The Lawless State

This article was first published as The Lawless State: A Libertarian View of the Status of Liberty. Volume IV, No. 4 in the National Issues Series of Politics, (Constitutional Alliance, 1969).

The Nature of Government

Government has gone wild.

Today, in the land we like to think of as the most free on earth, government reaches into every level of our lives. It controls and it coerces, it bullies and it brags, it browbeats and it blusters. It grows and it grows, feeding without restraint on the energy, the talents, the hopes, the fears, and the futures of the people.

Endless arguing about, or even rigorous voting for "better" government has not altered and can not alter the fact that it is the nature of government, the state itself, that has shown itself in such a dark light. For it is in the nature of the state and of government as it has developed to do all of the things that it now is doing – regardless of which partisans, which technicians, operate it at any given point.

After each American election there are the weeks and months of elation in which partisans euphorically tell one another that "problems are going to be solved" by the "good" and "strong" and "wise" men about to take office. The losers, meantime, say just as flatly that the world is going to hell in a breadbasket.

And very little changes.

In terms of actual change, as a matter of fact, there hasn’t been an election in the United States since its inception that has driven the country solidly onto a course toward less government and more liberty. Each, rather, has driven the country toward more government and less liberty.

Parties and promises notwithstanding, this is the way it is. To not recognize that one overpowering fact is to let the meaning of the entire political history of our time utterly escape you.

The nature of the state, the growth of government has been unchanged by politicians. Only the politicians themselves have changed.

Too many Americans for too long have been diverted by the changes of faces and factions. They have permitted their attention to be diverted from the unchanging problem of government itself.

To the extent that they continue to be so diverted, government has a free hand to continue its development toward despotism.

Particularly now, with one more election and with one more chorus of paeans and plaints, one more magic-lantern display of changing images in an unchanging show, those who profess an interest in liberty need to turn away from illusions and shadows and look at the actual and concrete facts of government here and around the world.

They need to ask not whether it is possible simply to tame government, or to make it more economical, or to make it more favorable to this or that ideology, class, or interest; they need to ask the most fundamental questions about government. What is its purpose? What is its limit? What is its legitimacy? What is its relation to liberty? To the individual?

Those who weigh the cost of government only in dollars will vote for the most economical government, the most efficient – perhaps not bothering to ask if that efficiency is in the service of or to the detriment of liberty.

Those who assess the value of government only in terms of its output of "good" programs will vote for the most active government – perhaps not bothering to ask if the action serves the need or greed of some men, or the liberty of all.

Others may measure government only by its arms and martial spirit, praising the way in which it guards the borders or the outposts but remaining curiously uninterested in the garrisons it may be building at home.

Some will ask only that government benefit them, protect them, comfort them, preserve their status quo and suppress any who would disturb it. And they too will have forgotten to ask any question at all about liberty.

Questions about liberty have, of course, long been most notably neglected by those who have called themselves liberals in America. One result has been that the entire liberal position now stands discredited and, even more humiliating to its leadership, hopelessly outdated and irrelevant.

But the same is more and more true of those who call themselves conservative. They too, more and more, ask simply who controls the government ("our" guys or "their" guys) rather than what we should do about government itself.

It has become, as a result, a political truism of our time that the differences between the two major political parties are marginal at best. One editor recently pointed out that in terms of sheer differences of political approach there now is more difference between factions behind the Iron Curtain than between the major political factions in the United States. It is not altogether fanciful to say that the United States has, finally, become a one-party state.

And it is merely common sense to observe that, beyond it all, government rolls along – widely accepted, widely supported, largely unquestioned as the father of us all, the focus of life, lever of all power.

Riots in the streets may concern some. Riots on the campus may concern others. But it is the riotous, growing power of government gone wild that should preoccupy the serious and concerned friend of liberty in this land once so hopefully dedicated to freedom.

It is in that dedication, as a matter of fact, that may be found that inspiration to return to concern about government itself and not simply to its current cost or management. For in that dedication we can clearly see a time when men, serious men, were concerned very candidly not with who should run the government but with how to restrain, repress, and even eliminate government. They were concerned with purpose, not merely with program.

The deepest concern then, as it should be now, was not the sort of law to impose upon citizens, not the sort of order to impose upon citizens, not the sort of privileges and prerogatives to bestow upon government, not the tasks to assign it or the titles to enhance it. No. The concern was to impose law upon government.

It was to curb government; to cut it back and cut it down.

The concern was liberty.

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The Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence says it all and says it well.

… that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it.

To the men who founded the United States, that Declaration was the essence of the law insofar as the state was concerned. There were among those men some, perhaps many, who had little sympathy for the state at all. They accepted it as a necessary evil. Others conceived it only as an evil and not actually necessary at all.

All finally agreed, however, that they could live under or at least coexist with an agreement of government, an agreement of lawful government that established the sole function of government as in "securing" the "rights" of the people: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Government would, in effect, be merely an instrument, voluntarily subscribed to, that would prevent anyone (including governments) from taking or abridging life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness. That is all.

It has been the constant breach of that law that has marked the development of the state ever since then.

It is the gathering momentum of more and more breakage of that law that marks the only crucially important political question facing Americans, or, indeed, people anywhere. This is no longer a problem of any one state. It is a threatening reality in all states, around the world.

The Omnipotent State

Government, gone wild in growth and its powers, has gone also above and beyond the law. Today it is widely accepted, as a matter of fact, that Government Is The Law. Just as a "divine" king once could say, "I am the state," governments today everywhere say they are the law, even that they are the people.

Each citizen can ask himself the most grave questions in this regard. Frank self-answers should be revealing.

Do you feel that the state is more important than you are?

Do you feel that the state should enjoy freedoms that you do not?

Do you feel that the state should be able to rise above the law?

Do you feel that you could not live unless the state protected you?

Do you feel that you could not thrive unless the state nourished or subsidized you?

Do you feel that service to the state is more desirable or more noble than service to your self, your family, your neighbors, or your own ideals?

Do you feel that it actually is a privilege to pay taxes?

Do you feel that since the government, the state, is more important than any one man, that every single man should be prepared to give his all, even his life, to or for his government?

Do you feel that the state is something with a life and identity of its own, beyond the men who might hold office in it?

Do you feel that "the government" and "the country" are the same?

Do you feel that, when all is said and done, your life belongs to your government?

Do you feel that your "rights" are given to you by government?

Do you feel that, when all is said and done, if big problems are to be solved in this world that government will have to do it?

The crucial separation between men today is not anything more or anything less than the separation between those who answer yes to those questions and those who answer no. The only important gradations in the thinking that separates men today will be found along a scale of how many yes and how many no answers are given.

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My own position is a resounding NO to every single one of these questions.

The demonstrated purpose of both major political parties, and including the new, conservative administration is yes to at least a majority of the questions.

And it probably would be fair to say that the response of most Americans, sincerely and in heartfelt patriotism, also would be yes.

That the so-called liberal response has been yes all along does not require exposition at this point. Readers of average care know this is true from a generation of reform-liberal, New Deal-type programs in which every action of government has been condoned and expanded. "Liberal" programs have, without exception, strengthened government, and have rejected by their very actions one particular approach to problem-solving. That approach is liberation; the liberation of people from political control rather than simply trying to advantage them by political favoritism.

Conservative Contradictions

Conservatives, it now turns out, have little to crow about either. They have howled at the expenditure of tax-taken money for welfare programs but have jumped to support vast outpourings of the same sort of money for the entire panoply of the military-industrial complex and the garrison state; many supported racial laws at the state level but wept when reverse-racial laws became Federal; many gleefully seek government subsidy and protection of business even when they rail against government protection of unions; many ask tariffs to protect their particular interest; few object to farm boondoggling when it gives millions to a man with vast acreage, but many decry the support of another man with a small and unproductive plot.

The examples abound; examples of inconsistency, of outrage at government when it benefits someone else, and of red-white-and-blue support for government when it’s "on our side."

Particularly today, the conservative contradiction is glaring. Of a sudden, as though smitten by righteous lightning, conservatives are discovering that government is good and big government is even gooder. Where is the conservative voice being raised to ask, of the new administration, that it use its every power not to "improve" government but to, quite literally, get it off the backs of the people altogether.

Instead, the talk most popularly is of such things as "tax incentives," as though letting a man keep some of the money he has earned is an act of supreme wisdom and charity on the part of the government. Only those who, deep down, believe that the government actually does have first claim on everything legitimately, can find inspiration in a system that merely uses taxes to "pay off" this or that class or faction.

Where, instead, is the conservative voice that says do not simply reform the tax system; replace it!

There are few such voices to be heard. Ironically, only on the libertarian right and in some portions of the New Left or among true anarchists are there voices crying against not programs and not against personalities but against government itself.

It is in this very context and against this very background, of the widespread acceptance of government as good, that liberty must beg, must implore all with some concern for her to pause, to reflect – ultimately, to resist.

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The Nature of Man

Philosophically, the resistance to government has roots running to the very nature of man himself. There are questions to be asked, in care and conscience, on that score just as on the political score.

Do you feel that your life is unimportant when compared to the lives of others?

Do you feel that the noblest thing you could do would be to give your life for someone else?

Do you feel that the value of each man is simply what "society" says it is?

Do you feel that man actually is incapable, as an individual, of knowing what is right or wrong: and that only the wisdom of "society" can establish such values?

Do you feel that the life of each individual person belongs in large part to society?

Do you feel that individual men are nothing, but that "mankind" is everything?

Do you feel that man’s reasoning mind is just a veneer and that under it he is only another animal, very much like all others?

Do you feel that man is basically bad?

Do you feel that if man didn’t have restraints he always would run amuck?

Do you feel that man’s mind is so limited, in the long run, that it just isn’t safe to think you know anything for sure?

Do you feel that your life is swept along, determined by invisible forces over which you have no control?

The person who answered no to the liberty-degrading questions listed earlier should answer no also to these life-degrading questions. But the sad truth is that, to a greater or lesser degree, the most acceptable answer has become yes, yes, yes.

Just as liberty has become a low order of priority for concern politically, so has the individual become a low order of priority for concern philosophically. And, of course, it follows. The collectivist view of society, which dominates politics of both parties and most people today, also dominates the view of man himself. In both instances the word of the day is that men must be ruled, that they are unworthy of liberty, and that progress is only possible through the programs of a special elite, the politicians.

To the abiding discredit of most of us, the fundamental question of liberty and man, of man versus the state, has been neglected, rarely even asked as the right and left, liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican have preoccupied themselves with the lesser questions of political spoils.

The challenge to liberals today is whether they will mutter in their tents about the amounts of welfare programs or the progress of some particular war or whether they will become concerned by the principles of liberty that underlie the programs and the conflict. Liberals cannot have it both ways.

The problems of poverty and prejudice are not solvable by piling official restrictions, more control, and more coercion on top of old, informal repressions. It is to the liberation of people, not their regimentation that liberals should have addressed themselves had they not been swept up in the current concern for political control as an end in itself.

Nor can liberals have it both ways about war. Wars are waged, solely, by governments. The bigger and stronger the government, the bigger and more likely the wars it will wage. Liberals who worship the state, and forsake liberty, who oppose one war but whoop it up for others (against "bad" guys), are no friends of liberty or of peace.

Conservatives are similarly challenged and they have similarly failed.

After decades of platform ranting about the perils of big government, they have been in the forefront of those who advocate all-encompassing government to protect industry, wage war (against their enemies, of course) and, above all, to establish and enforce norms of conduct and morality as they have conceived those norms.

Both liberals and conservatives, to sum it up, become preoccupied with the ways in which to use government, each for their own ideological or class benefit.

Neither have offered a body of libertarian doctrine. Neither have, so far, returned to the concern over liberty which marked the founding of the nation.

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November 2, 2009