This talk was delivered at the 2014 Mises Circle in Houston, Texas.
We know about the transformation of the American police, with their paramilitary equipment, their SWAT team raids, and incentive to terrorize people over drug offenses rather than pursue crimes against person and property. We know about the National Security Agency, which can access every American’s e-mails, phone calls, or text messages. And yet too many average Americans have greeted all this with indifference.
This indifference, I suggest, derives from the widespread public acceptance of the myth of the state that Americans are taught from the moment they step into a government classroom. The myth is this: the state is a public-service institution established to provide you with security, both personal and economic. And after years of indoctrination into this myth, it is little wonder that so many Americans are prepared to give the state the benefit of the doubt, and to look upon dissidents as incorrigible troublemakers. The police and the military, the most celebrated public faces of the state, are to be questioned least of all.
All social theory can be reduced to two categories: those that conceive of society as the result of peace, and those for which the indispensable ingredient is violence. This is the fundamental distinction between liberalism and fascism, a point I discuss further in a book I released earlier this year called Fascism vs. Capitalism.
There is some confusion surrounding terms here. When Ludwig von Mises published his book Liberalism in English translation, he changed the title to The Free and Prosperous Commonwealth. He did so because by the latter half of the twentieth century, the word “liberal” no longer carried the meaning it once had. It had come to mean centralization, the welfare state, and a substantial government presence in economic and social life.
The liberalism I have in mind, of course, is not the modern liberalism of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, but the classical liberalism of Thomas Jefferson and Frederic Bastiat. Classical liberalism, by contrast, believed in free markets, free trade, toleration, and civil liberties.
It represented a movement toward a theory of society in which human cooperation emerged spontaneously and without coercion, by means of the natural processes of the market economy. It recognized that society seemed to manage itself without the involvement of extraneous forces like kings, aristocracies, or parliaments, and that the intervention of those forces was more likely aimed at the enrichment of a favored group or of the state itself than of at the well-being of society at large.
The price system, a spontaneous product of the free-market economy, helped entrepreneurs arrange the factors of production in such a way as to produce those outputs most highly valued by society, and to produce them in a way that was least costly in terms of opportunities foregone. Individuals specialized in those areas in which they had the greatest skill or knowledge, and the resulting division of labor meant a vastly greater output of consumer goods for everyone to enjoy. None of this required the intervention of the state. To the contrary, the state could interject only white noise into this naturally occurring process: production and consumption, profit and loss, changing consumer demands and entrepreneurial adjustment to those demands.
For the classical liberal, the state was almost an afterthought. Some would have it provide a few basic services, while others conceived of it as nothing more than a night watchman. Beginning with Gustave de Molinari, the classical liberal tradition even groped toward the possibility that the state was a dangerous, parasitical, and ultimately unnecessary monopoly.
And, of course, it was against a backdrop of peace that the classical liberal described the progress of mankind.
Fascists looked at society and the state quite differently. The prosaic bourgeois virtues of commerce, of producing, trading, and earning profit, are viewed with contempt next to the code of the warrior, which is what the fascist truly respects. Greatness comes not through the ordinary pursuits of the market or the obedience to the duties of one’s state in life, but through struggle.
It is Benito Mussolini’s famous remark – “Everything for the state, nothing outside the state, nothing above the state” – that truly sums up the essence of fascism. The good of the Nation, as defined by the fascist leader, surpasses all other concerns and allegiances. The fascist speaks of the Nation with a religious reverence. An Italian fascist youth movement in the 1920s composed the following creed:
I believe in Rome the Eternal, the mother of my country, and in Italy her eldest Daughter, who was born in her virginal bosom by the grace of God; who suffered through the barbarian invasions, was crucified and buried; who descended to the grave and was raised from the dead in the nineteenth century; who ascended into Heaven in her glory in 1918 and 1922; who is seated on the right hand of her mother Rome; and who for this reason shall come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the genius of Mussolini, in our Holy Father Fascism, in the communion of its martyrs, in the conversion of Italians, and in the resurrection of the Empire.
This devotion to the Nation is concentrated in allegiance to the charismatic leader. The untrammeled exercise of the leader’s will is a central ingredient in the realization of the Nation’s destiny. Moreover, the leader’s will must trump the array of activities that comprise the free market. The various companies, professions, unions, and government must work together with a conscious plan to ensure the best outcome for the Nation. This is why it is so preposterous to hear opponents of the market economy describe libertarians as “fascists.” No one could be more anti-fascist than a libertarian.
Political centralization was also central to fascism, for if the Nation is the embodiment of the people, and if it is through the Nation that every individual realizes his destiny, we cannot tolerate resistance by lesser jurisdictions within the Nation. As Adolf Hitler himself said:
National Socialism as a matter of principle, must lay claim to the right to force its principles on the whole German nation without consideration of previous federated state boundaries… Certainly all the states in the world are moving toward a certain unification in their inner organization. And in this Germany will be no exception. Today it is an absurdity to speak of a “state sovereignty”‘ of individual provinces…. In particular we cannot grant to any individual state within the nation and the state representing it state sovereignty and sovereignty in point of political power.
To say that there are fascist trends and features in the United States of today is not to say that this country is just like interwar Italy or Germany. There are some features of fascism as traditionally understood that can be found only faintly in American society today, and others than can be found not at all.
But it would be foolish to pretend that America is the very opposite of the fascist dystopias. Whether it’s the emphasis on centralization, the glorification of the police and the military, the yearning for a “third way” between capitalism and socialism, the elevation of “public service” above the services we freely provide one another on the market, the creepy and incessant references to “my president” or “our president,” or the depiction of the state as a quasi-divine instrument, the commonalities are neither trivial nor few.
Americans no doubt recoil from or laugh at that passage from the Italian fascists I shared with you a few moments ago. But few Americans are in a position to render such a judgement. Most have absorbed the idea that their government, far from a merely utilitarian contrivance established to provide them with some basic services, as many early Americans doubtless conceived of it, is a redemptive force in the world.
John Winthrop appropriated a biblical image of the church when he spoke of his settlement of Puritans as resembling a “city on a hill.” By the time Ronald Reagan made that phrase a rhetorical commonplace in American politics, it had been fully secularized. Not the church but the American state would transform mankind as God’s instrument.
Americans, even (or perhaps especially) American Christians, are for that reason not scandalized at politicians’ appropriation of religious language to describe their government. It bothers them not at all to learn that the iconic Abraham Lincoln said “the gates of hell shall not prevail against” American government ideals, or that when George W. Bush said “the light shined in darkness and the darkness did not overcome it,” by “light” he meant American government ideals.
In US history, presidents who avoided war, or who viewed the presidential office modestly and without messianic overtones, are neglected or even denounced by our official historians. You can guess at the views and activities of the presidents favored by the opinion molders. “Beware any politician who is ‘beloved,’” historian Ralph Raico once warned.
The bipartisan adulation of Theodore Roosevelt, the man Bill Clinton called his favorite Republican president, speaks volumes about the values of the regime. Roosevelt once told a friend that it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if the US got into a military conflict with Germany, because if New York and other cities on the East Coast were burned to the ground, it would remind Americans how badly they need a system of coastal defenses, and it would force German-Americans to make an ostentatious patriotic display against Germany.
The philosopher William James said of Roosevelt that “he gushes over war as the ideal condition of human society, for the manly strenuousness which it involves, and treats peace as a condition of blubberlike and swollen ignobility, fit only for huckstering weaklings.”
After leaving office, Roosevelt became an advocate of “universal obligatory military training,” and thought every young man needed to spend time in a US Army camp. Roosevelt said, “I believe that for every young man … to have six months in such a camp … [with] some field service, would be of incalculable benefit to him, and … to the nation…. [M]aking these camps permanent would be the greatest boon this nation could receive.”
In how many schools can a benign portrait of Theodore Roosevelt be found looking down at students from the wall? Meanwhile, Ron Paul – the man of peace and civil liberties – was ignored and mocked by the American media. This tells us something about the present regime and what it holds dear.
The cult of personality surrounding the US president has only grown since the age of TR, culminating in the creepy videos of schoolchildren pledging allegiance to Barack Obama and the YouTubes of Hollywood actors promising their eternal loyalty. But some of those who ridiculed these ridiculous displays had themselves been part of the cult of George W. Bush. During the Bush years, Christian neocons made a video about the president set to the tune of Johnny Cash’s classic “When the Man Comes Around.” That song had been written about Jesus Christ. Here are some of the words they set to a video about George W. Bush:
There’s a man goin’ ‘round takin’ names. An’ he decides who to free and who to blame. Everybody won’t be treated all the same. There’ll be a golden ladder reaching down. When the man comes around.
The hairs on your arm will stand up. At the terror in each sip and in each sup. For you partake of that last offered cup, Or disappear into the potter’s ground. When the man comes around.
Hear the trumpets, hear the pipers. One hundred million angels singin’. Multitudes are marching to the big kettle drum. Voices callin’, voices cryin’. Some are born an’ some are dyin’. It’s Alpha’s and Omega’s Kingdom come….
Till Armageddon, no Shalam, no Shalom. Then the father hen will call his chickens home. The wise men will bow down before the throne. And at his feet they’ll cast their golden crown. When the man comes around.
That man, remember, was George W. Bush.
Americans are taught that they owe their freedoms to their government’s military. Whether it’s a country music concert, a sporting event, or even a restaurant chain, Americans are subjected to a ceaseless stream of reminders of what they allegedly owe to this particular class of government employees. (Let’s not forget the popular bumper sticker: “Only two defining forces have ever died for you: Jesus the Christ and the American soldier.”) How exactly their freedoms were threatened in any of the military conflicts in question is one of those impertinent questions one does not ask in polite society.
Even people who oppose the wars, and who know they’re animated by propaganda, cheer on airplanes for the returning troops who, the airline staff assures them, are “protecting our freedom.” Americans are taught to say “thank you for your service” only to government employees, and just to the regime’s military branch. They are not taught to ask questions of authority.
The propaganda has worked, to some extent at least. When Edward Snowden revealed the extent to which their government was spying on and lying to them, many listeners of right-wing radio demanded not that these activities cease, but that the leaker himself be silenced. The man who had embarrassed their rulers should be tried for treason and executed. I have heard this phenomenon described as a case of society-wide Stockholm Syndrome, and I don’t think that’s far from the mark.
Americans today give the police the benefit of the doubt, consenting to searches and tolerating behavior that would have elicited revolt in centuries past. For the fascist regime as for our own, the public must be overawed by the state’s shows of force. And although more people are beginning to stand up against police abuse, those who speak up for the rights of individuals against the tactics of a police state are widely thought of as the blameworthy parties. We must be united as one against the Enemy, we are told, for he lurks everywhere. Those who insist too strongly on their individual rights in times of danger do not properly appreciate the righteous cause on which their righteous government is embarked.
If some of the superstitions of fascism have made their way into American life, it could be because both fascism and whatever it is that America has become share a superstition in common – namely, the state itself. The state has been cloaked in all manner of flattering but obfuscating rhetoric. The state looks after the general welfare, provides economic stability, protects us from the bad guys, prevents inequality, and binds us together in a common cause greater than ourselves.
It’s time we viewed the state for what it really is: a mechanism by which rulers enrich themselves at the expense of the ruled. Everything else is a smokescreen.
For the proof of that statement, I refer you to the library of books and articles we make available for free at Mises.org. I might also refer you to the daily headlines.
To be sure, the state continues to extend its reach, as the topics we’re covering at this event today make abundantly clear, but the intellectual opposition, spearheaded by the Mises Institute, is growing, and stronger than ever. Inspired by Ron Paul, throngs of students and young people understand the true nature of the state, and indeed the true nature of the police state. A group called Cop Block, started just a few years ago and consisting mostly of young people, sums up the libertarian response to the police state in the pithy maxim: “Badges don’t grant extra rights.”
The fascists, and the rest of the state’s adepts, manipulate the crowd with irrational appeals. Speaking of the political rivals to liberalism, Mises wrote: “Rhetorical bombast, music and song resound, banners wave, flowers and colors serve as symbols, and the leaders seek to attach their followers to their own person. Liberalism has nothing to do with all this. It has no party flower and no party color, no party song and no party idols, no symbols and no slogans. It has the substance and the arguments. These must lead it to victory.”
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