A peaceful state is an impossibility. Even a state that refrains from fighting foreigners goes on fighting its own subjects continuously, to keep them under its control and to suppress competitors who might try to break into the domain of its protection racket. The people cry out for security, yet they will not take responsibility for their own protection, and like the mariners of Greek mythology, they leap overboard immediately in response to the state’s siren song.
[Robert Higgs’s Schlarbaum Award Acceptance Speech, delivered on October 12, 2007, at the Mises Institute’s 25th Anniversary Celebration.]
Margaret Atwood’s poem “Siren Song” begins:
This is the one song everyone
would like to learn: the song
that is irresistible:
the song that forces men
to leap overboard in squadrons
even though they see the beached skulls.
Our rulers know how to sing that song, and they sing it day and night. The beached skulls are those of our fathers and our sons, our friends and our neighbors, for whom the song proved not only irresistible, but fatal.
The state is the most destructive institution human beings have ever devised — a fire that, at best, can be controlled for only a short time before it o’erleaps its improvised confinements and spreads its flames far and wide.
Whatever promotes the growth of the state also weakens the capacity of individuals in civil society to fend off the state’s depredations and therefore augments the public’s multifaceted victimization at the hands of state functionaries. Nothing promotes the growth of the state as much as national emergency — war and other crises comparable to war in the seriousness of the threats they pose.
States, by their very nature, are perpetually at war — not always against foreign foes, of course, but always against their own subjects. The state’s most fundamental purpose, the activity without which it cannot even exist, is robbery. The state gains its very sustenance from robbery, which it pretties up ideologically by giving it a different name (taxation) and by striving to sanctify its intrinsic crime as permissible and socially necessary. State propaganda, statist ideologies, and long-established routine combine to convince many people that they have a legitimate obligation, even a moral duty to pay taxes to the state that rules their society.
They fall into such erroneous moral reasoning because they are told incessantly that the tribute they fork over is actually a kind of price paid for essential services received, and that in the case of certain services, such as protection from foreign and domestic aggressors against their rights to life, liberty, and property, only the government can provide the service effectively. They are not permitted to test this claim by resorting to competing suppliers of law, order, and security, however, because the government enforces a monopoly over the production and distribution of its alleged “services” and brings violence to bear against would-be competitors. In so doing, it reveals the fraud at the heart of its impudent claims and gives sufficient proof that it is not a genuine protector, but a mere protection racket.
All governments are, as they must be, oligarchies: only a relatively small number of people have substantial effective discretion to make critical decisions about how the state’s power will be brought to bear. Beyond the oligarchy itself and the police and military forces that compose its Praetorian Guard, somewhat larger groups constitute a supporting coalition. These groups provide important financial and other support to the oligarchs and look to them for compensating rewards — legal privileges, subsidies, jobs, exclusive franchises and licenses, transfers of financial income and wealth, goods and services in kind, and other booty — channeled to them at the expense of the mass of the people. Thus, the political class in general — that is, the oligarchs, the Praetorian Guards, and the supporting coalition — uses government power (which means ultimately the police and the armed forces) to exploit everyone outside this class by wielding or threatening to wield violence against all who fail to pay the tribute the oligarchs demand or to obey the rules they dictate.
Democratic political forms and rituals, such as elections and formal administrative proceedings, disguise this class exploitation and trick the masses into the false belief that the government’s operation yields them net benefits. In the most extreme form of misapprehension, the people at large become convinced that, owing to democracy, they themselves “are the government.”
Individual passages back and forth across the boundary between the political class and the exploited class testify, however, to nothing more than the system’s cunningly contrived flexibility and openness. Although the system is inherently exploitative and cannot exist in any other form, it allows some leeway at the margins in the determination of which specific individuals will be the shafters and which the shaftees. At the top, a modest degree of “circulation of elites” within the oligarchy also serves to mask the political system’s essential character.
It is a sound interpretive rule, however, that anything that cannot be accomplished except with the aid of threats or the actual exercise of violence against unoffending persons cannot be beneficial to one and all. The mass belief in the general beneficence of democracy represents a kind of Stockholm syndrome writ large. Yet, no matter how widely this syndrome may extend, it cannot alter the basic fact that owing to the operation of government as we know it — that is, government without genuine, express, individual consent — a minority lives on balance at the expense of the rest, and the rest therefore lose on balance in the process, while the oligarchs (elected or not, it scarcely matters) preside over the enormous web of criminal organizations we know as the state.
Notwithstanding the ideological enchantment with which official high priests and statist intellectuals have beguiled the plundered class, many members of this class retain a capacity to recognize at least some of their losses, and hence they sometimes resist further incursions on their rights by publicly expressing their grievances, by supporting political challengers who promise to lighten their burdens, by fleeing the country, and, most important, by evading or avoiding taxes and by violating legal prohibitions and regulatory restraints on their actions, as in the so-called underground economy, or “black market.”
These various forms of resistance together compose a force that opposes the government’s constant pressure to expand its domination. These two forces, working one against the other, establish a locus of “equilibrium,” a boundary between the set of rights the government has overridden or seized and the set of rights the plundered class has somehow managed to retain, whether by formal constitutional constraints or by everyday tax evasion, black-market transactions, and other defensive violations of the government’s oppressive rules.
Politics in the largest sense can be viewed as the struggle to push this boundary one way or the other. For members of the political class, the crucial question is always: how can we push out the frontier, how can we augment the government’s dominion and plunder, with net gain to ourselves, the exploiters who live not by honest production and voluntary exchange, but by fleecing those who do so?
National emergency — war or a similarly menacing crisis — answers the political class’s crucial question more effectively than anything else, because such a crisis has a uniquely effective capacity to dissipate the forces that otherwise would obstruct or oppose the government’s expansion.
Virtually any war will serve, at least for a while, because in modern nation-states the outbreak of war invariably leads the masses to “rally ’round the flag,” regardless of their previous ideological stance in relation to the government.
Recall the situation in 1941, for example, when public-opinion polls and other evidence indicated that a great majority of the American people (approximately 80 percent as late as autumn) opposed outright engagement in the world war, an engagement that Franklin D. Roosevelt and his administration had been seeking relentlessly by hook and by crook from the very beginning. When news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor reached the public, mass opposition to war dissolved overnight almost completely. No wonder the neocon intriguers, in a September 2000 report of the Project for the New American Century, expressed their yearning for “some catastrophic and catalyzing event — like a new Pearl Harbor.”
Although other kinds of great crises may not elicit the same immediate submission to the government’s announced program for the people’s salvation, they may prove equally effective if they are sufficiently menacing and persistent. Thus, the Great Depression, which pushed millions of Americans into economic desperation in the early 1930s, was eventually viewed by almost everybody as, in Justice Brandeis’s words, “an emergency more serious than war.” Other pregnant crises have included nation-wide strikes or widespread labor disturbances, so-called energy crises, such as those of the 1970s, perceived crime waves, great epidemics or health scares, and, lately, even a bogus scare about global warming.
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Dr. Robert Higgs is retired and lives in Mexico. He was a senior fellow in political economy for the Independent Institute and longtime editor of The Independent Review; he was also a senior fellow of the Mises Institute. He is the 2007 recipient of the Gary G. Schlarbaum Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Cause of Liberty, and the 2015 Murray N. Rothbard Medal of Freedom.