Is coercive government a necessary evil? Or merely an ancient one?
And if the latter, why are we still confused about it?
Every argument in favor of government -- any kind of coercive government -- is utterly demolished by government's frequent mass murders and other crimes throughout history, which continue in the present day. Lesser reasons for turning from coercive government are powerful also; for example, whatever government does, it does badly, wastefully, and expensively. Coercive government is a centralized, top-down, authoritarian approach, fundamentally at odds with the decentralized, chaotic, bottom-up emergent system of human society.
Still, the utilitarian argument pales to insignificance next to the stunning, irrefutable, jaw-dropping fact of repeated, epic mass murder.
Nobody would support a system that even occasionally did that.
Unhappily, of course, many would and do. In part, this is because few governments at any given time are behaving as badly as described above. Even Professor R. J. Rummel, author of Death by Government, points out that low-power governments with significant citizen oversight are relatively safe for their citizens[i]; data for this may be found at his website and in his books, including especially Power Kills: democracy as a method of nonviolence.
An obvious caveat is that small, carefully restrained governments tend to become larger and less restrained over time. Safe today does not mean safe tomorrow.
Still, not every government is a horror (although all are potential horrors), and of course many of the people employed by government are kind, compassionate, and well-meaning. But these are hardly arguments in favor of coercive government, are they?
Imagine if “only a few” software companies were setting up death camps, or rape and torture camps,[ii] to kill or intimidate people who dared use competing software. People think Microsoft is evil now; what would they think if it started putting anti-personnel mines inside boxes of WordPerfect or Linux? Or if they were herding Mac users into camps at gunpoint and systematically raping them or beating them to the point of permanent disability?
Some governments do exactly that sort of thing, yet the leaders involved often remain wise and cuddly father-figures in the eyes of the public. For instance, Gorby’s Soviet Union actually did scatter toys rigged as grenades around the landscape of Afghanistan in an attempt to reduce the number of future rebels.[iii] They targeted children for death, injury, and maiming, in the service of nothing more noble than a desire to simply steal the country of Afghanistan .
Bizarrely, many in the press and the public remain enamored of Mr. Gorbachev. Would they feel the same about Bill Gates, if Microsoft had done something similar?
This easy affection for monsters who happen to be high-level government pooh-bahs continues; Pootie-Poot, as George W. Bush has famously nicknamed the current President of Russia, was a KGB foreign intelligence officer for 17 years.[iv]
The KGB was infamous for torture, murder, and other such crimes. This group was to the Soviet Union (and now Russia) what the SS and the Gestapo were to Nazi Germany. And Pootie’s brave new Russia remains a brutal police state, despite propaganda to the contrary.[v]
Still: “Pootie-poot.” How sweet! How warm and cuddly.
Clearly, something powerful is going on here.
If government is, even occasionally, the tool with which war, genocide, and other epic atrocities are inflicted, an obvious question arises: Why would intelligent and compassionate people support such a nightmare?
Why would decent, sweet-natured folk support a system that is not merely inefficient and parasitic, but extremely dangerous? Why would they support an evil beyond anything Stephen King has yet imagined?
Perhaps most puzzling of all: Given its track record, why would anyone expect coercive government to be a good tool for bringing more compassion into the world?
These are important questions. I cannot imagine successfully “striking at the root of evil” without first having a clear understanding of why people clamor so desperately for coercive government, despite abundant evidence of its horrific character.
Would you choose something with a track record of mass murder, famine, war, extortion, and other violent crime – for anything? If you wanted to foster compassion, or to improve the world in any way, would you use the most dangerous and deadly tool in the history of mankind?
Of course not.
What, then, of your neighbors? Are they insane?
Speaking of emotional health: for obvious reasons, coercive government has always been the tool of choice for ambitious sociopaths. For that matter, coercive government is so dangerous that even when nice people are trying to do good with it, they usually end up causing havoc, poverty, and violence.[vi] The underlying principles of centralized government power (even, to a lesser extent, when “centralized” at the village level) are simply at odds with positive long-term outcomes.
Still, almost everyone believes we need government. Despite both logic and widespread evidence that things can be done with or without government coercion, many people get agitated even talking about the possibility of “no government.” After all, government “takes care of us.” It “grows the economy.” It saves us from crime! It protects the environment! If we all cry loudly enough, the government will give us free health care!!
So again: Are people nuts, or what?
Perhaps they are merely unreasonable, in which case we might ask what is guiding their attitudes, if not reason.
The answer, I believe, is feeling.[vii] This shouldn’t be surprising, because (the “homo sapiens” label notwithstanding) reason plays a vastly smaller role in human life than does feeling.
Feeling is a profound, ancient, deeply grounded part of human life. In contrast, intellect is a fragile and shallow film that has emerged in the last few seconds of evolutionary time. Intellect and reason are laughably weak compared to the foundations they are perched upon, and (among other things) are notoriously easy to mislead, to distract, to fool. Nor do they exert any real power over our lives, compared to feeling – for example, read the warning label on a pack of cigarettes and then ask why millions of Americans smoke. (“Cancer, heart disease, AND emphysema? With stained teeth and nasty breath in the bargain? Well hey – better make that TWO cartons.”)
Clearly, if reason was as powerful as we like to think, tobacco companies would have gone out of business long ago. Win the intellect and you win little; win a person's feelings and you have, in most cases, won it all.
Because feelings shape attitudes and actions, it is worth considering the connection between widespread emotional health and respect for human rights. In particular: Where one is weak, the other is diminished or threatened.
Emotional health determines much of a person's, and ultimately a society's, character and behavior.[viii] Knowing that, it would be foolish to expect laws, religious teaching, or rational argument (on their own) to set us free or to save the world.
And make no mistake: "Saving the world" is precisely what we are talking about. If there is anything that Marxists, socialists, and other “compassionate" big-brother advocates understand, it is that politics is about tapping into the common desire for a more loving, compassionate, and emotionally healthy world. Making sure Grandma has medical care is a specific item on the agenda, but the big picture is far larger and more important to people than most libertarians seem to think.
This is worth repeating, because it is a critical point: Socialism and its sisters (neo-socialism, "big government," Marxism, the New Deal, the Great Society, compassionate conservatism, etc.) have gained intellectual and literal ground because they promise, in one way or another, to actually save the world -- to create the decent, compassionate society that every person longs for, consciously or not. Of late, literally saving the world from ecologic disaster has been added to the canon.
As a result, the creation of an emotionally healthy, free, and genuinely compassionate world is most strongly opposed today by a tyranny that is being sold as Paradise.
More is involved. Take another moment, if you will, to consider that coercive government conforms to the paradigm of the parent-child relationship.
Coercive government seems "normal" because it so closely follows the pattern we learned to expect of our elders when we were small, and because so many of us are still struggling to find parents to fill our childhood needs. This simple truth is an incredibly powerful factor in blinding people to damage done by the State.
We seek unconsciously for the good parent to finally take care of us, and as we look around, nothing seems a stronger candidate than government. If we can't have Mommy and Daddy, perhaps Big Brother or Uncle Sam (or Papa Doc or Uncle Joe) will take care of things instead. After all, we live in the Motherland, or the Fatherland, or the Homeland. Doesn’t that hint pretty strongly at what we want our political “leaders” to be?
This blatant yet seemingly invisible emotional equation lends a desperate power to belief in the State. The child's need, camouflaged but eternally striving for fulfillment, becomes the adult "need" for a State that steps into vacant parental shoes that were never quite filled to begin with.
In short, government persists partly as an unresolved after-image from our childhoods.
Similarities between the typical parent-child relationship and the typical State-subject relationship run deep, and are no accident. The average parent treats his or her children much as the average government treats its subjects – in an authoritarian manner, with a mixture of concern, neglect, and coercion, and with psychological or even physical violence "balancing" the affection. Schools and other institutions treat children in much the same fashion.
This is seldom done intentionally or even knowingly, but it is done nonetheless. It has, down through the ages, created generations of damaged, unfree children who have grown into damaged, unfree adults – who have in turn created damaging, unfree societies.
Helping to break this ancient cycle is the true role of those who work for human rights.
The profound human need for love, compassion, and sovereignty over one’s own life – including especially the traumatic lack of those qualities early in life for most people – makes the widespread, millennia-long misperception of coercive government as idealized parent-figure possible and, indeed, almost inevitable.
In turn, this leads to the carefully fostered modern error that government is an agent of compassion. Given all that, one quickly sees the emotional power that attaches to the idea of coercive socialism, or to the Democratic Party, or to any other neo-socialist group. The name and the details scarcely matter; that the group promises to take care of people, to implement compassion, is the important thing. This form of government is, for those who embrace it, no mere practical tool or casual choice. It is, instead, a profound champion of love, brotherhood, and decency. It is the last, desperate hope for a compassionate and healthy world. To oppose such a thing would not be simply an error, but a monstrous and genuine evil.
I believe that socialists, and many who do not yet call themselves that, see the matter in exactly such fashion: as a struggle between good and evil. Coercive socialism is good (compassionate, loving, caring, brotherly, decent, kind, etc.) and whatever opposes socialism is evil (cold, cruel, mean-spirited, selfish, hateful).
Consciously or otherwise, this is how politics appears to many people – and I empathize with them. I take the libertarian view that freedom is "good" while slavery, initiated coercion, and other forms of un-freedom are "evil," of course, and I see governments everywhere destroying the compassion and prosperity that most people believe government can create for them. (For that matter, I see governments everywhere destroying the environment instead of saving it,[ix] causing crime instead of stopping it, and in general doing the opposite of what people think they see it doing.[x] "The Emperor's New Clothes" does not go nearly far enough). But I do not in the least think people foolish for taking these matters so seriously; only that they are confused about whether freedom or its lack will create the world they want. In either case, the concerns are powerful:
* Life or death.
* Good or evil.
* Compassion or cruelty.
Why would anyone be lukewarm on such issues? And how, to be blunt, could we expect people to see libertarians (or anarcho-capitalists) as anything other than tools of the Antichrist, given the framework that coercive socialists, and to a lesser extent Statists of every stripe, have created and successfully sold?
There are many other factors at work in the cancer-like growth of government power, and much has been written about them. I do not deny their importance. But the power of feeling, of repressed trauma, and of unmet early need in shaping common misperceptions of government are far more important than most people believe. More awareness of the underpinnings of Statism’s appeal can only help the cause of freedom.
The movement for freedom and human rights (extra-credit question: Is there a difference?) continues to lose ground in the United States. Clearly, anything that might re-awaken Americans to their sense of liberty would be a good thing. More generally and ambitiously: Anything that breaks the spell of coercive government as a compassionate parent substitute, or as an otherwise supernatural and beneficent force – is a good thing.
Government-as-parent represents an incredibly powerful hope: that a compassionate, civil, and loving world might actually emerge from the hatred, violence, and cynicism of this one.
People have been taught that only government is strong enough to shelter and nourish the beginnings of such a world. The power of our need for a healthy world may be gauged by the rapid early growth and persistence of Marxism and of other coercive, centralized systems which promise to create brotherhood by brute force. That such promises are blatant lies highlights how desperate and universal is the need, and how weak is human reason relative to the feelings involved.
History gives little reason to hope this situation will change soon. In 1849, Thoreau opened his essay “Civil Disobedience” with a plea – still unfulfilled – for a world without the nightmare of government coercion:
I heartily accept the motto, -- “That government is best which governs least;” and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe, – “That government is best which governs not at all;” and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.
-- Henry David Thoreau
As the 21st century begins, men (and women) seem even less prepared for such a world than in the past. The misperception of coercive government as necessary, as substitute parent, as mystical civilizing force, seems nearly universal.
If mankind could afford another 6,000 years of violent, blood-drenched history before getting things right, the wait would still be a tragedy beyond imagining.
But do we have that long?[xi]
Previously used on Rummel’s home page; this chart is from his data.
[iii] Time Magazine and other sources reported during the Soviet war in Afghanistan that the Soviets were scattering anti-personnel mines, in the form of toys rigged to explode, around the landscape. The Time link is pay-for-play, but the free preview at their site (search for “Afghanistan Soviet toys” at http://www.time.com/time) includes confirmation of that bit of horror.
See also http://cappsfamily.hypermart.net/cold_war.htm#TheAfghanQuagmire if you’re interested. Gorbachev, Soviet CEO during much of this carnage, was named as Time's Man of the Year for 1987. See http://www.time.com/time/special/moy/1987.html, both to verify the Man of the Year award for Gorby and to read the love letter they published about him on the occasion ("balanced journalism," as Time would surely call it).
[v] Thousands still in Stalin's gulags by Charles Clover, The London Telegraph, 04/01/2002
-- and -- Torture, murder and lies by J.R. Nyquist, WorldNetDaily.com, 11/4/1999
-- and -- Amnesty International’s “Campaign for Justice” project, designed “to highlight the discrepancy between the human rights protection which those living in the Russian Federation have in international and national law, and the reality of widespread human rights abuses committed in a climate of impunity.”
[vi] An especially stunning example of this tendency is the FDA -- the agency most commonly believed critical to life and health in America. Yet many experts believe that, on net, it kills thousands of Americans each year. See, for instance, Death by Regulation: The price we pay for the FDA, by Dr. Mary J. Ruwart.
The Life Extension Foundation, which has fought the FDA in court repeatedly, published a critique of the agency last year titled What's Wrong With The FDA. It includes the following: [emphasis added]
For the past 21 years, The Life Extension Foundation has compiled evidence indicating that the FDA is the number one cause of death in the United States. The FDA causes Americans to die by:
* Delaying the introduction of life-saving therapies
* Suppressing safe methods of preventing disease
* Causing the price of drugs to be so high that some Americans do without
* Denying Americans access to effective drugs approved in other countries
* Intimidating those who develop innovative methods to treat disease
* Approving lethal prescription drugs that kill
* Censoring medical information that would let consumers protect their health
* Censoring medical information that would better educate doctors
* Failing to protect the safety of our food
* Misleading the public about scientific methods to increase longevity
The greatest threat the FDA poses to our health is the fact that the agency functions as a roadblock to the development of breakthrough medical therapies. Innovation in medicine is stifled by FDA red tape, which is why Americans continue to die from diseases that long ago might have been cured if a free marketplace in drug development existed.
[end of excerpt]
-- see also The Lethal Information Gap by William Faloon in the July issue of Life Extension Magazine for more specific details of how thousands of Americans are dying needlessly each year (including someone you know, perhaps?), with the FDA a major cause of the problem. As always with the LEF folks, extensive references are included.
[vii] “Brain scanning shows emotion key in how people make tough moral decisions” by Lauran Neergaard, AP Medical Writer in the San Francisco Chronicle. According to the article, a recent Princeton University study found that ". . . a key to tough moral judgments is emotion, not logical or analytical reasoning." The experiment’s team leader also asserts that "Most of the important social and political issues that divide people are really moral issues.”