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The Big Picture

January 9, 1999

No political expert could have predicted that in one remarkable month, the speaker of the House would be forced out, the speaker-designate would resign, and the president would be impeached and tried in the Senate. And all this has occurred despite the White House's use of foreign aggression as prime agitprop to change the subject.

Democratic impeachment debaters in the House repeatedly warned the system of government as we have known it for more than half a century is coming apart at the seams. What's more, it is happening without anyone at the top necessarily desiring it to be so.

As the rising stock market would indicate, the collapse of the stability, power, and more prestige of all branches of government is not a bad thing. A total shakeup is long overdue. What Washington doesn't want to face is that the rest of the country—indeed the rest of the world—will be better off without the last remaining Leviathan state.

These events are part of larger historical processes work for the last decade to reshape public life. In the early part of our century, it seemed the total state would displace the classical liberal ideal. Communism was called progress, and freedom was called reactionary. But these days, a powerful new logic of history has taken hold. The forces of power are being overwhelmed by the forces of liberty.

This glorious renaissance began with the crumbling of Soviet socialism. Toppling as well were the regimes that had been ideologically and financially sustained by Soviet power. The Berlin Wall was torn down, Ceausescu was shot, Czechoslovakia was divided up, and Poland and other ancient civilizations were freed from barbarism. Only two communist states remain—Cuba and North Korea—and they are isolated, impoverished, and crumbling.

While each of these events could be explained by standard analysis, the overriding force at work is far more sweeping, broad, and powerful. The people who suffered so much under these consolidate, collectivist regimes had lost all confidence in the reigning ideological apparatus. As the people became ever-more bold, and the leadership lost its will to power, these permanent-looking states fell apart.

The U.S. establishment was anxious to interpret these events as a victory for "democracy," as if the stability or non-existence of the mere "right to vote" were all that was at stake. This mode of analysis reflected the hidden hope that the ruling regimes of the West could never be overthrown, where democratic mechanisms mask a massive, entrenched, plundering and often lawless power structure.

It turns out, however, that the revered institutions of United States government are not invulnerable to the same forces. The meltdown of communists states underscored the best-kept secret about political power, identified first by French philosopher Ettiene de la Boetie, and then by Scottish historian David Hume, South Carolina statesman John C. Calhoun, and Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises: political power is always far more fragile that it appears.

The ruling class in every society constitute a tiny minority, since it lives off the majority as a parasite lives off its host. The rulers sustain themselves and their privileges by convincing the public of their inherent legal, moral, and political legitimacy. That's why the state always needs an ideological rationale. If this rationale breaks down, the rulers find themselves without a pliable citizenry, and can be forced to abdicate.

This well-kept secret is no less applicable in democratic states than in autocratic ones. The more intrusive a regime becomes, the more it risks its own legitimacy, stability, and even existence. When the state becomes an institutionalized and relentless threat to liberty and property, the leading source of social instability and injustice, it invites the many who are ruled to look more critically at the position and character of the few who rule them.

The people of the United States have put up with a vast expansion of government power in our century—requiring the virtual scrapping of the Constitution—because there has always been some overriding rationale. There were wars to fight, depressions to end, poverty to abolish, and foreign foes to vanquish. The American people proved to be longsuffering to a fault.

But with the collapse of the Cold War, the U.S. regime seemed to grow rather than shrink. It claimed to be "indispensable" to the entire globe, even as it nationalized medical care, curbed the right of individuals to own guns, harassed businesses with ever-increasing regulations, raised taxes to historic highs, revoked the freedom of association, and even murdered an entire community of religious secessionists. The U.S., founded to be an exemplar of the blessings of liberty, had been transformed into an arrogant, imperial power without a persuasive pretext.

The seeds of revolt were planted in 1994, when an increasingly radical GOP extended its critique from the competing political party to the entire structure of government. The "revolution" of 1994 was delayed through betrayal and strategic maneuvering, but the impulse that gave rise to it gained strength.

In his trysts and lies and coverups, Bill Clinton may have thought he was merely living out a teenage fantasy. In fact, he was setting himself up as Exhibit A in an ongoing public trial of big government itself. This is why the most astute and guilty of our oppressors in all levels of government are already packing their bags. The most arrogant and power mad will stay until the bitter end.

Behind the mayhem, then, there is a clear logic. Imperial D.C. rule over the country and the world is being radically challenged, and systematically brought down, by dawning public awareness that big government is neither necessary nor permanent. If the process continues long enough, we can abolish the cruel welfare-warfare state, and restore the model and ideal of liberty that America should and can be.

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Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama.

For Mises's discussion on the vulnerability of power elites, see Liberalism.

For Murray Rothbard's discussion of the inherent instability of interventionist states, see Power and Market.


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