opposition.

Are we a rabble?

Are there ten righteous states or even one? If there are, they are far below the radar. The unrighteous ones dominate in numbers, size, and influence. The U.S.A. is among this group. How to bring a corrupt rabble back to good self-government was an enigma to Jefferson: “If Caesar had been as virtuous as he was daring and sagacious, what could he, even in the plenitude of his usurped power, have done to lead his fellow citizens into good government?… If their people indeed had been, like ourselves, enlightened, peaceable, and really free, the answer would be obvious. ‘Restore independence to all your foreign conquests, relieve Italy from the government of the rabble of Rome, consult it as a nation entitled to self-government, and do its will.’ But steeped in corruption, vice and venality, as the whole nation was,… what could even Cicero, Cato, Brutus have done, had it been referred to them to establish a good government for their country?… No government can continue good but under the control of the people; and their people were so demoralized and depraved as to be incapable of exercising a wholesome control. Their reformation then was to be taken up ab incunabulis. Their minds were to be informed by education what is right and what wrong; to be encouraged in habits of virtue and deterred from those of vice by the dread of punishments proportioned, indeed, but irremissible; in all cases, to follow truth as the only safe guide, and to eschew error, which bewilders us in one false consequence after another in endless succession. These are the inculcations necessary to render the people a sure basis for the structure of order and good government. But this would have been an operation of a generation or two at least, within which period would have succeeded many Neros and Commoduses, who would have quashed the whole process. I confess, then, I can neither see what Cicero, Cato and Brutus, united and uncontrolled could have devised to lead their people into good government, nor how this enigma can be solved.” (Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1819.)

The emperors appease the people so that they can rule them. They buy them off with bread and circuses (medical prescription benefits and wars). They do not uplift them and encourage habits of justice. They gradually ruin the people. The people participate in their own downfall. Has the American people by and large been reduced to a Roman rabble? Are we so "demoralized and depraved" that we are no longer able to govern ourselves properly? We are retrogressing to that condition. We are showing signs of it. Jefferson once was able to speak of Americans as "enlightened, peaceable, and really free." We surely cannot say the same today.

Our leaders are surely very far from restoring independence to all our foreign vassals, which is what Jefferson thought would lead Rome back to good government. In fact, they are leading us in the opposite direction. Our leaders are very far from restoring independence in domestic affairs. If the people are not yet a rabble, our leadership, political and intellectual, is steeped in the corruption, vice, and venality that Jefferson spoke of.

Toward self-government

It may be that our challenge is much less than what Jefferson imagined for the Romans of Caesar’s day. He posited finding a way back to "good government." Indeed this would be an immense challenge. I cannot imagine this diverse country with so many interest groups and divisions being ever again able to agree upon a new constitution, and if it did, it would surely be a stultifying monstrosity that did nothing but mirror today’s socialism and tyranny. It would probably read like some of the newer European constitutions. Nor does it seem possible that our states can be reformed piecemeal over time by changing the faces or the laws — not unless there were a wholesale change in how we reach political consensus. This would involve battle after battle after battle over a very long period of time.

But if we imagine instead a different objective, liquidating, voluntarizing, marketizing, or privatizing our states, then we can find a way back to good government much more easily. Only "good government" will be a condition where all the current functions of government are market-based and voluntary. It will not be government as we currently know it. There will be no state and no domestic hegemony. A single objective that is completely understandable to anyone and everyone is far more desirable and far more likely to capture attention and be deemed feasible. That objective is marketizing our states, Federal and local. This provides a clear direction of movement toward freedom.

There is no single blueprint for marketizing our domestic hegemony. Imagine that a company is created that operates the public school system in your district. Shares in the company are issued to all current taxpayers in the district. Imagine that public or any schooling is no longer required by law. A board of directors is elected to run the company. Immediately the incentives change, and the persons elected will probably not be the same ones officiating over the School Board. Of course, this should not be done unless school taxes are simultaneously ended. Private schools now have a better chance to compete and expand against a non-subsidized and non-coerced school system. The latter is forced to compete. It will have to renegotiate teaching contracts, even break the old ones. Tenure rules will change. Many things will change. Parents will have choice and they will have their taxes to make these choices. Parents with school-age children will have to bear all the costs of their children’s educations. But we can expect costs of education to decline. We can expect quality and variety to rise sharply. Perhaps scholarship funds will spring up. Perhaps companies will sponsor students. Perhaps child labor laws will be ended so that children who wish to might combine work and education.

Or imagine that the local police department is marketized by a similar method. It becomes a private company offering protection services to subscribers. Its incentives radically alter, and we can expect far more attention to customers, far more service innovation, far more efficiency, more effective patrols, more effective attention to home security measures and coordination, etc.

If one runs through the list of services and functions that states provide, one is struck by how many of them can be fully privatized, that is, entirely removed from the realm of the state’s lawmaking.

The main alternative to public action back toward a righteous community is private action through private institutions that replace what the state does and hollow it out. It may be easier to accomplish than trying to change public institutions. Tax-exempt institutions like churches, synagogues, and mosques are in the best position to accomplish this. Underground institutions can do the same but with a higher risk of running afoul of the tax authorities.

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

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