Statism Is Counterintuitive

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I have heard it said that without the proper education, the young would fall prey to socialist thought. What kids need is classical schooling and rigorous study. Maybe after ten or fifteen years of serious reading in economics, history, and philosophy they’ll understand the true importance of liberty.

I am all in favor of a well-rounded, deep education in the principles and traditions of freedom. But it seems to me that people often forget just how intuitive libertarianism is, once some basic and mostly universal values are embraced consistently. Statism, on the other hand, is counterintuitive and must be learned. Today’s popular statism is often inculcated through considerable indoctrination, schooling and study.

When most children are fairly young, just as they learn that the world operates according to some basic principles of physics, they are taught that humans ought to act according to some basic ethical guidelines. Most parents teach their kids not to steal, to keep their hands to themselves, to do their best to keep their word.

Well, that’s really all libertarianism is: It’s the idea that people shouldn’t initiate force against other people’s bodies and property, and that people should honor contracts.

Most of what makes libertarians so unusual is that we apply these principles to the state. We believe that just because someone is wearing a badge, robe or uniform, it doesn’t mean he has the rights to overstep the basic boundaries we’re all taught before grade school.

It is only through thousands of hours of education that children learn that the real world does not operate according to these simple values. It is only through years of exposure to educated, enlightened adults, on television, in the media, and especially in the school system, that young people come to accept the very counterintuitive statist concepts that continue to plague human society. They are encouraged to swallow these nonsensical views with the promise that the more they are able to articulate these incoherent, contradictory arguments, the more educated and in tune with the adult world they are. Let’s consider some lessons that most school children come to learn:

  1. Destruction, war and looting are good for the economy. Without the occasional obliteration of lots of people and property, material and moral progress would grind to a halt.
  2. We have taxes, which people are forced to pay, to fund a legal system to keep people from stealing from each other.
  3. To keep people from ruining their lives with drugs, we stick them in cages along with human predators for ten years.
  4. To protect our nation that respects freedom and life, we sometimes enslave teenagers and force them to fight, kill and die in other countries.
  5. Reading is a joy but you’ll only do it if forced.
  6. Guns in the hands of criminals are dangerous, so to stop them we have armed agents locate people with guns, beat them up and threaten to kill them if they don’t disarm for the sake of peace.
  7. Slaveholders made this nation the first free country by rebelling against an empire and making it an independent nation. And also, this country only became a free country when our greatest president stopped a bunch of slaveholders from breaking away and making an independent nation.
  8. Everyone knows we need government. It’s what the people want. The people are the government, in fact. And we need the government to force the people to be good, which they wouldn’t be without the government, which is good because the people themselves are good and want the government, which is them, to be good.

The absurdities go on and on. By the time someone is in his 20s or 30s, he has completely absorbed thousands of ridiculous ideas, historical anecdotes, economic principles, and moral notions that together reinforce the counterintuitive ideology of statism. Young adults pride themselves on their ability to repeat this trash when they are confronted by good old-fashioned liberal ideals. So they feel triumphant when they can snap back with such educated rejoinders as these:

Well, free enterprise is a good idea in theory, but if you studied the era of the robber barons or knew about the reality of the inner cities or learned about the stock market crash, you’d realize that it needs to be checked by democratic balances.

Today, we hear the most counterintuitive and contradictory arguments in defense of current policies. We hear that the president has always had the Constitutional authority, by virtue of his office alone, to violate civil liberties during wartime — yet we also hear that each new piece of terror legislation is absolutely necessary to empower the executive to do things it couldn’t otherwise do. We hear that states with nuclear ambitions that have invaded other countries must be disarmed — that, in President Bush’s words, "Free nations don’t attack each other; free nations don’t develop weapons of mass destruction" — yet we also hear that America, which has attacked other nations since its founding and possesses thousands of nukes, is a free country. We hear that our right to complain about the government shows how free we are, and as long as we have that right, we shouldn’t complain.

I am convinced that libertarianism is mostly the application of common sense and simple principles to a wide range of circumstances. Of course, there is a lot to be read to refine one’s sense of the theory and its significance for economics, history and civil life. There is certainly a lot of statist nonsense to be unlearned. Due to thousands of years of education and brainwashing to trick people into thinking why governments and privileged classes deserve to be exempt from the rules that everyone else is bound to follow, it does indeed take a lot of work to deconstruct the ideology of statism and reveal its intellectual poverty.

However, we should not assume that the liberal tradition can only be appreciated through rigorous formal education. No, it is statism that requires arduous study. Libertarianism can be grasped by a young child who hasn’t been exposed yet to the many organs of statist indoctrination in our world. And once adults finally abandon all the nonsense learned over the years, they too are able to adopt the morality that most children have very little problem recognizing as sensible.

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.

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