- January 4, 2019
Happy New Year.
Let's hope it is.
Last year at this time, we wrote of our tradition of adopting a word for the year. It was “freedom.”
Our wish was that Americans would make “freedom” the one word to live by in 2013. The one concept to guide our society — freedom for the individual, economic freedom ... the symbol and belief in freedom that burns with Lady Liberty.
We know, of course, 2013 wasn't about freedom for anyone. At all.
But alas, never give in.
This year, our word is “revelation.” Our hope is that a wave of revelation sweeps over Americans. That they have a lasting, lightning-bolt revelation that the current state of the “State” — that is, structures of government intervening in our lives — is taking us to an unavoidable, destructive end of what we all believe this country stands for. We may think we are free, certainly we are more free than most around the world. But when you take the power of the State today and view it in the context of the past 80 years — from 1932 to today — and think of it in the context of history, i.e. the Roman Empire, it's difficult to be optimistic that in our lifetimes the power of the State will diminish and freedom will increase.
Sorry. All that sounds way too doom-y and despressing, hardly the way to begin a New Year. This is the time when you want to start fresh and be energized, optimistic and make a go of it.
And we'll all be that way for a few weeks. But there's this thing called human nature that makes it difficult for people to change their ways, difficult to change course. We usually don't do that until the pain is too great.
That's why Americans need a revelation. They need a voice and vision in the sky that says: “What shall it be: the 'State' or freedom?
Free trade versus coercion
You can see that choice vividly over the past three months. Consider the scenarios of shopping for Christmas and Hanukkah gifts versus health insurance.
Say you wanted to buy a frame for a treasured photograph to give to a loved one. You had free choices. You could make the frame yourself, or you could find someone who specializes in making frames.
If you chose the latter, you found that frame maker on your own volition, and you negotiated a peaceful, uncoerced trade with him. He agreed to make your frame, and you agreed to compensate him at a level that was satisfactory to you and the frame maker.
In the old, old days, you may have paid for that frame with a good or service. But today, you agreed to exchange dollars — a universal medium of exchange that has a recognized value.
Observe in this transaction you didn't need a government intervenor to coerce or motivate or arrange this peaceful exchange. You and the frame maker acted freely.
In fact, you did that with every gift you purchased. You made a fair, peaceful, free exchange. This was free trade, free enterprise, free-market, laissez-faire capitalism at work. And look how orderly it was.
Now contrast that with the experience millions of Americans have had trying to secure, hold onto or buy health insurance over the past three months. There is no need to go into the details of this. But what's the obvious difference between this and buying a frame? The State.
The State has thrust itself and its coercive, freedom-sucking powers into this transaction. And the result is oh, so predictable.
Albert Jay Nock, a 1930s and 1940s journalist and author, even wrote as far back as 1935 in “Our Enemy the State: “State power has an unbroken record of inability to do anything efficiently, economically, disinterestedly or honestly.”
And even then, he wrote what is still so true today: “Yet when the slightest dissatisfaction arises over any exercise of social power, the aid of the agent least qualified to give aid is immediately called for.”
If something goes wrong in banking, what do we do? We call the State to intervene. Wrote Nock: “Let the State, which never has shown itself able to keep its own finances from sinking promptly into the slough of misfeasance, wastefulness and corruption, intervene to 'supervise' or 'regulate' the whole body of banking-practice, or even take it over entire.”
“Ever since society has existed,” wrote Herbert Spencer, a noted, mid-19th century British philosopher, “disappointment has been preaching, 'Put not your trust in legislation'; and yet the trust in legislation seems hardly diminished.”
Just look at today, a century and a half after Spencer wrote that.
The State perverts the law
Obviously, we never learn. Not from the Romans. Nor from our own forefathers. James Madison worried in 1794 about what he called “the old trick of turning every contingency into a resource for accumulating force in the government.” Even then, it was an “old” habit — unlimited expansion of the power of the State; using the power of the state to dictate, coerce and force behavior as the political class sees fit; using the power of the State to confiscate the fruits of labor to redistribute to favored groups or to make everyone more materially equal.
French economist-writer Frederic Bastiat wrote in the mid-1800s that our forefathers created our laws “to protect persons, liberties and properties; to maintain the right of each, and to cause justice to reign over us all.”
But he also wrote then that the political classes in France did just the opposite with the law — perverted it for the expansion of their and the State's power. And this has continued in the march of time in Europe, here, everywhere.
In the United States, the mushrooming of the State occurred in 1932 with the election of Franklin Roosevelt. He decreed then, for the first time in our nation's history, that the State owes its citizens a living. Ever since, and regardless of what political party is in power, the reach of the State has continued to spread.
Oh, there have been periods of recession, of slowing its growth. But we have just experienced under Barack Obama an expansion of the State that rivals, if not eclipses, that of Franklin Roosevelt.
Perhaps the most important point to remember about this is that whenever the State expands its power, your freedom and power are correspondingly reduced.
You would think this might send alarm bells through the American populace. But what's even more alarming is it doesn't. As Nock wrote in 1935, Americans — especially every one receiving money from the government, more than 50% of the American populace today — have become conditioned to having the State intervene in everything; to the majority, it's normal and expected.
Sure, there are a few Ted Cruzes, Marco Rubios, Tom Coburns, Scott Walkers and Rick Scotts trying as best they can to reverse our nation's course. Some thought the Tea Party might bring the tipping point, but it didn't.
Another taxpayer revolution in America? “Even Lenin acknowledged that a revolution is impossible anywhere until the military and police forces become disaffected; and the last place to look for that, probably, is here,” wrote Nock in 1935. Indeed, even today that's true.
What can be done?
It was probably a mistake to read Nock's “Our Enemy the State” on the precipice of 2014. He was an astute observer of early and modern civilizations in his day. And so much of what he wrote in the 1930s and 1940s is still as relevant and as applicable today as it was then. And that is concerning. In the end, Nock was not hopeful:
“One asks,” he wrote, “what can be done against the State's progress in self aggrandizement? Simply nothing ... Nothing can be done.
“What we and our more nearly immediate descendants shall see is a steady progress in collectivism running off into a military despotism of a severe type. Closer centralization; a steadily growing bureaucracy; State power and faith in State power increasing; social power and faith in social power diminishing; the State absorbing a continually larger proportion of the national income; production languishing; the State in consequence taking over one 'essential industry' after another, managing them with ever-increasing corruption, inefficiency and prodigality, and finally resorting to a system of forced labor.
“Then at some point in this progress, a collision of State interests, at least as general as violent as that which occurred in 1914, will result in an industrial and financial dislocation too severe for the asthenic social structure to bear; and from this the State will be left to 'the rusty death of machinery,' and the casual anonymous forces of dissolution will be supreme.”
Eighty years have passed since Nock made that prediction. Clearly, his Armageddon for the United States hasn't occurred — yet. But it's probably worth noting, it took 500 years for the Fall of the Roman Empire republic.
We're not quite halfway there. So there is still time to prove Nock wrong. That's why Americans need a revelation in 2014. It took us 233 years to rise and fall and rise and fall. On the Roman timetable, we still have time to turn it around.
We need a revelation.
The following quotations precede the introduction to “Our Enemy the State,” a book written in 1935 by American journalist Albert Jay Nock:
“Be it or be it not true that Man is shapen in iniquity and conceived in sin, it is unquestionably true that Government is begotten of aggression, and by aggression.”
“This is the gravest danger that today threatens civilization: State intervention, the absorption of all spontaneous historical action, which in the long-run sustains, nourishes and impels human destinies.”
Jose Ortega y Gasset
“It [the State] has taken on a vast mass of new duties and responsibilities; it has spread out its powers until they penetrate to every act of the citizen, however secret; it has begun to throw around its operations the high dignity and impeccability of a State religion; its agents become a separate and superior caste, with authority to bind and loose, and the thumbs in every pot. But it still remains, as it was in the beginning, the common enemy of all well-disposed, industrious and decent men.”
Are We Rome?
Lawrence Reed, president of the Foundation for Economic Education, wrote last June an essay entitled, “Are We Rome?”
While discussing parallels between the U.S. and Roman republic, Reed ultimately warned: “No people who have lost their character have kept their liberties.” Additional excerpts:
“Rome collapsed because of a fundamental change in ideas on the part of the Roman people — ideas which relate primarily to personal responsibility and the source of personal income. In the early days of greatness, Romans regarded themselves as their chief source of income. By that I mean each individual looked to himself — what he could acquire voluntarily in the marketplace — as the source of his livelihood. Rome's decline began when the people discovered another source of income: the political process — the State. In short, it was a character issue.
“Rome rose to greatness on the pillars of strong personal character. It foundered when its people sacrificed character for less noble things like power and the false, temporary 'security' of a handout.
“When Romans abandoned self-responsibility and self-reliance, and began to vote themselves benefits, to use government to rob Peter and pay Paul, to put their hands into other people's pockets, to envy and covet the productive and their wealth, they turned down a fateful, destructive path. As the late Dr. Howard E. Kershner put it, 'When a self-governing people confer upon their government the power to take from some and give to others, the process will not stop until the last bone of the last taxpayer is picked bare.'”