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A Gangster of Our Own

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05/28/2009

During Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, the mantras were hope and change and the imagery was that with him in charge, faith in government would be justified. But what America has mainly seen since his inauguration is fear.

The President pushed his bailout plan with apocalyptic language that, without it, the sky would fall. Similarly, his proposals have been targeted to fears of a possible depression, of losing jobs, of losing homes, of losing health care, etc. In every case, the ’solution’ put forward has been a staggering expansion in the power and scope of the federal government, presented as benevolent rescuer.

And in every case, he has exploited Frederic Bastiat’s insight in ‘What is Seen and What is Unseen.’ The promised benefits are always put on display, to calm fears and make sure they are recognized and lauded. But the coercion, behind those promises — made necessary because government has no resources it does not extract from citizens and no expanded powers that do not detract from liberty — is glossed over. For almost everyone, taxes today and deficits tomorrow are presented as being paid by ‘not you’ and the encroachments on individual freedom as only restricting others who can be demonized.

This combination of fear and coercion has received little notice in the current media. However, it has been insightfully analyzed. In 1959, in The Nature of Man and His Government, Robert LeFevre saw this connection clearly. He saw how the desire to assuage their fears led people to grant power to a gangster of their own, in hope that the gangster would remain their servant, with its power exercised solely for their own good. Unfortunately, he showed that hope to be both logically and historically unsupported. On the 50th anniversary of The Nature of Man and His Government, it is worth revisiting LeFevre’s insights.

‘[M]en have organized for the purpose of protecting themselves and their property. Government is the tool of this protection…in practice, the tool of protection…is employed with equal vigor and ferocity against both the criminal and the good and harmless citizen…’

‘Every citizen is a victim of the aggressive tactics of government.’

‘[G]overnment has a single, possibly legitimate, function, that of apprehending and punishing the criminal…government has, in its manifold legal actions, gone far beyond…to equate the average individual, who is peaceful and orderly, with the criminal who commits acts of aggression with willful intent.’

‘[T]hat which was formed for our protection becomes, finally, the very reason we need to be protected.’

‘If we would understand why our government has so invaded private rights…look to the nature of man…at the root of all government stand the people. What is it in the nature of human beings which causes them to look to a government?’

‘There is only one thing which causes man to look for and to organize a tool which is an instrument of compulsion and prohibition. That thing is fear. Men look to government to protect them because they fear. And virtually without exception, everything that human beings fear becomes a project for government.’

‘[Man] fears his predatory neighbor, death, old age, poverty, loneliness, hunger, and cold.’

‘It is this all-compelling emotion, fear, that has sired governments. Man is fearful… Therefore, he has devised an organizational gadget, containing compulsory unification, and by means of which he hopes to offset, or even to overcome, the strength of others.’

‘Governments, then, are not agencies of right, necessarily. They are, necessarily, agencies of strength. It could be said that man, feeling certain that he was surrounded by gangsters, has devised a gangster of his own, theoretically obedient to his own will, who will act with truculence against alien gangsters, while remaining docile and tractable towards his deviser.’

‘History teaches us with much repetition that this is an enormous fallacy. Governments begin with a soft side towards their own creators and a hard exterior exposed towards potential foes. But as time passes, the hard exterior extends until it completely encompasses the government…It becomes equally hard and impervious towards every human being, since the nature of the gadget is that it must be strong against human beings.’

‘Government’s presumed selectivity, in knowing whom to favor and whom to oppose, is actually nonexistent. This is because…the nature of government’s strength is derived wholly from its compulsory unification. Government can permit no exceptions to its rules…In the one case the government may act defensively, to protect the rights of an individual; in the other case, the government will act aggressively, protecting no individual right but simply compelling universal obedience to its decrees.’

‘In the one case the government acts as a friend, within the framework of its theoretical usefulness. In the other case the government is the predator, actively enacting the role of…gangster.’

‘[M]en have so much fear concerning the imminence of gangsterism in their midst that they tend to bear the iniquities of government’s predatory actions without a murmur, rather than to deprive themselves temporarily of their own gangster, however powerful and unruly he has become.’

‘[O]ur multitudinous governments, at every level…do considerable in the way of harm…We have less freedom than we used to have. We are more coerced. We are plundered repeatedly and in growing amounts for every conceivable scheme that the human mind can invent.’

‘Nor does one act of plunder solve the problem for which the plunder was originally legalized. Rather, each act of plunder gives birth to the necessity for additional acts of plunder. And the number of laws curtailing us, regimenting us, restricting us, and punishing us grows hourly larger and more difficult of evasion.’

‘Government is an agency of force which can and must be employed against every deviationist. And this is only to say again that the government must oppose the individual. Therefore the ‘good’ man in government is like a priest with a machine gun. The mechanism does the harm. The man who operates it merely pulls the trigger.’

‘Good men do find their way into government. But….If they perform their function, they use the government, an agency of compulsively gathered coercive force…Inevitably, they hurt someone.’

‘[I]t is the business of government to employ force and to compel obedience…and to punish any individual who does not go along with those mandates imagined as necessary by the men in power.’

‘Government is a tool. The nature of the tool is that of a weapon…government, designed for protection, always ends up by attacking the very persons it was intended to protect…Government begins by protecting some against others and ends up protecting itself against everyone.’

‘There is no government on earth that, now or ever, sold protection only to those who would willingly pay for it. Nor is there now or ever has been a government which permitted the purchasers of its service to decide just where the protection was to begin and end.’

‘[W]e have two kinds of police protection, voluntary and involuntary. The first is paid for voluntarily because someone wants protection and is willing to pay for it. The second is forced upon us all because some people feel we must have it. The first is moral, the second is immoral. Yet the latter is gaining ground.’

According to Damon Gross, ‘Robert LeFevre was a leading intellectual force in the dissemination of libertarian ideas.’ As described by Lew Rockwell, he recognized that ‘civilization stemmed from the voluntary actions of men, not the laws of the state,’ and that ‘Crediting government for the good in society was, to his mind, like crediting the criminal class whenever it leaves us alone to go about our affairs…He astutely observed that all states are prone to expansion and always at the expense of liberty.’

Robert LeFevre recognized that the coercion at the heart of government actions bears a striking resemblance to that employed by gangsters and that in neither case is there a guarantee that individuals’ well-being will be advanced as a result of that coercion. In fact, the opposite will be the case. As he put it, ‘The nature of government is such that, whatever strength it has, it will be used to amass greater strength by draining away the strength of individuals.’ Today, Americans seem to have barely an inkling of this insight. On its 50th anniversary, The Nature of Man and His Government is a good place to start relearning this essential insight of liberty.

Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University. He is the author of The Apostle of Peace: The Radical Mind of Leonard Read.

 

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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