What gives some people the right to rule others? At least since John Locke’s time, the most common and seemingly compelling answer has been “the consent of the governed.” When the North American revolutionaries set out to justify their secession from the British Empire, they declared, among other things: “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed.” This sounds good, especially if one doesn’t think about it very hard or very long, but the harder and longer one thinks about it, the more problematic it becomes.
One question after another comes to mind. Must every person consent? If not, how many must, and what options do those who do not consent have? What form must the consent take ― verbal, written, explicit, implicit? If implicit, how is it to be registered? Given that the composition of society is constantly changing, owing to births, deaths, and international migration, how often must the rulers confirm that they retain the consent of the governed? And so on and on. Political legitimacy, it would appear, presents a multitude of difficulties when we move from the realm of theoretical abstraction to that of practical realization.
I raise this question because in regard to the so-called social contract, I have often had occasion to protest that I haven’t even seen the contract, much less been asked to consent to it. A valid contract requires voluntary offer, acceptance, and consideration. I’ve never received an offer from my rulers, so I certainly have not accepted one; and rather than consideration, I have received nothing but contempt from the rulers, who, notwithstanding the absence of any agreement, have indubitably threatened me with grave harm in the event that I fail to comply with their edicts. What monumental effrontery these people exhibit! What gives them the right to rob me and push me around? It certainly is not my desire to be a sheep for them to shear or slaughter as they deem expedient for the attainment of their own ends.
Moreover, when we flesh out the idea of “consent of the governed” in realistic detail, the whole notion quickly becomes utterly preposterous. Just consider how it would work. A would-be ruler approaches you and offers a contract for your approval. Here, says he, is the deal.
I, the party of the first part (“the ruler”), promise:
(1) To stipulate how much of your money you will hand over to me, as well as how, when, and where the transfer will be made. You will have no effective say in the matter, aside from pleading for my mercy, and if you should fail to comply, my agents will punish you with fines, imprisonment, and (in the event of your persistent resistance) death.
(2) To make thousands upon thousands of rules for you to obey without question, again on pain of punishment by my agents. You will have no effective say in determining the content of these rules, which will be so numerous, complex, and in many cases beyond comprehension that no human being could conceivably know about more than a handful of them, much less their specific character, yet if you should fail to comply with any of them, I will feel free to punish you to the extent of a law made my me and my confederates.
(3) To provide for your use, on terms stipulated by me and my agents, so-called public goods and services. Although you may actually place some value on a few of these goods and services, most will have little or no value to you, and some you will find utterly abhorrent, and in no event will you as an individual have any effective say over the goods and services I provide, notwithstanding any economist’s cock-and-bull story to the effect that you “demand” all this stuff and value it at whatever amount of money I choose to expend for its provision.
(4) In the event of a dispute between us, judges beholden to me for their appointment and salaries will decide how to settle the dispute. You can expect to lose in these settlements, if your case is heard at all.
In exchange for the foregoing government “benefits,” you,the party of the second part (“the subject”), promise:
(5) To shut up, make no waves, obey all orders issued by the ruler and his agents, kowtow to them as if they were important, honorable people, and when they say “jump,” ask only “how high?”
Such a deal! Can we really imagine that any sane person would consent to it?
Yet the foregoing description of the true social contract into which individuals are said to have entered is much too abstract to capture the raw realities of being governed. In enumerating the actual details, no one has ever surpassed Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who wrote:
To be GOVERNED is to be kept in sight, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, estimated, valued, censured, commanded, by creatures who have neither the right, nor the wisdom, nor the virtue to do so. To be GOVERNED is to be at every operation, at every transaction, noted, registered, enrolled, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized, admonished, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished. It is, under pretext of public utility, and in the name of the general interest, to be placed under contribution, trained, ransomed, exploited, monopolized, extorted, squeezed, mystified, robbed; then, at the slightest resistance, the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, despised, harassed, tracked, abused, clubbed, disarmed, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed; and, to crown all, mocked, ridiculed, outraged, dishonored. That is government; that is its justice; that is its morality. (P.-J. Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century, trans. John Beverley Robinson. London: Freedom Press, 1923, p. 294)
Nowadays, of course, we would have to supplement Proudhon’s admirably precise account by noting that our being governed also entails our being electronically monitored, tracked by orbiting satellites, tased more or less at random, and invaded in our premises by SWAT teams of police, often under the pretext of their overriding our natural right to decide what substances we will ingest, inject, or inhale into what used to be known as “our own bodies.”
So, to return to the question of political legitimacy as determined by the consent of the governed, it appears upon sober reflection that the whole idea is as fanciful as the unicorn. No one in his right mind, save perhaps an incurable masochist, would voluntarily consent to be treated as governments actually treat their subjects.
Nevertheless, very few of us in this country at present are actively engaged in armed rebellion against our rulers. And it is precisely this absence of outright violent revolt that, strange to say, some commentators take as evidence of our consent to the outrageous manner in which the government treats us. Grudging, prudential acquiescence, however, is not the same thing as consent, especially when the people acquiesce, as I do, only in simmering, indignant resignation.
For the record, I can state in complete candor that I do not approve of the manner in which I am being treated by the liars, thieves, and murderers who style themselves the Government of the United States of America or by those who constitute the tyrannical pyramid of state, local, and hybrid governments with which this country is massively infested. My sincere wish is that all of these individuals would, for once in their despicable lives, do the honorable thing. In this regard, I suggest that they give serious consideration to seppuku. Whether they employ a sharp sword or a dull one, I care not, so long as they carry the act to a successful completion.
Addendum on “love it or leave it”: Whenever I write along the foregoing lines, I always receive messages from Neanderthals who, imagining that I “hate America,” demand that I get the hell out of this country and go back to wherever I came from. Such reactions evince not only bad manners, but a fundamental misunderstanding of my grievance.
I most emphatically do not hate America. I was not born in some foreign despotism, but in a domestic one known as Oklahoma, which I understand to be the very heart and soul of this country so far as culture and refinement are concerned. Moreover, for what it is worth, some of my ancestors had been living in North America for centuries before a handful of ragged, starving white men washed ashore on this continent, planted their flag, and claimed all the land they could see and a great deal they could not see on behalf of some sorry-ass European monarch. What chutzpah! I yield to no one in my affection for the Statue of Liberty, the Rocky Mountains, and the amber waves of grain, not to mention the celebrated jumping frog of Calaveras County. So when I am invited to get out of the country, I feel like someone living in a town taken over by the James Gang who has been told that if he doesn’t like being robbed and bullied by uninvited thugs, he should move to another town. To me, it seems much more fitting that the criminals get out.
Almost every nation in the world has adopted a system of participatory fascism, whereby nominally representative governments can abridge and restrict someone’s nominally recognized private-property rights. Participatory fascism may enjoy the appearance of popular legitimacy, but its formal procedures for relief from government abuses are too slow, cumbersome, costly, and ineffective to do anything reliably except to give those who lack much political clout the short end of the stick.
Nearly every country in the world currently has an economic system I have long called “participatory fascism” (Higgs 1987, 240–42, 256–57, and 2018). This is a system in which nominal private-property rights exist in most resources, but these rights are subject to pervasive state abridgment and restriction. Private markets operate, but only within the extensive constraints imposed by the government. Many producers—now often referred to as “cronies”—enjoy special privileges or protections created by government restraints and penalties imposed on competing producers. Such pervasive government interference also exists in markets for labor, natural resources, intellectual capital, and other inputs in the productive process.
Every economic entity, whether it be an individual, a family, or a firm, faces a constant choice with regard to how it will secure the goods and services it desires in order to carry out its economic plans: make or buy?
Most individuals and families give little conscious thought to their making this choice. Yet they make it all the same. Many individuals do many things for themselves, such as house cleaning, home maintenance, personal care of various sorts, meal preparation, and so forth. They do not pause often to consider whether they would be better off to purchase these things, although they might purchase them, and some individuals do. One can hire housekeepers, groundskeepers, meal providers, and many other services. In some cases, provision of these services amounts to a large industry catering to individuals and families who have decided that buying is better than making, that market transactions are better than self-sufficiency.
In contrast, business firms commonly give serious, explicit attention to how they should answer the make-or-buy question, and many specialize in a narrow range of activities, relying on market purchases to provide every item they can buy at a lower cost than that at which they could make it for themselves.
When someone decides to buy rather than make, it is normally the case that no one objects or attempts to impede the transaction. In some cases, local providers of certain goods and services have tried to shield themselves from the competition of providers in other states, but in many, if not all, cases the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that such state-level protectionism is contrary to the Constitution’s Interstate Commerce Clause. As a result, the United States of America has long been a vast free-trade area, and this condition explains in no small part how Americans have succeeded in lifting their level of living steadily over the past two centuries, notwithstanding the transitory inability of various suppliers to meet the “outside” competition successfully.
Probably the most often voiced objection to open immigration of all peaceful people is that “you can’t have open immigration and a welfare state.” (Even people as smart as Milton Friedman have made this objection.) But why can’t you?
Well, people claim, if you have a welfare state, the masses of the world will flood into the USA just to collect the welfare state’s “free stuff.” But why let them? Even under currently existing rules, undocumented immigrants are ineligible for nearly all welfare-state benefits. If a flood of immigrants will break the welfare-state bank, why not simply make immigrants ineligible? Case closed.
In that case, the opponents of immigration claim that making the immigrants ineligible for welfare-state benefits won’t work because they will find a way to get the stuff in one way or another. But this objection is, in effect, a declaration that the state is incompetent—which is not exactly a news flash, to be sure. So the anti-immigrationists insist that instead the government must “close the borders.”
Sunday, when my grocery guy Lucio came to my gate, his truck contained, along with the usual variety of produce and other foodstuffs, a box of beautiful strawberries, which I snatched up along with my other purchases. As often in the past, these berries came from Driscoll’s in Watsonville, California, where—interestingly enough—they were almost certainly harvested by Mexican and Central American workers.
Out of curiosity, I looked up more information about this firm and found it to be even more interesting and entrepreneurial than I had previously imagined. My access to this product, here at the ends of the Mexican earth, I file under the rubric Miracles of the Market.
This situation—strawberries being grown in the USA and shipped to the far reaches of Mexico—illustrates one of the often-overlooked realities of international commerce: the same product is being exported and imported by each country.
Many strawberries are grown in Mexico and shipped to the USA for sale, as every American is probably aware. But strawberries are also grown in the USA and shipped to Mexico for sale. There is no contradiction or economic anomaly here. Read the rest at independent.org.
Let us define the set of all human beings whose height is greater than 170 cm and less than 180 cm. Call this set A. Now let us collect data on all the dealings between members of set A and members of set B, which consists of all human beings whose height is less than or greater than those in set A. What economic significance can we ascribe to the aggregate of monetary flows between members of set A and members of set B? Correct answer: none. This aggregation of persons who trade with persons in the complementary set has no economic meaning; the sets are arbitrary so far as economic understanding is concerned. People—individuals, firms and other organizations, and governments—trade in order to improve their economic condition. Whether they trade with shorter or taller people or with people within a certain height range or outside this range has nothing to do with economics or human well-being. To draw up a balance of inter-set payments for set A and set B, or any given subset of B would serve no purpose. It would be a nonsensical exercise.
Now let us define the set of all human beings who reside within the boundaries of a certain nation-state, say, the United States of America. Call these people the elements of set P. Now collect data on all the dealings between members of set P and members of set Q, which consists of all human beings who reside outside the USA. What economic significance can we ascribe to the aggregate of monetary flows between members of set P and members of set Q? Correct answer: none. This aggregation of persons who trade with persons in the complementary set has no economic meaning; the sets are arbitrary so far as economic understanding is concerned. People—individuals, firms and other organizations, and governments—trade in order to improve their economic condition. Whether they trade with people inside or outside the USA has nothing to do with economics or human well-being. To draw up a balance of inter-set payments for set P and set Q, or any given subset of Q (e.g., residents of China or Mexico) would serve no intellectual purpose. It would be a nonsensical exercise. Read more at blog.independent.org.
Many libertarians have embraced the slogan “taxation is theft.” I myself think it is more precise to say that taxation is extortion. But even saying that fails to capture how egregious taxation really is, especially income taxation.
When a mugger or a home invader accosts you, he points a gun at you or waves a knife in your face and demands your wallet or some other property. In most cases, if you surrender your property to him as he demands, he takes it and flees, and you will most likely never see him again. He is, in the classic phrase, the roving bandit.
In contrast, the state is, in Mancur Olson’s classic term, the stationary bandit. It extorts your money constantly, ceaselessly, and no amount of plunder sates its appetite for what rightfully belongs to you. You are milked endlessly by people who have no rightful claim to loot you, but do have the power to take even more of your wealth in the form of interest or penalties or to place you in a steel cage if you make too much of a fuss about being looted.
With income taxation, however, the matter is even more exasperating and outrageous. In this case, the state’s legal henchmen construct an immense body of rules for determining how much tax is “owed” by persons in a nearly infinite variety of circumstances, depending on the form and source of the income, the amount, the timing of its receipt, the permissible deductions from the taxable amount, and so on. The rules run to thousands of pages, and tax experts themselves, including those employed by the tax collection agencies, cannot agree on the amount of tax liability associated with even a moderately complicated tax return.
My idea of a great president is one who acts in accordance with his oath of office to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Not since the presidency of Grover Cleveland has any president achieved greatness by this standard. Worse, the most admired have been those who failed most miserably. Evidently my standard differs from that employed by others who judge presidential greatness.
In the New York Times Magazine for December 15, 1996, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., presented the results of a poll of historians asked to rank the presidents (excepting only William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor, who held office very briefly). Thirty historians plus politicos Mario M. Cuomo and Paul Simon were asked to rank the nations chief executives as Great, Near Great, Average, Below Average, or Failure. The ranking applies to performance in the White House, not to lifetime accomplishments, and the historians used their own judgment as to what constitutes greatness or failure.
The results of the poll correspond well with the results of a number of earlier polls, especially in the set of presidents regarded as Great or Near Great. The three Great ones are Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Near Great comprise Jefferson, Jackson, Polk, Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson, and Truman. The Failures are Pierce, Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Grant, Harding, Hoover, and Nixon, the last ranking at the very bottom of the heap.
What are we to make of this ranking? Well, it helps to know that the historians (and two politicians) doing the ranking are nearly all left-liberals. In this regard they faithfully represent the historical profession in the United States today. In making their judgments, such historians bring to bear left-liberal beliefs and values. Thus, one respondent, James MacGregor Burns, asks: “How can one evaluate such an idiosyncratic President [as Nixon], so brilliant and so morally lacking?”—as if Nixon were, in this crowd, uniquely immoral.
One need not ponder the rankings long, however, to discover a remarkable correlation: all but one of the presidents ranked as Great or Near Great had an intimate association with war, either in office or by reputation before taking office. Of the top-ranking “nine immortals,” five (Lincoln, FDR, Polk, Wilson, and Truman) were commander in chief when the nation went to war, and three (Washington, Jackson, and Teddy Roosevelt) were best known prior to becoming president for their martial exploits. The one exception, Jefferson, confined his presidential bellicosity to authorizing, with Congressional consent, the naval engagements against the Barbary pirates. (Of course, he had been a revolutionary official during the War of Independence.)
In contrast, of the eleven presidents ranked as Below Average or Failure, all but one (Nixon) managed to keep the nation at peace during their terms in office, and even Nixon ultimately extracted the United States from the quagmire of the war in Vietnam, though not until many more lives had been quandered.
The lesson seems obvious. Any president who craves a high place in the annals of history should hasten to thrust the American people into an orgy of death and destruction. It does not matter how ill-conceived the war may be. Lincoln achieved his presidential immortality by quite unnecessarily plunging America into its greatest bloodbath—ostensibly to maintain the boundaries of an existing federal union, as if those boundaries possessed some sacred status. Wilson, on his own initiative and against the preference of a clear majority of the American people, propelled the country into a grotesquely senseless, shockingly barbarous clash of European dynasties in which the United States had no substantial national interest. On such savage and foolish foundations is presidential greatness constructed.
I hold no brief for John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, or Chester Arthur. But give them their due; at least they did not spill the blood of their fellow citizens. Grant and Harding, who always rank near the bottom, do not deserve such contempt. Schlesinger observes that “their sin was excessive loyalty to crooked friends”—a sin that, in truth, many presidents have committed. And even Schlesinger admits: “Scandal and corruption are indefensible, but they may injure the general welfare less than misconceived policies.”
Indeed, scandal and corruption, which not surprisingly have tainted most administrations to some degree, pale by comparison to the damage presidential policy decisions have wreaked. What weight does Grant’s Credit Mobilier scandal have in comparison to Lincoln’s 620,000 dead in the Civil War? Harding’s Teapot Dome affair is but a drop in the ocean compared to the global horrors set in train by Wilson’s decision to take the United States into World War I: Allied victory, a harsh Versailles treaty, German resentment, the rise of Nazism, and World War II, not to speak of the rise of Communism, which also followed in World War Is wake. Why do the historians, and following them the public, place on pedestals the leaders responsible for such utter catastrophes?
I have a theory: left-liberal historians worship political power, and idolize those who wield it most lavishly in the service of left-liberal causes. How else can one account for the beatification of Lincoln, Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt? Truman, now so elevated in the estimation of the historians, left office in unpopularity bordering on disgrace because of his Korean War disaster, but the historians forgive him, admiring his use of nuclear weapons and attempts to preserve and extend the New Deal. Theodore Roosevelt, a bloodthirsty proto-fascist, evokes admiration because of his public flogging of big business, a perennial left-liberal whipping boy.
Were I to rank the presidents, I would not quite turn the historians ranking on its head, but I would move in that direction. Certainly Lincoln, Wilson, FDR, Truman, and Lyndon Johnson belong at the bottom, for their statist economic policies as well as their supremely catastrophic war policies.
Finding presidents to put at the top of the list poses more difficulty, especially in choosing among those who have held office during the past century. Grover Cleveland, though far from perfect, may have been the best. He kept the country at peace. He respected the Constitution, acknowledging that the national government has only a limited mission to perform and shaping his policies accordingly. He fought to lower tariffs; preserved the gold standard in its time of crisis; and restored order forcibly when hoodlums disturbed the peace on a wide front during the great railroad strike of 1894.
Washington, I think, actually does deserve a high rating—not even the historians can be wrong all the time. He established the precedent of stepping down after two terms, which lasted until it clashed with FDR’s insatiable ambition, and he prescribed the sensible foreign policy, later slandered as “isolationism,” that served the nation well for more than a century. Other early presidents who were not entirely reprehensible in office include Jefferson and Jackson, though each committed grave derelictions.
Of the presidents since Cleveland, I rank Coolidge the highest. He sponsored sharp tax cuts and greatly reduced the national debt. As H.L. Mencken wrote, “There were no thrills while he reigned, but neither were there any headaches. He had no ideas, and he was not a nuisance”—high praise in view of the execrable performance of other twentieth-century presidents. Taft and Eisenhower were a cut above the rest, but that’s not saying much.
Unfortunately, under FDR the Constitution suffered damage that none of his successors has repaired and most have made worse. Certainly since 1932—and, one might well argue, since 1896—no president has been true to his oath of office. Realizing the ambitions harbored by Teddy Roosevelt and Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt created the “imperial presidency,” and we have been the worse for it ever since.
The people who ratified the original Constitution never intended the presidency to be a powerful office spawning “great men.” Article II, Sections 2-4, which enumerate the powers of the president, comprise but four paragraphs, most of which deal with appointments and minor duties.
The president is to act as commander in chief of the army and navy, but Congress alone can commit the nation to war, that is, “declare war.” The president is to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” but only Congress can enact laws, and then only within the scope of its limited, enumerated powers. The presidency was intended to be a largely ceremonial position whose occupant would confine himself to enforcing federal laws.
But over time, abruptly during Lincoln’s presidency and progressively during the twentieth century, presidents seized more and more power.
Just before Clinton took office in 1993, the Seattle Times crowned an opinion article with the stunningly stupid headline, “Can Bill Clinton Save America?”
American liberty will never be reestablished so long as elites and masses alike look to the president to perform supernatural feats and therefore tolerate his virtually unlimited exercise of power. Until we can restore limited, constitutional government in this country, God save us from great presidents.
“The immigration problem” or “the border problem” has been a heated topic of debate and politicking in recent years. (This recent spurt is only the most recent in a series that goes back for centuries in U.S. history.) In large part this debate pertains to the entry of Mexicans, especially undocumented Mexicans, into the USA. For those who support a strong “closed borders” or “secure the border” position, the debate often involves claims about Mexicans—what sort of people they are, what one may reasonably expect them to do if they become residents of the USA, what crimes they have committed or will commit in the future, and so forth. Anyone who is familiar with Mexicans is struck repeatedly by the sheer ignorance and the false claims that immigration opponents marshal in support of their position. The president himself has trotted out howlers about Mexican rapists and drug traffickers as important, standing problems of even the existing flow of Mexicans into the USA.
I have a working familiarity with the social science literature on immigration. (In the past I have written articles for economic history and demography journals that dealt with various aspects of immigration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.) More to the point for present purposes, I have considerable personal experience with Mexicans. I grew up on the rural west side of California’s San Joaquin Valley in the 1950s in a place with a population composed of about two-thirds Mexicans and their native-born children. In October 2015, I emigrated from the USA, and since then I have lived in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. I speak Spanish, though not with the fluency I would like, and in one way or another I deal with Mexicans nearly every day. So when I think or speak about Mexicans I do so with some personal as well as scholarly background.
In this light, I am stunned by how many Americans have a false impression of Mexicans. Of course, any generalization about them will be subject to qualifications. Mexico is a large, diverse country with a large, diverse population. And obviously from individual to individual great variations exist. No population consists of nothing but good people (however defined) or nothing but bad people (however defined).
Overall, I have found Mexicans—both those with whom I grew up in California and those among whom I now reside in Mexico—on average to be fine people in all relevant dimensions. They are devoted to their families and love their children. They are extremely hard workers, often under extraordinarily difficult and unpleasant conditions. They are good-natured and friendly, courteous and generous. They are also in many cases surprisingly resourceful, knowing how to build or repair all sorts of things, often without proper tools or materials. Many of them have an artistic capacity that allows them to create various products that are not only practical but also beautiful. Centuries of oppression and brutality by the ruling classes have not destroyed their hope for a better future, and they are often willing to bear great personal costs in order to make that future better for themselves and their children.
In view of the sorts of people they actually are—not as they are painted by vicious politicians and border bullies—one might well suppose that not only are they not an especially worrisome kind of immigrants to the USA, but instead exactly the kind that native-born American should welcome, the sort that among other things will do thousands of difficult and uninviting tasks—for example, working in poultry or meatpacking plants, putting on roofs, holding down building and highway construction and masonry jobs in rain and summer heat, cleaning hotel rooms, cooking and cleaning in restaurants, harvesting crops such as apples, asparagus, strawberries, and hundreds of others that demand backbreaking manual labor, and so on and on—tasks that native-born workers are not exactly clamoring to perform these days.
The Basic Analytics of the State versus Self-government
In The Federalist No. 51, arguably the most important one of all, James Madison wrote in defense of a proposed national constitution that would establish a structure of “checks and balances between the different departments” of the government and, as a result, constrain the government’s oppression of the public. In making his argument, Madison penned the following paragraph, which comes close to being a short course in political science:
[T]he great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defence must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions. ( n.d., 337)
The passage that refers to the angels is a rhetorical masterpiece, so memorable that it has become almost a cliché. In Madison’s argument, however, it does more than emphasize that human nature is something less than angelic. It also serves as a springboard that propels Madison directly into a consideration of “framing a government which is to be administered by men over men,” which is “but the greatest of all reflections on human nature.” In short, it moves Madison directly to a consideration of government as we have known it for the past several thousand years—a monopoly operating ultimately by threat or actual use of violence, making rules for and extracting tribute from the residents of the territory it controls. Henceforth, for clarity, I refer to this all-too-familiar type of organization as “the state.”
Perhaps everyone will agree that if we were all angels, no state would be necessary, and if angels were the governors, they would require neither internal nor external constraints to ensure that they governed justly. In terms of figure 1, we would be indifferent between the two cells in the first row.
Men are angels
Men are not angels
In Madison’s mind, the no-state option was inconceivable, for reasons he expressed obliquely when he wrote: “In a society under the forms of which the stronger faction can readily unite and oppress the weaker, anarchy may as truly be said to reign as in a state of nature, where the weaker individual is not secured against the violence of the stronger; and as, in the latter state, even the stronger individuals are prompted, by the uncertainty of their condition, to submit to a government which may protect the weak as well as themselves; so, in the former state, will the more powerful factions or parties be gradually induced, by a like motive, to wish for a government which will protect all parties, the weaker as well as the more powerful” ( n.d., 340). Thus, Madison, apparently following Locke, believed that individuals would not choose to remain in a stateless condition and would submit to the authority of a state in order to attain greater security of person and property. Countless other thinkers over the years have reasoned likewise, as Mancur Olson did in his final book when he concluded: “If a population acts to serve its common interest, it will never choose anarchy” (2000, 65).
Disorder, Liberty, and the State
Nothing is more common than the assumption that without a state, a society will fall necessarily and immediately into violent disorder; indeed, anarchy and chaos are often used as synonyms. The Random House Dictionary gives the following four definitions for anarchy:
a state of society without government or law
political and social disorder due to absence of governmental control.
a theory that regards the absence of all direct or coercive government as a political ideal and that proposes the cooperative and voluntary association of individuals and groups as the principal mode of organized society.
confusion; chaos; disorder.
Suppose, however, that the situation described by the third definition were not merely an ideal, but a genuine possibility, perhaps even a historically instantiated condition.
Locke, Madison, Olson, and nearly everybody else, of course, have concluded from their theoretical deliberations that the stateless option cannot exist—at least, not for long—because its deficiencies make it so manifestly inferior to life in a society under a state. The alleged absence of significant historical examples of large, stateless societies during the past several thousand years buttresses these theory-based conclusions: just as “the poor we have always with us,” so except among primitive peoples, society and the state are taken to have always coexisted.
One need not spend much time, however, to find theoretical arguments―some of them worked out in great detail and at considerable length (for example, Rothbard 1978, Friedman 1989)―about why and how a stateless society could work successfully. Moreover, researchers have adduced historical examples of large stateless societies, ranging from the ancient Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley (Thompson 2006) to Somalia during the greater part of the past decade and a half (Higgs 2004, 374, 376; Kim 2006). Given the enormous literature that has accumulated on stateless societies in theory and in actual operation, we may conclude that, if nothing else, such societies are conceivable (for a far-reaching compendium on the entire subject, see Stringham 2007).
In this light, both cells in the second row of Madison’s model must be seen as live options, whose most likely outcomes are, I suggest, as indicated in the More Realistic Model shown in figure 2:
More Realistic Model
Men are angels
Men are not angels
Although I admit that the outcome in a stateless society will be bad, because not only are people not angels, but many of them are irredeemably vicious in the extreme, I conjecture that the outcome in a society under a state will be worse, indeed much worse, because, first, the most vicious people in society will tend to gain control of the state (Hayek 1944, 134-52; Bailey 1988; Higgs 2004, 33-56) and, second, by virtue of this control over the state’s powerful engines of death and destruction, they will wreak vastly more harm than they ever could have caused outside the state (Higgs 2004, 101-05). It is unfortunate that some individuals commit crimes, but it is stunningly worse when such criminally inclined individuals wield state powers.
Lest anyone protest that the state’s true “function” or “duty” or “end” is, as Locke, Madison, and countless others have argued, to protect individuals’ rights to life, liberty, and property, the evidence of history clearly shows that, as a rule, real states do not behave accordingly. The idea that states actually function along such lines or that they strive to carry out such a duty or to achieve such an end resides in the realm of wishful thinking. Although some states in their own self-interest may at some times protect some residents of their territories (other than the state’s own functionaries), such protection is at best highly unreliable and all too often nothing but a solemn farce. Moreover, it is invariably mixed with crimes against the very people the state purports to protect, because the state cannot even exist without committing the crimes of extortion and robbery, which states call taxation (Nock 1939), and as a rule, this existential state crime is but the merest beginning of its assaults on the lives, liberties, and property of its resident population.
In the United States, for example, the state at one time or another during recent decades has confined millions of persons in dreadful steel cages because they had the temerity to engage in the wholly voluntary buying and selling or the mere possession of officially disapproved products. Compounding these state crimes (of kidnapping and unjust confinement) with impudence, state officials brazenly claim credit for their assaults on the victims of their so-called War on Drugs. State functionaries have yet to explain how their rampant unprovoked crimes comport with the archetype described and justified in Locke’s Second Treatise of Government. In vain do many of us yearn for relief from the state’s duplicitous cruelty: Where is the state of nature when we really need it?
An Application of the Precautionary Principle
In pondering the suitability of the More Realistic Model, we might well apply the precautionary principle, which has been much discussed (and nearly always misapplied) in recent years in relation to environmental policy. This principle holds that if an action or policy might cause great irreparable harm, then, notwithstanding a lack of scientific consensus, those who support the action or policy should shoulder the burden of proof. In applying this principle to the state’s establishment and operation, the state’s supporters would appear to stagger under a burden of proof they cannot support with either logic or evidence. Everyone can see the immense harm the state causes day in and day out, not to mention its periodic orgies of mass death and destruction. In the past century alone, states caused hundreds of millions of deaths, not to the combatants on both sides of the many wars they launched, whose casualties loom large enough, but to “their own” populations, whom they have chosen to shoot, bomb, shell, hack, stab, beat, gas, starve, work to death, and otherwise obliterate in ways too grotesque to contemplate calmly. (R. J. Rummel’s latest estimate of twentieth-century democide stands at 262 million persons; the details are available at his Web site.)
Yet, almost incomprehensively, people fear that without the state’s supposedly all-important protection, society will lapse into disorder and people will suffer grave harm. Even an analyst so astute as Olson, who speaks frankly of “governments and all the good and bad things they do,” proceeds immediately to contrast “the horrible anarchies that emerge in their absence” (2000, 66, emphasis added), although he gives no examples or citations to support his characterization of anarchy. But the state’s harms—“the bad things they do”—are here and now, undeniable, immense, and horrifying, whereas the harms allegedly to be suffered without the state are specters of the mind and almost entirely conjectural.
This debate would not appear to be evenly matched. Defending the continued existence of the state, despite having absolute certainty of a corresponding continuation of its intrinsic engagement in robbery, destruction, murder, and countless other crimes, requires that one imagine nonstate chaos, disorder, and death on a scale that nonstate actors seem incapable of causing. Nor, to my knowledge, does any historical example attest to such large-scale nonstate mayhem. With regard to large-scale death and destruction, no person, group, or private organization can even begin to compare to the state, which is easily the greatest instrument of destruction known to man. All nonstate threats to life, liberty, and property appear to be relatively petty, and therefore can be dealt with. Only states can pose truly massive threats, and sooner or later the horrors with which they menace mankind invariably come to pass.
The lesson of the precautionary principle is plain: because people are vile and corruptible, the state, which holds by far the greatest potential for harm and tends to be captured by the worst of the worst, is much too risky for anyone to justify its continuation. To tolerate it is not simply to play with fire, but to chance the total destruction of the human race.
In thinking about the social disorder that so many people have been led to fear, we can organize our thoughts with reference to table 3, which shows the degree of disorder and the scope for liberties with and without the state over time:
Disorder, Liberties, and the State
Degree of disorder
Scope of liberties
The notation in the table indexes the degree of social disorder (D) and the scope of liberties (L) in a society with no state (NS) and in a society with a state (S) at successive points in time 0, 1, 2, etc.
Classic discussions of state versus nonstate societal outcomes usually involve static comparisons; they ignore the changes that occur systematically with the passage of time. Thus, for example, a Hobbesian or Lockean account stipulates that in a “state of nature,” which has no governing state, a great deal of disorder prevails, and adoption of a state brings about a more orderly condition: in terms of my notation, D-NS(0) > D-S(0). Analysts recognize that the people sacrifice some of their liberties when they adopt a state—Hobbes goes so far as to suppose that the people sacrifice all their liberties to an omnipotent sovereign in exchange for his protection of their lives. Even if the trade-off is less severe, however, L-NS(0) > L-S(0) upon the establishment of a state. A ruler always assures his victims that their loss of liberties is the price they must pay for the additional security (order) he purports to establish.
Well might we question whether the ruler has either the intention or the capability to reduce the degree of social disorder. Plenty of evidence exhibits state-ridden societies boiling with disorder. In the United States, for example, a country brimming with official “protectors” of every imaginable stripe, the populace suffered in 2004, according to figures the government itself endorses, approximately 16,000 murders, 95,000 forcible rapes, 401,000 robberies, 855,000 aggravated assaults, 2,143,000 burglaries, 6,948,000 larcenies and thefts, and 1,237,000 motor vehicle thefts (U.S. Census Bureau 2007, 191). The governments of the United States have taken the people’s liberties—if you don’t think so, you need to spend more time reading U.S. Statutes at Large and the Code of Federal Regulations, not to mention your state and local laws and ordinances—but where’s the protective quid pro quo? They broke the egg of our liberties, without a doubt, but where’s the bloody omelet of personal protection and social order?
Suppose, if only for purposes of discussion, we conceded that the initial establishment of the state reduces the degree of social disorder. The obvious question, however seldom philosophers may have asked it, then becomes, What happens next? Does the degree of social disorder remain constant at D-S(0)? Everything we have discovered in theory and by observation flies in the face of such constancy. In fact, the likely progression over time is: D-S(0) < D-S(1) < D-S(2), and so forth. Under state domination, social disorder tends to increase.
This tendency exists because the state attempts in countless ways to compel people to act against their perceived self-interest, and the people respond by resorting to all sorts of evasions, black markets, and crimes. Consider, for example, what happened when the state ordered people not to make, sell, possess, or consume alcoholic beverages or certain narcotics—black markets and crime galore, including countless assaults and murders. Of course, the state’s orders to pay stipulated taxes or fees have given rise to manifold evasive measures, some of them carrying violence against persons or the destruction of property in their train. Perhaps equally important, the state’s concentration of its police forces on tax collection, enforcement of victimless crimes, and other measures at odds with the people’s perceived self-interest, diverts those forces from making any more than a token attempt to prevent such everyday crimes as murder, rape, robbery, and fraud, whose prevention the people actually value. Over time, the social misallocation of the state’s “protective” resources grows, as the state itself shifts more and more resources toward the enforcement of laws adverse to the people’s genuine interests and as the people make “moving targets” of themselves in ways that augment the degree of social disorder (on the “moving targets” of government economic policies, see Shultz and Dam 1977, 8-10).
If the degree of social disorder in a society under the state tends to increase, then, even if the initial establishment of the state did reduce disorder, a time (t) will come when the degree of social disorder will exceed that of the society with no state: that is, in my notation, D-S(t) > D-NS(0). If so, then―momentarily taking for granted the myth of a social contract―the initial bargain the people struck will come to be seen as a pact with the devil, a bargain that held, at best, advantages in the short term but proved to be a disappointing deal all-around in the longer term.
Moreover, for compelling reason, the inequality stated in the preceding can be generalized as follows: D-S(t) > D-NS(t), for t sufficiently large. This more general condition will exist not only because with the state, social disorder tends systematically to increase, but also because without the state, social disorder tends systematically to decrease. The latter tendency reflects the progressive, mutually advantageous solution of social problems characteristic of a spontaneous order. We have had three centuries of instruction in the workings of the spontaneous order of a free society, stretching from Bernard de Mandeville, Adam Ferguson, and Adam Smith in the eighteenth century to Carl Menger in the nineteenth century to F. A. Hayek and Murray Rothbard in the twentieth century to their numerous followers in the early twenty-first century (Horwitz 2001). Unlike the forced exchanges and coerced arrangements enforced by the state, the protective and productive innovations of a spontaneous nonstate order can achieve acceptance only voluntarily, which is to say, only when all who participate in them expect them to produce net benefits. Consider, for example, the householder who keeps a watchful eye on his neighbor’s property when the owner is away, just as the neighbor will watch his property when he is away, and contrast this simple, effective cooperative form of protection with the faux protection of the state’s police officer, who occupies himself at great public expense driving about aimlessly, harassing citizens pointlessly, or loitering in the doughnut shop. Neighborliness spreads naturally and beneficially, whereas state “protection” spreads cancerously and harmfully. The one preserves liberties, the other destroys them.
Thus, reverting to the notation of table 3, we have ample grounds for statement of the following inequalities:
D-NS(0) > D-NS(1) > D-NS(2), and so forth, and L-S(0) > L-S(1) > L-S(2), and so forth.
The latter inequalities, of course, merely state in abstract symbols what Thomas Jefferson stated more eloquently in words when he wrote, “The natural progress of things [in society under a state] is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.” Thus, although the (mythical) people entering into a social contract might have considered their sacrifice of liberties to the state at that time a price they were willing to pay, they could scarcely have suspected that with the passage of time, their remaining liberties also would be “paid,” one after another, notwithstanding that the social order they initially received from the state in return would systematically diminish.
Does Anarchy Entail Poverty?
Arguments have been advanced, of course, that a society without a state must necessarily remain very poor, that, however gloriously free the people’s life might be without the state, the opportunity cost of anarchy is unacceptably high. Thus, Olson (2000) advances the following propositions:
Some of the labor in an anarchic society will be devoted to taking or stealing rather than producing. (63)
The output forgone when less productive but theft-resistance forms of production are used is, of course, an implicit cost of anarchy. (64)
Anarchy not only involves loss of life but also increases the incentives to steal and to defend against theft, and thereby reduces the incentive to produce. (64)
If a population acts to serve its common interest, it will never choose anarchy. (65)
The character of these arguments is reminiscent of the character of those advanced by the “market-failure” school of neoclassical welfare economics: having identified flaws in the freely chosen arrangement, the analyst leaps immediately to the conclusion that a state-dominated arrangement must necessarily be superior. As Harold Demsetz famously characterized it, this sort of argumentation falls victim to the Nirvana Fallacy. It finds the free arrangement worse than an unattainable blackboard ideal that it assumes the government can implement perfectly and costlessly, but it does not compare the actual free arrangement with the actual government “solution.”
Returning to Olson’s list of anarchy’s flaws, one has only to ask: does substitution of the state for anarchy avoid these flaws? The answer in every case is that not only does it not avoid them, but it actually exacerbates them and adds new problems on top of the old ones it purports to be solving.
So, considering Olson’s first proposition, we may readily admit that without a state “some of the labor . . . will be devoted to taking or stealing rather than producing.” Yet, one might argue, with a state almost all of the labor expended by state functionaries and much of the labor of other people also will be “devoted to taking or stealing rather than producing.” Although the state may produce some goods and services of genuine value—absent an expression of voluntary individual choice, such as freely made purchases, we have no persuasive evidence of such value or of its magnitude—it seems perfectly obvious that a great deal of state “production” creates either nothing valuable at all or, worse, outputs that many taxpayers despise and would gladly pay to avoid. These obnoxious outputs are produced nonetheless because state functionaries and their cronies in the so-called private sector with whom they contract are, in effect, “taking or stealing rather than producing,” owing to their exercise of the state’s coercive power. Moreover, as Gordon Tullock and other public choice analysts have demonstrated repeatedly, the state encourages enormous social waste as real resources are committed to a competition for state privileges of all sorts: social waste incurred in the process of seeking what is itself wasteful for those from whom resources are extracted to prop up the state and all its schemes (Tullock 1967 is the article that launched a thousand papers about rent-seeking). In sum, Olson’s first proposition about anarchy versus society under the state is almost ludicrously backwards.
His second proposition fares no better. Yes, without a state, output is “forgone when less productive but theft-resistance forms of production are used,” but in truth we may say the same thing about a society with a state. Obviously, people constantly adjust the form of their production to avoid taxes and regulations, that is, to avoid the state’s robbery, oppression, and violation of their natural rights. Neoclassical economists have produced countless articles and books about how the state can “reshape behavior” by the appropriate design and enforcement of its taxes, subsidies, laws, and regulations. When people abandon their otherwise-most-valued forms of production in reaction to these state sanctions, socially valued outputs are lost. When the state comes to be engaged in the economy as pervasively as it is now in all of the economically advanced countries, we can scarcely avoid the conclusion that the scale of these losses must be immense, because people are being diverted from the socially most valued forms of production at nearly every turn. In sum, Olson’s second proposition about anarchy versus society under the state is almost ludicrously backwards.
We can also readily agree with Olson’s third proposition: “anarchy not only involves loss of life but also increases [relative to the nirvana level] the incentives to steal and to defend against theft, and thereby reduces the incentive to produce.” But is the situation in these regards any better under the state? Certainly, as I have argued already, the loss of life must have been immensely greater with the state than without it. Since its maturation in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the modern nation-state has functioned as a veritable killing machine. It defies reason to suppose that people left to their own individual devices would have killed hundreds of millions of people, as states did in the twentieth century alone. Following public choice analysis, we can make a similar statement about stealing and defending against theft. Because the state is a standing invitation to (legal) theft for all who can gain a grip on any of its many levers of power, it constitutes a constant menace against which one and all must devote time, energy, and resources in defense, lest they be subjected to utter spoliation. Unfortunately, once the stampede for control of state power gets under way widely in society, almost everybody comes to view his own attempt to engage in legal plunder as essentially defensive: the state is going to tax and regulate me no matter what I do; unless I get something back via state action, I will be a chump, a sucker, a net loser. The wonder is that under a state, people produce anything at all. Their production may eventually diminish, however, as state power continues its seemingly inexorable expansion—indeed, if the state is going to strip you naked, why produce at all? Any ship, even a magnificent economy, can be sunk if enough people continue to poke holes in it, even though each individual hole is a small one. In sum, Olson’s third proposition about anarchy versus society under the state is almost ludicrously backwards.
In view of the foregoing arguments, we might well restate Olson’s ultimate economic conclusion on anarchy as follows: If a population acts to serve its common interest, it will never choose the state. In reaching this conclusion, we need not deny the countless problems that will plague the people living in a society without the state; any anarchical society, being peopled in normal proportion by vile and corruptible individuals, will have crimes and miseries aplenty. But everything that makes life without a state undesirable makes life with a state even more undesirable. The idea that the anti-social tendencies that afflict people in every society can be cured or even ameliorated by giving a few persons great discretionary power over all the others is, upon serious reflection, seen to be a wildly mistaken notion. Perhaps it is needless to add that the structural checks and balances on which Madison relied to restrain the government’s abuses have proven to be increasingly unavailing and, bearing in mind the expansive claims and actions under the present U.S. regime, are now almost wholly superseded by a form of executive caesarism in which the departments of government that were designed to check and balance each other have instead coalesced in a mutually supportive design to plunder the people and reduce them to absolute domination by the state.
My arguments in support of self-government, as opposed to society under a state, may have little point, of course: if people do not choose the state, but, as I think, simply have it imposed on them, then it makes no practical difference that the state is unnecessary to solve any particular kind of problem and that life without the state would be superior (Holcombe 2004). Life without cancer would be superior, too, but so far we have not found a way to get rid of it, and we have no guarantee that we ever will find a way, so we can only strive to make the best of a bad situation. We need also to consider the likely outcome if our society had no state but another society did, and that state had the capacity to harm us greatly and, for whatever reason, sought to do so. I am not convinced that this particular problem is insoluble, and indeed I believe that the state’s defenders may have blown it out of proportion, but I do not dismiss it entirely. The Irish monks may have had the better argument, but it availed them little when Henry VIII decided to rip the roof off the monastery.
Here, however, I have tried only to show how we may think more clearly about the choice between a society under the state and a society composed of self-governing individuals. Assuming that we really had such a choice, the better option seems to me fairly obvious. If the reader takes anything away from my arguments here, however, I hope that it will be an appreciation of how highly warranted is an application of the precautionary principle in choosing between anarchy and the state. Fire has proven to be a magnificent aid to human beings, but a fire that cannot be contained portends our utter destruction, and the state is precisely such a fire.
Bailey, F. G. 1988. Humbuggery and Manipulation: The Art of Leadership. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
The so-called war on drugs—actually a war on certain people associated in various ways with certain drugs—has served since the Nixon administration as a major profit center for governments at every level. Owing to the ostensible efforts to suppress the possession, use, and commerce in these drugs, governments have been able to justify great increases in their staffs, budgets, and power. Of all the interest groups that have devoted themselves to propping up this social, economic, and political catastrophe, the government itself stands prominently above the others, especially the police, the prosecutors, the prison guards, and the unions that represent the police and the prison personnel. Despite substantial efforts by various private groups opposed to the war on drugs and despite the growing public disapproval of the war on drugs, especially the marijuana laws, the government groups have remained steadfast in their opposition to any slackening of the established actions to cut off drug supplies and punish everyone engaged in the industry, whether as producer, consumer, or middleman. At present, President Trump, his attorney general, and his secretary of homeland security are all voicing support for not only retaining, but ramping up the national government’s war on drugs, including its enforcement of the federal marijuana laws.
In recent decades, however, a growing number of states have liberalized their drug laws, especially those related to marijuana.
Twenty-six states and the District of Columbia currently have laws broadly legalizing marijuana in some form. Three other states will soon join them after recently passing measures permitting use of medical marijuana.
Seven states and the District of Columbia have adopted the most expansive laws legalizing marijuana for recreational use. Most recently, California, Massachusetts, Maine, and Nevada all passed measures in November legalizing recreational marijuana. California’s Prop. 64 measure allows adults 21 and older to possess up to one ounce of marijuana and grow up to six plants in their homes. Other tax and licensing provisions of the law will not take effect until January 2018. (For source, see here.)
As this summary indicates, states that are “liberalizing” their marijuana laws are not doing so by simply repealing existing laws that make the possession, distribution, and production of these products illegal. Instead, the states are creating a complex regime of control, regulation, and taxation.
By these expedients, state governments are in effect responding to the public’s growing opposition to the old regime of arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment by creating a legalized arrangement in which the governments themselves will rig the markets and skim off a large part of the earnings of sellers via fees and taxation. Thus, the state governments are turning themselves into de facto landlords of drug-dealer sharecroppers: the producers that grow, process, and sell marijuana will be required to pay the government what amounts to a share of the income. Thus, while continuing to wage the old war on participants in the markets for cocaine, heroin, and other forbidden drugs, the state governments will embed themselves in the marijuana segment of the drug markets as a kind of modern lord of the manor, requiring that the peasants pony up tribute of various sorts and comply with the lord’s dictates in regard to the nature of the industry’s organization and operation. In this setup the government of each state with “liberalized” marijuana laws will be, to put it simply, the biggest drug lord of all.
P.S. Readers who have studied the national government’s prohibition of alcoholic beverages in the 1920s and early 1930s may notice similarities in the abandonment of punitive alcohol prohibition then and the growing number of state abandonments of punitive marijuana prohibition now. In the early 1930s, state and federal governments were struggling with greatly diminished revenues occasioned by the economy’s Great Contraction. To recoup these losses of revenue, in 1933, the governments repealed the Eighteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, abolished their anti-alcohol police units, and set about taxing a highly popular product with a highly inelastic demand. Franklin D. Roosevelt probably never took any action that was more broadly popular than his support for scrapping Prohibition. The point, then as now, was that prohibition had spawned a vast black market free of taxation, and governments wanted the money it could reap from legalization and taxation. Likewise today in the marijuana market, governments want to get their hands on more of the money received by the sellers.)
“I reject the right of the government to choose my friends and enemies for me.” – Bill Kelsey
Indeed, Bill, it makes no sense to allow the government to do so.
But the situation is much worse than such nonsensical allowance by the people at large. From time immemorial, the reigning myth of rule has been that the rulers provide a quid pro quo: in exchange for the people’s submission and payment of tribute, the rulers protect the people from the enemies who lurk “out there.”
The promise was often unfulfilled, however. The lord of the manor might well flee into his castle, leaving the peasants outside the walls to suffer whatever outrages an invader chose to wreak on them. Or the lord might haul them off to a distant war in which they had no real interest, merely to satisfy the lord’s feudal obligation to the baron or duke just above him in the feudal pecking order.
Most important, however, is the sheer fact that the ordinary people’s most dangerous enemy, the one by far the most likely to plunder and abuse them, was their own impudent lord, the selfsame “nobleman” who forbade them to leave their place of birth or to engage in a variety of tasks and pleasures they might prefer—that is, the man who held and exploited them in a condition of serfdom.
Today as always, the “bad guys” from whom the government purports to protect the people are, as a rule, not a particularly serious threat to the people’s enjoyment of their life, liberty, and property in their own country. And when the threat is real, it is usually the product of provocation by the presumptive protector who rules the people at home.
That people allow this rapacious government to decide one’s friends and enemies abroad (or at home, for that matter) is indeed preposterous. The root cause, however, is now ideological; it is the people’s nationalism, which causes them to stand idly by—or, in many cases, to cheer wildly—as their true enemy, the one who plunders and oppresses them every hour of every day, goes on its merry way of creating and supposedly combating foreign devils in order to frighten the people into submission, loyalty, and continued payment of tribute to their de facto lord of the manor.
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