The Uncrackable State, And How It Might Crack Up

There have been lots of tales about aristocrats who wind up being transfixed by a painting, another kind of artwork, a gadget, a trinket, or even a person. "That I must have!" one declares as he or she opens up his or her wallet. In appearance, this kind of gentleman or lady is nothing more than a fop who would benefit from a few financial planning lessons — a big spender, the customer of every gallery owner's dreams. I know of no aristocrat who ever saw a book on sound budgeting and exclaim, "That I must have!"

The real thing, though, is much shrewder than appearances show. A crucial attribute of aristocratic government is the transformation of all criticisms of the State into either disguised pleas to it or mere captiousness. This is how the lords and ladies stay in their place. The trinket that an aristocrat "must have" is actually a symbol, which reinforces prestige and acts as a magnet for they who desire prestige themselves. "All High Roads In My Land Lead To Me" — this maxim, if successfully implemented, keeps the aristocratic head out of the guillotine's reach. It isn't just valor (not to mention success) in war that keeps the ruling class ruling — not as long as the words of the Prince of Peace are heeded, or at least listened to.

There seems to be an escape from this prestige box, one glimpsed when the true record of government policy is exposed. Typical economic policy is, upon reflection, a comedy of errors. Some creature of State has a Bright Idea which all find both advanced and plausible; it gets enacted; the unintended consequences surface; the Bright Things save face by plastering adjustment upon adjustment on top of the original "simple" measure; rules and forms grow more complicated as a result; and people who can see through the charade shake their head, once again. If there were any Iron Law of Modern Statecraft, it would have to be: "a law which requires a regulatory body to oversee its implementation is the result of a bill poorly drafted." Loss of this kind of common sense over the course of the last hundred years has seriously circumscribed the reach of the unconstitutionality argument against regulatory agencies. Americans, thankfully, still believe that unjust policy is equivalent to impracticable policy.

The essence of comedy, according to Aristotle, is the maladroitness of a low man raised to a high place. The would-be ruler who proves to be hopelessly out of his or her depth is the source, therefore, of political comedy. Traditionally, Hamiltonian attempts to grow the American economy have been the subject of many a joke — which explains why the myth of the government saving Americans from the ravages of the Great Depression is clung to so tenaciously by government types. It is their "Great Exception" to the rule of government maladroitness, and it has been the hardest statist myth to debunk. To see why, ask yourself what would happen to millions of "revenooers" if Murray N. Rothbard's analysis of the Great Depression became the consensus view in America.

From the point of view of the statist, though, the Roosevelt Myth provides inadequate security. Even if FDR was officially canonized, there is always the risk of the plain citizen taking a cue from the recently-deceased Lloyd Bentsen and saying to the latest offering from the Demopublican circuit, "Sir, I know Roosevelt's record very well. He bailed out the economy and he did it on the cheap. You, sir, are no Franklin D. Roosevelt." Since economic performance is subject to measurement, criticism and later analysis, the Myth of the Great Depression is both limited and has a shelf life. Its intellectual bodyguard, Keynesian economics, has already suffered a telling blow to its credibility thanks to the eruption of inflationary recession, and the first "full-employment recession" will drive a stake right in its heart. If there's a recession with full employment all through it, what need is there for the Keynesian panacea? The old laurels have to be pulled out — always a risky maneuver, since old laurels are often obsolete laurels.

A more secure foundation is built through the absorption of intellectuals into the State. If you want a sound education, a State school is where you go for it. A more subtle but also more blanketing take-out of critical thought is, "if you want to use your education, the State is where you go to."

This approach worked wonderfully well for Rome. If you spoke and wrote perfect Latin, then you were welcomed — invited in – by the rulers. If you didn't have that intellectual polish, you were a mere nothing. This division point meant that the dividing line between ruling class and ruled was full Latin literacy. Thus, it was easy to dismiss even the most perceptive "barbarian" right out of hand, or to take one in as a mere man of use and get rid of him once he began to see through a few of the tricks.

Formal learning as a ticket in to the councils of power is often seized upon because formal education is hard. In order to get a coveted doctorate or another professional-level degree, you need to spend approximately twenty years of your life in school. In order to get an even more coveted doctorate, or advanced degree, from one of the few academies of great distinction, you have to spend about sixteen of those twenty years working diligently at your lessons, and studying almost slavishly for the last eight of those sixteen. The use of standardized tests as an admission criterion adds an element of invidiousness to the selection process, too. Selection on the (partial) basis of I.Q. score makes it very easy to dismiss any credible debunker as being “not bright enough to understand what's really going on" unless he or she went to the halls of ivy too. Such a fortunate matriculant is likely to pull his or her punches, out of old school spirit.

Consider the trap for anti-statists which is set up by this path of distinction. If any would-be Mr., or Ms., Smith goes to Washington, he or she meets with reasonable-sounding people who are willing to lend an ear to anyone, and who also show a schoolteacherish enthusiasm for putting criticisms to rest. Why shouldn't they be less than open-minded? Didn't the halls of ivy inculcate a sense of noblesse oblige?

Yes, that's right. What appears to be open-mindedness is based upon a kind of condescension. Critics are turned into pleaders through being painted as ignoramuses: "if they're not here to plead for government money — well, then, they're here to plead for knowledge, or for some kind of validation." This knowledge is granted, increasingly, by Eisenhower's other threat to liberty, the scientific-technological elite.

An education-based State occupies a much more solid command post than the State that promises economic security (or prosperity) does, for it is much harder to debunk. Who would not be diligent in getting the bureaucratic point of view, if the pain of refraining to do so is being labeled "stupid?" What do you say when you're complimented, or thanked, for your observations, no matter how critical in content? Ask them to "do something" about it (pleading)? Losing your temper in the face of a polite and seemingly attentive group of people (captiousness)?

The Education State is truly a marvel when beheld from afar. Instead of the privileged and lazy, its functionaries are hard-working — or were hard-working, up to the point of lifetime habituation to hard study, when in school. Instead of disdainful "Old Boys," or fiery-eyed power lusters, the staff is composed of middle-class, middle-brow people who tend to be pedagogues at heart, not unlike your lovable teacher in demeanor. Their relativism means that they don't mind being disagreed with. Their "Everyman" is a likable scholar-barrister, not the solicitor type that we associate with the word "shyster." There is also a real intellectual curiosity in D.C. that keeps the citizen-relations part of the machine turning smoothly. The D.C. bureaucrat will listen even to us!

In demeanor, they are the opposite of servile, except when stressed. The stressor is easy to portray as the bad guy subsequently. Their admiration for education actually keeps the spirit of servility at bay. And, because they do have a personal interest in the quest for truth, any and all well-reasoned critiques of State policy will not get them angry, but instead will get them curious.

As long as the educated American belongs on all high roads, all high roads truly lead to Washington, D.C. The quest for truth is almost completely co-opted now.

Thankfully for liberty, the United States government actually aspires to be the Prodigal Son, though under more altruistic colors than a mere carouser runs under. This is the fundamental model of the payoff state: the government must always at least appear to be the benefactor. When seen in this light, permanent deficits are a kind of King's Shilling, with the tax-raising President Hoover serving as the wicked barbarian in the woods.

This dynamic, though worrisome, is not the worst of all worlds. A "Rosy Scenario" is even deducible from it: the government goes bankrupt, impelling government officials to ask the people to bail the government out. "Uncle Prodigal" winds up broke, and receives a "people's bailout" as a fatted calf. Rather than resented, government employees who are let go are welcomed into the private sector as Prodigal Sons, and Prodigal Daughters, themselves. Life in the private sector is perceived as a much more secure way of life, long-term. The resultant reconciliation between government and people results in fear and insecurity being replaced with sobriety and skepticism when assessing the efficacy of government. The unity between unconstitutionality and long-term impracticality is re-established in the public mind, and consequently the government's broken chains are replaced with ones much tighter, and more secure.

I will concede that the above happy ending to the current mess seems implausible, but as long as respect for truth still prevails in the United States, it is possible. At the very least, it would make the jealousy-inducing bugbear, the one often called the "greedy/grasping/anti-social hoarder," finally vanish, which would be a good thing.

Although an all-American answer to Shakespeare would be a better thing!

May 26, 2006