Left and Right: Peas in a Pod

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Whatever other problems mainstream conservatives have these days, the most pronounced is what we might call their readiness to hysteria.

To wit: just launch a military offensive, justifying it however you like — on behalf of national security, the liberation of an oppressed people, simple revenge, whatever — and they’ll promptly leap to its defense. Everyone who supports the mission will be a great patriot, while opponents should be censored, jailed, or even executed. (Those people are probably in league with the terrorists anyway.) Certainly anyone who believes in alternatives to large-scale violence will be dismissed as a deluded idealist who lacks the realism that our dangerous world demands. All too many conservatives will readily believe and defend the stupidest, crudest propaganda and sloganeering, and launch crazed attacks on people telling what later (and inevitably) turns out to be the truth.

Yet so-called progressives aren’t much better. Except with them you simply need to say something is in the public interest, and that it helps restrain all the bad guys who would otherwise prey upon the public. Everyone who supports the government’s regulatory mission will be a great citizen — civic minded, responsible, unselfish. Anyone who doesn’t buy the official propaganda will be marginalized and ignored. (Those people are probably in league with big business anyway.) Certainly anyone who thinks alternatives exist to large-scale violence — after all, the state gets what it wants thanks to its power to threaten imprisonment and expropriation — will be dismissed as a deluded idealist who lacks the realism that our dangerous world demands. They’ll readily believe the dumbest sloganeering about the public sector and all its alleged contributions to our standard of living.

What they think they know, since they learned it in school, is that life was unbearably awful before the days of multi-trillion dollar federal budgets. People were poor, worked long hours, and had much less living space than they do today. "Monopolies" dominated the economy and exploited worker and consumer alike. Without the modern regulatory apparatus, everything was poisonous and unsafe. You don’t need me to continue, since this is what all of us got in school.

That people might have been impoverished because no other outcome was technically or even logically possible in a capital-starved economy is not even considered, if indeed it is even understood. That it is an unusual group of "monopolies" whose prices fell several times faster than did prices elsewhere in the economy is unknown and thus not mentioned. That the private sector alternative to the 80,000 pages of government regulation in the Federal Register might be something other than caveat emptor and every man for himself is simply never entertained.

The state only wishes all its citizens could be this servile. In weaving their apologias on the state’s behalf, so-called progressives — how that misleading term grates on me — are playing exactly the role the state seeks from them: legitimizing state behavior in the minds of the public. Their lack of curiosity about non-statist solutions and approaches — they show little interest in finding out how people managed their affairs in the days before the New Deal, for instance — is also a plus. All the easier to portray the past as unbearable, and the state as savior.

Of course, American history affords us no examples of pre-New Deal Americans climbing over the corpses of children and the elderly on their way to work, so presumably something was being done to care for people, but there seems to be relatively little interest in finding out exactly what that was. (Here’s one hint, among many.)

Now what is the state, anyway? Forget all the romanticizing nonsense about social contract theories, the consent of the people, whatever. What is this institution? Here’s Murray Rothbard:

The State is a group of people who have managed to acquire a virtual monopoly of the use of violence throughout a given territorial area. In particular, it has acquired a monopoly of aggressive violence, for States generally recognize the right of individuals to use violence (though not against States, of course) in self-defense. The State then uses this monopoly to wield power over the inhabitants of the area and to enjoy the material fruits of that power. The State, then, is the only organization in society that regularly and openly obtains its monetary revenues by the use of aggressive violence; all other individuals and organizations (except if delegated that right by the State) can obtain wealth only by peaceful production and by voluntary exchange of their respective products. This use of violence to obtain its revenue (called “taxation”) is the keystone of State power. Upon this base the State erects a further structure of power over the individuals in its territory, regulating them, penalizing critics, subsidizing favorites, etc. The State also takes care to arrogate to itself the compulsory monopoly of various critical services needed by society, thus keeping the people in dependence upon the State for key services, keeping control of the vital command posts in society and also fostering among the public the myth that only the State can supply these goods and services. Thus the State is careful to monopolize police and judicial service, the ownership of roads and streets, the supply of money, and the postal service, and effectively to monopolize or control education, public utilities, transportation, and radio and television.

That single paragraph does more than a lifetime of social studies classes to clarify the true nature of the state and its activities. There’s your great vehicle for progress, stripped to its essentials.

Albert Jay Nock referred to the human inclination to seek after wealth with the least possible exertion, and this is why employing the state for one’s private benefit is so tempting for so many people. Franz Oppenheimer described two ways of acquiring wealth: the economic means and the political means. The economic means involves the production of a good or service that is then sold to willing buyers seeking to improve their own well-being. Both parties benefit. The political means, on the other hand, involves the use of force to enrich one party or group at the expense of another — either to acquire someone else’s wealth directly or to give oneself an unfair advantage over his competitors through the use or threat of coercion. That is a much easier way of enriching oneself; and since people tend to prefer an easier over a more difficult path to wealth, a society that hopes to foster both justice and prosperity needs to discourage wealth acquisition via the political means and encourage it through the economic means.

But the state, wrote Oppenheimer, was the organization of the political means of wealth acquisition. It was through this channel that people could find paths to their own economic well-being that involved the use of force — carried out on their behalf by the state — rather than their own honest work. For that reason, the baser aspects of human nature can find in the state an irresistible attraction. It is easier to become dependent on welfare than to work; it is easier to accept farm subsidies and thereby to increase food prices than it is to compete honorably and freely; and it is easier to file an antitrust complaint against a competitor than to outcompete him honestly in the marketplace. By making these and countless other predatory options possible, the state fosters unattractive moral attributes and appeals to the worst features of human nature.

In short order, society degenerates into a condition of low-intensity civil war, with each pressure group anxious to secure legislation aimed at enriching itself at the expense of the rest of society. The Hobbesian war of all against all that allegedly characterizes life under the pre-political state of nature creeps into political life itself, as even those who were initially reluctant to seek political favors pursue them with vigor, if only to break even (that is, vis-à-vis groups who are less scrupulous about using the state to secure their ends). All of this looting under cover of law is what Frdric Bastiat memorably called "legal plunder."

Progressives are confident, however, that when the smoke clears, the net effect of all this looting, all these coerced exchanges, and the massive increase in state power it brings about, will be to benefit the least among us, even though these happen to be the people with the least spare time to engage in political lobbying, have the fewest resources to use for the purposes of bribery and corruption, and are connected to by far the fewest old boys’ networks.

So here’s what we have: a right-wing cheering gallery and excuse factory for the state’s behavior abroad, and a left-wing cheering gallery for its aggression and looting at home. (The political "center" cheers both the foreign and the domestic aggression, of course, as evidence of its wise moderation.) Both of them duly accept and defend the state’s official motivations, and demonize anyone who dares to be skeptical either of the purity of its intentions or the potential effectiveness of its actions. Meanwhile, the politicos running the show toast themselves and enjoy a good laugh over the amazing racket they have going, and what a bunch of gullible automatons it is their good fortune to rule.

Thomas E. Woods, Jr. [view his website; send him mail] is senior fellow in American history at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. His books include How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization (get a free chapter here), The Church and the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy (first-place winner in the 2006 Templeton Enterprise Awards), and the New York Times bestseller The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History.

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