“The object of power, is power”
George Orwell, 1949
“Put not your trust in Princes.”
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
George Santayana, 1906
You will remember an old story, about “the Emperor’s New Clothes”. When the King tells everyone that things are a certain way although they are not, but out of fear all “his” people say “yes, yes, it is indeed so” - it is a child who has to remind everyone of what is actually the truth. Having no fear of anything but a lie and too young to have learned that “the King is always right”, he instead tells everyone that the King’s magnificent and magical robes are just an illusion.
I am going to suggest a very astonishing proposition: The magnificent and magical robes of Government are just an illusion.
“The ordering of rank, with the chief in a bronze age society or the monarch in a contemporary kingdom, is not a natural “given”. It is the result of developments in society that depend upon convention and the acceptance of convention, upon a kind of implicit social contract”
Colin Renfrew, “Prehistory: the making of the Human Mind”, 2007
“The notion that the ruler had divine sanction, indeed a divine right to rule, was to make unquestionable both his status and his power.”
Colin Renfrew, “Prehistory: the making of the Human Mind”, 2007
That may sound startling, and some of you may read this and politely chuckle, but there it is. You, through your parents and their parents before them, have been raised over numerous centuries with the proposition that “government is good”, and you believe this with a blind faith. You will note that the government controls much of the educational system, so this is no real surprise.
“Who controls the past, controls the future; who controls the present, controls the past”
George Orwell, 1948
“Make me the master of education, and I will undertake to change the world”
Baron Gottfried von Leibnitz, 1646-1716
“The education of all children, from the moment that they can get along without a mother’s care, shall be in state institutions at state expense.”
Karl Marx, Communist Manifesto, 1848
You have been taught to think that the government is your friend, it is there to help you, and it knows best what is good for everyone. Actually, as far as I can tell, this is a trend of thought that was best articulated in the middle of Queen Victoria’s reign in the 1800’s by John Stuart Mill, discussing what he called “Utilitarianism”. This was the theory that “what was best, was that which was best for the most”.
What that means is fairly vague though; for instance, the traditional argument against democracy itself was the 'Socrates problem', what we would today call "a Right". In ancient Athens, a democratic majority could vote for the death of Socrates – and, because that was indeed the will of 'the most', his execution followed. Yet today almost everyone (not quite, but almost: pure democrats still believe in no true rights) would say “that is wrong”: they would agree that the 'majority of people' should not be able to vote for a man’s death. A man ought to have a defence that trumps the democratic will: that's a Right.
So, seeing the problem with pure democracy, John Stuart Mill (who was, incidentally, a very reasonable fellow) agreed that Rights are "what's best for the most". But the problem Mill's Utilitarianism leads to, though, is “central planning”. Who the heck gets to decide what is “best for the most”, if it’s not the 'expressed will of the majority'? What an opening for a dictator! "I will tell you what's best", cry the politicians!
“The common good before self”
Governments have latched onto this theory of Utilitarianism because it is an awfully fun job to be the one who gets to tell everyone else “what is best”. Do you know “what is best” for others? Of course not, any person’s life is a complicated thing, let alone for an outsider - running your own affairs is tricky enough - but government has taught you that it does know “what is best” for others, and you have been taught to suck this up as the only possible truth: we can’t have people thinking and deciding “important matters” for themselves, now can we?
“We must lay hold of the fact that economic laws are not made by nature. They are made by human beings… the Federal Government will assume bold leadership.”
President Franklin Roosevelt, 1932
“I believe that in every part of our complicated social fabric there must be either national or state control”
President Theodore Roosevelt, 1910
But who is this “government”? Is it a magical Camelot up on a cloud with infinite wisdom? No, oddly, it is just a bunch of people who, like you, don’t actually know what is best at all. Like you, they are human, not divine, and are capable of error. They do not see and anticipate all things, they are generally not trained in wisdom, but only economics. The difference is, they think they can, (or worse, they think they should), run things. Some honestly believe they are doing good and take themselves quite seriously, but those are perhaps the most dangerous.
“Government is the only agency that can take a useful commodity like paper, slap some ink on it, and make it totally worthless.”
Ludwig von Mises
Currently, it is popular to blame the recent stock market meltdown on “evil capitalists”- leave that allegation aside for a second because it is astonishingly simplistic [or read my paper “On Currency”], unless everyone with a credit card debt is “evil” - are you aware that the financial industry is regulated by the US government, which has been embarrassed, amazed and apologetic for having been asleep at the wheel? They never did spot Madoff’s criminal depredations ahead of time, even though they were investigating him for years – well done that! Do you recall in Ontario how the government regulated water at Walkerton, and people died nonetheless? Good work again. Do you recall in Ontario how the government has run its eHealth department by handing out money to favoured contacts, a practice Canadians have seen over and over when it comes to the Liberals bribing Quebec voters with patronage, or the Conservatives saving General Motors for the union vote? Or both government’s Gun Registry? Or the Lottery Corporation’s frauds?
The departments of administration, ever extending and absorbing more public money, become independent of all real control… and turn out second-rate work, just because such work is exposed to no competition, and is relieved from the danger of the bankruptcy court – all official mistakes being covered over by larger and larger takings from the public.
Auberon Herbert, 1897
The fact is: “Government” is just “other people” who like to have and keep a cushy, riskless and non-creative job – it is not something magical that “will protect you”. In fact, as a pathetic result of government patronization, we have created a culture of reliance, expecting the government to “protect us” or “look after us”, rather than of taking responsibility for protecting ourselves. Read the newspapers: listen to people whining for the government to do this, or do that, for them – you may only notice if they are clamoring for a thing you don’t agree with – but it happens daily.
“The State is the great fictitious entity by which everyone seeks to live at the expense of everyone else.”
Frederic Bastiat, 1848
The government does not “know what is best”. It is not clever or big enough to control all thought, all decisions, to anticipate all future developments, all economic, cultural, foreign, natural, scientific and emotional evolutions. Thank goodness for that; because if it actually had its way, you would be told everything to think and do, wouldn’t you? How does that appeal to you? Because if you are thinking that the government is good exactly because it knows “what is best for the most”, I will gamble that’s because you think you are one of those “most”, not one of the other poor fellows who will be controlled. It’s fine enough when it’s the “other fellow” being controlled: what you may not realize is that in a completely controlled State, things are not very pretty. Utopia is a graveyard for your liberty too.
“If you like sausages and laws, you shouldn’t watch either of them being made.”
Otto von Bismark
“A man’s liberties are nonetheless aggressed upon because those who coerce him do so in the belief that he will be benefitted.”
Herbert Spencer, 1893
But you ask, doesn’t the government need to run things to make a country work? No. Here is a little test of this obvious truth.
Picture yourself having a conversation with a person from Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China (and as an aside, I have nothing but respect and well-wishes for the poor people of those two great down-trodden nations – the sooner they can truly turn to Capitalism the happier they will be). This person suggests that the government needs to make all decisions for the benefit of the whole including where, when and how to build houses. You reply that in our world the government does not build houses; instead private, profit-motivated developers do. The person will be astonished: how can this be, for he was taught that capitalists are evil? Won’t the houses all be different? Won’t they fall down? Will they be cold in winter? Damp in the rain? How can it be safe if the government doesn’t control this? Builders can’t be trusted, only government can.
You will laugh, and say that it’s all okay, because good housebuilders make good houses (in fact better, more interesting, efficient and safer than the communist ones). The businesses that make bad houses go out of business and are not generally heard from again – the free market defeats them: unlike in other countries, they do not get to stay in business because of their government connections. After all, you could point out, only governments, with their power of force, have the means to create a monopoly of any kind; free markets don’t create monopolies.
State power, no matter how well disguised by seductive words, is in the last analysis always coercive physical power.
Felix Morley, 1949
What about food? asks this person. Surely something as important as food needs to be controlled by the State – mere selfish businessmen cannot be trusted with the food supply – they will take advantage of the starving poor. In order to make sure everyone eats, and eats fairly the same meals, of course – that’s how it was in Russia, (with its consequent bare market-shelves, and day-long lineups to get your “fair” share of nothing). You stare in amazement; why no, you say, here the State has very little involvement with the food chain, and miraculously we have not all starved to death. In fact, those selfish businessmen, in order to earn a living, provide us with astonishingly diverse choices of food from all around the globe at prices which astonishingly make the cost of transporting them here seem to disappear. Huh!
“Our adversaries believe that an activity that is neither subsidized nor regulated is abolished. We believe the contrary. Their faith is in the legislator, not mankind. Ours is in mankind, not in the legislator.”
Frederic Bastiat, 1850
And so on, from topic to topic – whatever topic is your personal favourite, I will challenge your belief that any government could do it better than free people motivated by personal gain. The fact is, human specialization and creativity makes the world better, not regulations “controlling” mankind’s courage and inventiveness. Remember this, American friends, as you contemplate state-controlled medicine.
Government never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of its way.
Henry David Thoreau, 1849
How can we survive without government control? Quite easily. It actually adds nothing to the success of an operation, but rather detracts from it. Did a government ever invent a computer, a bicycle, a shoe, a car, a toaster, or a rug? No - progress comes from people, not some fuzzy unidentifiable group of non-inventive people called, grandly, “The Government”.
It is so tiresome to hear of people, or the media in particular, looking to government for “their Leaders”. They so want you to think like that. Instead, consider living your life without any leader but your own conscience. How can some unknown bureaucrat ever beat that?
Don’t be afraid to tell the King that he is naked, if that is what you see. Everyone benefits from the truth.
“It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself.”