A Disease Masquerading as its Own Cure
By Louis James
Exclusive to The Libertarian Enterprise
The late Robert Lafevre is said to have alleged that "government is a disease masquerading as its own cure." All humor value aside, I think there's a real kernel of truth in this observation.
Our culture is ill.
Ayn Rand put her finger on it many different times and ways, as she talked about the decaying moral fabric of our country. Republicans are making similar noises these days as well. Walter Williams calls it government sponsored immorality.
My own interpretation is that it is an evaporation of standards of just conduct.
By this I mean the kind of rules we all follow when waiting in line at a movie theater. There are no laws governing this, no Line-Police. These rules evolved spontaneously, and -- to the extent they are enforced at all -- are enforced only by the awareness of the likely unhappy consequences of rudeness.
The statist mentality would argue that there are times when people cut the line or that the old are forced to stand too long; we need a Bureau of Lines. Philosophers call it the Public Goods Argument. This same poisonous idea -- that there are some things we need that will only be provided if the state does it -- was the chink in Adam Smith's intellectual armor that has allowed well intentioned persons and dictators alike to enslave us in the name of helping us. This is the same Big Lie statists everywhere have used to enhance the power of the state at the expense of the individual.
And what are the results?
The welfare state is such a sparkling success that statists have been able to justify its expansion with every new level of human misery it has produced.
A growing regulatory apparatus has so "protected" us from harmful activity that it is almost (if not actually!) impossible to earn a living without breaking a law.
Civil law has become distorted to the point where incredible damage awards for the most paltry of imagined wrongs have created an atmosphere in which it is increasingly difficult for individuals and businesses to plan ahead.
Criminal law is rapidly becoming nothing more than a brute's club with which to beat the masses into adhering to whatever moral imperatives (green, sectarian, socialist, or whatever) those in power at the moment think are important.
The law enforcement community is being freed from constitutional restraints and developing an agenda of its own.
But these things are symptoms, as is the chaos they produce. The true nature of the illness that both produces and is produced by such trends, like a viscous cycle of disease begetting disease, is human irresponsibility. In modern times, the infection starts with the state -- itself built on foundations of Public Goods Arguments -- which attempts to replace standards of just conduct with force (laws). It is rather like a parent ordering children around, instead of enrolling them in doing the right thing. It is the difference between "because I said so (and I'm bigger than you are)" and "because it is the right thing to do (and this is why...)." It is the difference between force and voluntary association.
Such preemptive use of force denies people the possibility of choosing to do the right thing. This breeds irresponsibility. The illness spirals toward crisis, displaying symptomatic chaos in ever escalating horrors.
The state responds with more government involvement in interpersonal affairs, which leads to more irresponsibility. People feel caught up in some vast impersonal system that cares for them in inverse proportion to its claims to do so. They feel this way because they are caught in a vast impersonal system.
The most amazing thing about it is that very few people are died-in-the-wool statists. The state itself doesn't even exist! We are dealing with a phenomenon that, as violent and powerful as it is, is nothing more than a pattern of behaviors exhibited by a community of individuals.
True believers in the myth do great harm with their worship, but the greatest harm comes from the cooperation of good people who simply never question the orthodoxy. Government, as a system and a pattern of social organization, destroys the incentives that remind people that they truly are responsible for themselves. It is simply a twist of history that places us in an era where the mythology of the state has taken a form that obscures the unhealthy nature of the whole notion.
This is worth repeating: to the extent that the state exists, it is the aggregation of the beliefs and actions of the individuals participating in the myth.
Think of it as a kind of mass mental illness.
Must it be this way?
Yes. The modern state, by its very nature and existence, tells you that there are some things you just can't do for yourself. YOU ARE INCOMPETENT! This is what every agency and office in the government tells us, simply by existing. You are incompetent to decide what medicines to take; we'll make sure your doctor can only give you the ones we think are best. You are incompetent to defend yourself, or hire a security company; we'll make sure you're kept safe and sound. You're too stupid to provide for your senior years, so we'll do it for you...
And people listen. Precious few ever wonder how it comes to be that government employees can be so competent when people are all such imbeciles. If we're not competent to live, respond the people, then we can't be responsible for our actions.
And the courts listen (well, at least the lawyers do). You are not responsible, say the courts, you are an adult child of an alcoholic. You are not responsible, agree the bureaucrats, you are too poor to look for a job. You are not responsible, add the self-proclaimed leaders of the feminist movement, you are just products of The Patriarchy.
Add to this mixture the well documented failure of government-based solutions, and you have the perfect recipe for -- you guessed it -- escalating disorder.
The bottom line is that to govern is to rule, and to rule is to enslave. No one is surprised when slaves produce no more than will allow them to escape punishment. Why should it surprise us that people feel little incentive to maintain a social order that dehumanizes them and over which they have little control?
This deplorable state of affairs has gone so far, that students who refuse to cheat, who want only the grade they can earn, are a vanishing breed. When one of these throwbacks does appear in the corridors of our state schools, the ridicule received is savage.
An adult with a work ethic is so rare that businesses assume that a certain percentage of their resources will go to deliberate waste, outright embezzlement, and theft. As a matter of course! Retailers call it shrinkage. As a corporate restaurant manager, I simply knew that a portion of my food and liquor cost was going to people who thought I was hopelessly naive for being upset about it.
And the mythical statists are delighted; such irresponsible persons clearly need their helping hand! (Those poor slaves, they'd starve without us to take care of them! Yes, Marse IRS, we are slaves! Take our money, and give it to those who'll tell us what to do!)
Make no mistake. If the bureaucrats and statists ever cured the illnesses they claim to be treating, they'd be out of a job.
Now, I'm not claiming that all statists are deliberately encouraging our society's illness for their personal gain. I think we all know that a good number of them are simply pursuing personal gain with no thought to the consequences at all.
Perhaps some do know that deteriorating conditions justify increased budgets for their fiefdoms (certain sectors of the law enforcement community come to mind). My guess is that these are probably outnumbered by those who have simply accepted what they have been told about how much good they are doing. They have very powerful reasons not to shed the light of reason onto such assumptions.
And remember; individual bureaucrats, officers, justices, legislators, presidents, and so forth -- who may or may not actually be statists -- do not matter. Harmful actions by such individuals are worth opposing, but just barely. What really matters is undermining the myth. Chains do not a slave make. It is our acceptance of the myth that some men and organizations have the right to tell us what to do that enslaves us.
So, how do we treat this illness?
The answer has to lie in reversing the basic pathology and in countering the pathogen. The pathology is individual irresponsibility. The pathogen is the state. The antidote is the individual's realization that she or he is, in fact, free. It is a grim fact, but nevertheless true, that we can all opt out of the myth by taking our own lives. No power of the state can prevent this. The trick is to find less drastic -- and more productive -- ways of opting out of the myth.
I urge everyone to accept the fullest responsibility for their actions. I recognize that not everyone has the heart for this, but still urge everyone to do the best they can to be examples. I also recognize that some resistance can get one killed in short order, and hope that we are still a long way from the time when such prices actually make sense.
However, this shouldn't be used as an excuse for not doing what we can. We are not slaves, and we must not act like we are!
I maintain that the truth is that people put their own manacles on, and keep the keys in their own pockets! Slavery is an attitude. The worst fear of the mythical statist must be that one day enough people will realize this and the power of the state will cease to exist.
For those who think that I am pushing the rhetoric too far, think about that dark night not so many years ago in the former Soviet Union. Slavery had slipped for a moment, and the thought of it settling back was just unendurable. Without any orders -- or permission -- tens of thousands of people spontaneously took those invisible keys out of the gray folds of their minds and unlocked their chains. Without any reason to believe they would not stand alone, they went and stood in front of tanks. They said to their brothers and sisters, we will be slaves no more!
How can we do less?
Indeed, if we are unwilling to act when slavery is less oppressive, we will surely have to act when resistance has become more lethal.
Resist state programs that aggress upon you. Decry state crimes loudly. Find out about arbitration, and don't use the state courts. Don't use the post office. Don't collect social security (yes, you were lied to, but SS money is blood-money, taken by force from non-consenting others). Exercise your right to defend yourself. Don't cooperate with the state, or participate in maintaining its fictions. If you are going to vote, for life's sake, vote for the candidate or party that will truly work towards reducing state power, size, and violence.
Above all, be an honest person of integrity that deals fairly with all, and repairs any harm done to others. Show the world that people can do the right thing without being forced to!
Lastly, we can dust off a word that was put away too soon.
A good, hard, uncompromising word, rich with historical overtones. Abolition. The institutionalized coercion of some individuals by others is still with us. Abolition. Perhaps we were naive to think that freeing the slaves brought from Africa would be the end of a poisonous idea. Abolition. Ideas die harder than that. Abolition...
It may be that, if we ever completely abolish slavery, the state as we know it will cease to exist. So be it. I'm sure we can think of something better. ABOLITION!!!
Louis James is a father, a Libertarian, and an advocate for self-government. He reads, he writes, and he has the good fortune to earn his living by helping to spread the idea of liberty.
Pallas, the new sci-fi adventure novel by L. Neil Smith is out in paperback from Tor. Is there room for a socialist utopia on an individualist asteroid?
Now available at good bookstores everywhere!
Next to advance to the next article, or Previous to return to the previous article, or Index to return to The Libertarian Enterprise, Number 2, November 1995.