Fear Pols, Don’t Let Them Scare You
by Steven Greenhut by Steven Greenhut
As the nation braces for a long and grueling presidential contest, what are the chances that either candidate — Democratic Sen. Barack Obama or Republican Sen. John McCain — will talk about the one crucial issue at hand? I’m not referring to some bogus threat from Iran, or a dubious climate cataclysm, or a "crisis" in health care, the mortgage industry or other aspect of an economy that’s perfectly capable of fixing itself if left to its own devices.
America’s big problem is the rapid, unstoppable expansion of government at every level. This isn’t just a problem of affordability — as in making sure there are sufficient tax dollars to sustain the growth. It’s a problem of liberty. The bigger government gets, the more it extinguishes the choices made by individuals. We all enjoy fewer freedoms as regulation grows, the number of government agents expands, taxes increase, programs grow, wars continue and laws proliferate. It’s as simple as that.
Obama and McCain both act as if government is a magical force that can shower goodies, ranging from free health care to permanent security, on the American people. They both view government as something unquestionably good and noble, although they prefer different aspects of Leviathan. But, as George Washington explained, "Government is not reason; it is not eloquence, it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master." Dangerous or fearful — those are your choices, whether or not modern Republicans (who claim to believe in limited government, but have been most effective in expanding it) or Democrats want to admit it.
Because America’s founders understood that government always is about coercion, they created a system that was designed primarily to limit the size and power of that government and to create competing levels of government to check one another. They knew something Americans since have forgotten: The biggest threat most of us face is from our own government, not foreign invaders.
Over the years, government has grown well beyond the imagination of Washington and the other founders. It’s gotten so big because of majoritarianism, as voters have learned to vote themselves benefits at others’ expense. And it’s grown big because of fear. Government officials are adept at scaring people, by using real, perceived and exaggerated threats to convince the public to give away more precious liberties.
The Bush administration has kept the public so scared of terrorists that there have been too-few complaints as it has centralized executive power. As I tell my conservative friends, "The next Democratic president will enjoy using all those powers the Bush administration has vested in the president’s office!" By contrast, the Democrats are busy scaring the public about imperfections in the health care system, as a pretext for a government takeover. Both parties embrace limited versions of the other party’s priorities, so we all lose, whoever is in power. Sure, Obama gilds his scaremongering with lovely words, while McCain — well, everything about him is downright scary!
It’s time for Americans to grow up. Throughout this nation’s history, there always have been domestic and international threats. There always will be. There always have been economic crises and other problems. There always have been those Americans who are willing to suspend our freedoms just a little to deal with whatever those threats may be. As Benjamin Franklin reputedly said, "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." Well, at least Americans are deserving of the increasingly tyrannical government they are getting, if that’s any consolation.
For those of us still more concerned about being free rather than coddled, the best advice is to resist all the fear-mongering, regardless of whether it is Republican fear-mongering or Democratic fear-mongering. Both parties are toxic these days, and neither one values liberty as an end in and of itself.
My editor often says that everyone is 25 percent libertarian. That’s true. Everyone values freedom on those things that touch their own lives. The problem is the 75 percent of the time they don’t value it. Most Americans want to be left alone, but they want to commandeer government to plunder, control and regulate the other guy. Americans need to understand, "A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have." (That quotation, misattributed to Thomas Jefferson, actually came from Gerald Ford, who left the nation with little else of value.)
Be scared — but of your own government, not of whatever it is officials are selling. Be leery of officials at every level, whether it’s a local redevelopment director telling you that it’s OK to take someone’s property to wipe out "blight" (based on whatever broad and debatable definition the director offers), or a secretary of state telling you that the government needs to suspend habeas corpus to battle terrorists, real or not.
"At every point, opportunists latch onto existing fears and strive to invent new ones to feather their own nests," wrote the Independent Institute’s senior fellow Robert Higgs in a 2005 article. "Thus, public-school teachers and administrators agree that the nation faces an ‘education crisis.’ Police departments and temperance crusaders insist that the nation faces a generalized ‘drug crisis’ or at times a specific drug crisis, such as ‘an epidemic of crack cocaine use.’ Public-health interests foster fears of ‘epidemics’ that in reality consist not of the spread of contagious pathogens but of the lack of personal control and self-responsibility, such as the ‘epidemic of obesity’ or the ‘epidemic of juvenile homicides.’ … In this way and countless others, private parties become complicit in sustaining a vast government apparatus fueled by fear."
But perhaps H.L. Mencken said it best: "The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary."
Government is not always like an ordinary mugger, who puts a gun to your head and demands your wallet (although some government officials operate that way). It often comes in the form of a slick salesman, exploiting the natural imperfections of society — "Hey, there’s inequality, poverty and crime in our midst!" — to convince you to give him more power and money to uplift, improve, equalize, protect, enhance or empower.
The promises of the security state and welfare state never come to pass, just like those old Soviet five-year plans never met their targets. Indeed, government often creates the opposite result of its grandiose promises. But by the time anyone notices, it’s on to a new round of promises, a new batch of fears.
Just remember that government always is about coercion — whether the promises are uttered by a likable and uplifting candidate who offers change or by a crusty old war hero who promises whatever it is he is promising this week. Fear them, but don’t let them scare you.