Absorbed By the State

If you have read the Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, you know that the Devil is an expert in turning good impulses toward evil ends, and in leading people to misapply virtues in ways that serve the cause of evil.

Well, so it is with the state. In every age, it takes the intellectual and political fashions alive in the culture, and turns them toward power for itself, money for itself, authority and affection for itself. The end is always and everywhere the same and as predictable as the tides. However, the means the state uses to achieve this end are forever changing in ways that surprise us.

This tendency takes peculiar turns in the course of Republican administrations, when the rhetoric of freedom, free markets, and limited government is used for the paradoxical purpose of expanding state power.

Let us begin with the most obvious point.

Most people are ready to concede that defense is one function that government should provide. The first act of a Republican administration is to vastly expand military spending, always with the assumption that unless hundreds of billions more is spent, the country will be left undefended. When Republicans are running the show, it seems that there is no limit to how far this racket can be carried. We proceed as if the need to drink means that we should shove the water hose down our throat.

At the height of World War II, before spending plummeted after the war ended, the federal government spent less than $90 billion on defense, which was the same spent as late as 1961. Today it spends five times that amount in current dollars. Might the excuse of defense serve as a convenient way to slather money on military contractors and to otherwise feed the friends of the government?

So it is with homeland security. For decades, people on the political right have complained that money for defense is being spent on far-flung missions overseas and to subsidize the defense budgets of friendly foreign governments. The left has long brought attention to the subsidies given to authoritarian regimes. And so how does the state absorb these energetic movements? With new programs to provide “homeland security” – more power for the state, but with an even better excuse.

The example of how the cultural conservatives are being absorbed is especially egregious. For decades, conservatives complained that government was waging a war on families by taxing marriage, punishing savings, subsidizing anti-family political movements, and promoting contraception, sex education, and abortion, and the like. And yet, if you look at the pro-family movement today, it is all about big government: a federal marriage amendment, ridiculous family programs at the federal level, bureaucratic intervention into family life, and manipulation of American families for Republican purposes.

The pro-family movement used to be plausibly pro-liberty, especially given that the family predates government, exists in a state of anarchy, and is foundational for civilization. But leave it to politics to convert a pro-family movement into one that endorses statism of every sort. It may yet support the state forcing us into associations of which it approves while forbidding all others. That way lies corruption of the worst sort.

The same is true of religion. From the 1970 to the 1990s, religious people had the general sense that the government was against them, attempting to tax their churches, forbidding them from making public expressions of their faith, and funding anti-religious propaganda. Then the Bush administration gets control, and what happens? The government is funding religious charities, using religion to justify its foreign policy, courting certain religious groups for votes and support, and doing its best to weave the American faith into the fabric of the American state.

Whereas the religious right once had just complaints against the government, and an agenda to get the state’s hand out of their churches, the opposite now seems true. The state has enlisted the religious right in a cause that will only lead to more government power over society and economy and the world in general. Here again, we see how the state can turn all movements to its own purposes.

In the last 60 years, the energies of free-market intellectuals have been spent on debunking the need for the social welfare state. But these energies are now being used to expand rather than shrink the state. Consider the cry to “privatize” Social Security. It uses the good work of many great thinkers to debunk a bad system, so that it can be recreated with a wholly new system of forced savings that could end up worse than the original.

The anti-Social Security movement that has existed since the 1930s is being re-channeled into a pro-forced savings movement. A further tragedy: all the efforts of the past to debunk Social Security now risk being discredited when this new program turns out to be wildly expensive, terribly coercive, dangerous to the independence of capital markets, and ultimately fruitless for workers who put their hopes in it. But meanwhile, the energies of the anti-Social Security movement will have been spent.

Education is another area. In the 1970s and 80s, a movement grew among conservative intellectuals and the general public against the dumbing down of curricula in public school. As a result of the collectivism at the heart of centrally controlled public schooling, standards were lowered to the extent that everyone was seen as above average. It was this movement that led to demands for the abolition of the Department of Education and to the rise of home schooling and the flourishing of alternative schools.

But these days, the movement has been diverted and all its energies put not into tearing down public schools but expanding the state. The voucher program favors federal payments to private schools, which will nationalize an industry and end up making it share in the problems of the public schools. The movement for standards has led to “No Child Left Behind” and regimentation of all schools by Washington, DC. The Department of Education has turned its energies to feeding conservative intellectuals and browbeating everyone into a general “back to basics” movement.

Even homeschooling has not escaped corruption, as the nation’s leading college for homeschooled kids works to place smart, decent kids in the worst imaginable place: at the heart of the executive branch of government, and even the CIA.

The tragedy just overwhelms you. These kids have studied hard for many years to prepare themselves to achieve greatness, with moms and dads making enormous sacrifices. So, under the belief that greatness equals power, these kids are being sent to serve in the state apparatus to learn the main practices that government teaches its drones: to lie, deceive, manipulate, and abuse, without feeling any pangs of conscience. This can turn a good person into a lifetime cynic.

The list goes on. The anti-tax movement becomes a tax reform movement that ends up making government more expensive, the movement against government bureaucracy becomes a movement for contracting out and putting more people on the payroll, the slogan of “America First” is perverted into a call for protectionism, and so on.

How to avoid the trap? How does any political movement that begins by being opposed to the state avoid being absorbed by the state? The most crucial step is to decide what you are for and what you are against from the very outset. It is not enough to be against a particular government program or for a particular institution such as the family. What we need is a comprehensive ideology of liberty to displace the comprehensive ideology of statism – with no compromises.

In the struggle against power, the battle is too important to risk absorption by the enemy. There are no proxies for genuine liberty. Using rhetorical maneuvers to disguise the movement for freedom as something else is dangerous business indeed.