Mises Daily Articles
Against the State: An Interview with Lew Rockwell
This interview was originally published by the Rutherford Institute.
John W. Whitehead: There is no end to discussion of John Locke’s impact on the Founding Fathers, the Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration of Independence lists our inalienable rights to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” and the Constitution creates a relatively strong central government limited nonetheless by our fundamental freedoms. And so, Americans generally accept that our government is designed to protect our freedoms and natural rights. Llewellyn Harrison “Lew” Rockwell, Jr. challenges that assumption. An avowed anarcho-capitalist, he rejects statism entirely, believing that society would be better able to protect our freedoms if there were no government at all.
The founder and chairman of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, a libertarian organization in Auburn, Alabama, Lew Rockwell is also a prolific author and editor who regularly publishes articles denouncing government intervention in markets, war, American imperialism, and the police state. His new book, Against the State: An Anarcho-Capitalist Manifesto, he proclaims that the state need not always have the powers it presently retains. He was also Ron Paul’s congressional chief of staff from 1978 to 1982, is Vice President of the Center for Libertarian Studies in Burlingame, California, and runs a libertarian website, LewRockwell.com. Mr. Rockwell took some time from his busy schedule to speak to constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, author of A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, and OldSpeak about his new book, his views on government, and his advice for Americans who want to know what they can do to rein in their runaway government.
JW: What is Anarcho-Capitalism?
Lew Rockwell: Anarcho-Capitalism is a term coined by the late Murray N. Rothbard. Murray coined that term to talk about an anarchism that would be free market and capitalist. So what is anarchism? The dictionary definition means without a government, without rulers. The secondary meaning in the dictionary is chaos and terrible trouble.
Now are we supposed to believe that after the horrendous crimes of government in the 20th century — after the mind-blowingly evil and monstrous crimes of the Communists, the Nazis, the Fascists, the British and the Americans and lots of other people too, and the wars.
JW: Not to mention the carnage and the death. Imperialism is what you are talking about.
LR: Yes. Now are we supposed to believe that the real danger, the real horror, would be to have no government? I mean just look: 100 million people were killed [in the 20th century], not counting the wars. If you count the wars the government caused and participated in, it is more than 200 million innocents killed. That does not even include the soldiers killed. It is quite an astounding record. We are supposed to believe that the real danger, the real horror, would be to have no government?
Anarcho-capitalists would argue that people don’t need a ruling class. Most of us in our private lives are not interested in sticking a gun in our next door neighbor’s ribs and demanding his wallet. Even if the cops would all but disappear, we wouldn’t do that.
The vast majority of us and the vast majority of our encounters — commercial, familial, whatever — everything is done voluntarily. There is no violence or threat of violence. That, of course, is government. Government is violence and the threat of violence.
Anarcho-capitalists would say it is never morally justified to initiate violence or the threat of violence against the innocent. When people hear this, they think well, of course. But they don’t actually believe it because that would mean that you can’t have one group of people calling themselves the government, telling all the other people, “We are going to take this percent of your income this year, and if you don’t agree to it, we are going to put you in jail. If you resist sufficiently, we are going to kill you. In fact, if you resist sufficiently paying a parking ticket, we reserve the right to kill you. If you sufficiently resist paying your library fine, we reserve the right to kill you.”
JW: Actually, a man was just killed recently — shot and paralyzed — for overdue parking tickets. The police shot him backing out of his driveway.
LR: They would deny they did anything wrong.
JW: The officer said he felt a threat to his own life. The guy was not armed, by the way.
LR: It is easy to think through these things if you deny to the government the idea that they are above the moral law.
JW: What do you mean by “moral law”?
LR: Well, I would say the natural law, all the things that God, in my view, writes on our hearts and we know without being told. You don’t have to be told that murder is wrong. You don’t have to be told that thievery is wrong to get the Ten Commandments. You know that certain things are wrong, so that is what I mean about the moral law.
If murder is wrong for you and me, and obviously it is, putting somebody in a government suit and sending him over to kill people in Afghanistan doesn’t make that not murder. That is still murder.
Can you use defensive force, can you use defensive violence? Yes. If somebody is invading your country, if somebody is invading your home, can you use violence in an attempt to repel them? Of course you can, but you can’t initiate violence. You can’t go into somebody else’s house. You can’t go into somebody else’s country.
JW: Because it is their property.
LR: You can’t take other people’s money. You have to have people’s consent. Again, it is never morally justified to use violence or the threat of violence against the innocent. As you point out so eloquently in your work in terms of the American police state, it goes throughout all of government. It is true of town, city, state, and federal governments, and world government if they eventually get that.
JW: I think that is the direction they are headed, that is, world government.
LR: Sure, and actually the U.S. wants to be the world government — believes itself to be the world government — thinks its laws should apply everywhere and should apply not to itself but to us. The legislative law, the edict — which is not the natural law — does not apply to the government but is used by the government against the rest of us. So the cop can speed; you can’t speed. Go down the list of all the things. They can kidnap — they call it conscription, they call it the draft — but if we do it, it is kidnapping. It is rightly condemned and punished. So again, the government is not above the moral law. It is not above the natural law. The natural law applies to people in government just as much as it applies to the rest of us, and if we want a moral society, also of course a prosperous society, that requires a free market, and the free market can actually provide everything that we think of as necessarily government. It is possible to have private protection, private defense and so on. There is nothing the government does that could not be a legitimate market service that can’t be provided better, cheaper, more efficiently, and without injustice by the free market.
JW: Is there any such thing as limited government?
LR: Well, it is something that we would all like to have. We would like to see limited government. Once you have an organization that is a monopoly and is able to decide when to use force and violence or when not to, and is able to decide how much of your money they are going to take in order to do the things they want to do, you are off to the races. It has taken us a long time in American history to get to the present point, and obviously, the trend is very bad.
We did have more limited government. Take, for example, the Articles of Confederation. The revolutionary government until the close of the American Revolution was probably the most libertarian government ever. But they soon got rid of that, and they adopted the Constitution. Unfortunately, the Constitution marked a big step up in centralization and in government power. It has been off to the races since that, especially with wars. All the various wars have resulted in massive increases in government income, power, propaganda, lies… You can go down the list.
JW: Isn’t that the purpose of war: to increase the power of control and internal government?
LR: Yes, but I think there is also something else going on. Friedrich Hayek has a chapter called “Why the Worst Rise to the Top,” and he is talking government. In private life, generally, the most monstrous people don’t rise to the top, whereas in the government, the liars, the demigods, the manipulators, the schemers, the scammers — those are the people who rise to the top. That’s one of the reasons that government is not limited, but they are constantly scheming and they like it. The people who are in government — we see it as today’s police — actually like hurting people. They get a kick out of stomping on somebody’s head because they are allegedly rude to them.
JW: Studies show that by the way. In some of the Nazi concentration camps, the guards got sexually excited by beating up inmates.
LR: There are also people who like to kill, who enjoy sending young people off to kill and be killed. They actually get a charge out of it. That is definitely the kind of person you don’t want running things. Unfortunately, due to the nature of government, that is the kind of person who is running things. Is a “less big” government better than a “more big” government? Yes, of course. Is a somewhat limited government better than an unlimited government? Yes. But is there any way to have a limited government that stays that way? Jefferson thought not. That was why he thought there would have to be a revolution every once in a while.
JW: Every 20 years he said. The American Constitution did create a more centralized government. That is why we have the Bill of Rights. When some of the so-called Founders saw the Constitution, they said, “Uh oh, this looks a bit like a monarchy. We need a Bill of Rights.” So the original Constitution we got is very much a centralized government. What would you say to that?
LR: There is some interesting recent scholarship on Madison where he was explaining to a fellow centralizer (which he was at that point) that he picked the least damaging 10 items to send out as the Bill of Rights. There had been much more restrictive stuff that had been proposed, but he blocked it. Of course, the Bill of Rights is in the process of being negated — to the extent it still exists. It is under attack in every way.
Gary North argues that the major effect of the adoption of the Constitution was the tripling of taxes on Americans versus what it had been under the King. Tripling. This is government. In my book, Against the State: An Anarcho-Capitalist Manifesto, I want people to know it doesn’t have to be this way. They don’t have to agree to this sort of life. I want people to read more, try to understand more about the real nature of government, the nature of the state, and not just salute and hand over your wallet, hand over your children to these people who do not exactly have your best interests at heart. Even though they tell us they do. They do not have their own special interests. They are just concerned with the national good, the common defense, and the public good. The government, of course, has its own special interest, and it is not the public interest — it is always opposed to the public interest. That is why the typical government employee at all levels makes double what the typical taxpayer makes.
JW: Not to mention the pensions, and all the other benefits.
LR: So many public school teachers, cops and firemen can now retire like millionaires with pensions and all that special stuff.
JW: Some of them get special flying privileges — perks we don’t get — but we pay for it. In your book, you say, “We are in the stage of late fascism.” It’s a good statement, and one I agree with. America has moved into a kind of a fascist regime.
Let’s say we have an anarcho-capitalistic society. How do we prevent turning into a society where business interests join together to manipulate and control the system? How do you prevent them from railroading over the “little guy” who really just wants to grow potatoes, for example?
LR: Just look at our own country’s history. You always have business interests that want that sort of thing. Look at J. P. Morgan and his allies in the steel industry, and other industries in the 19th century: they always wanted to get together and form a cartel where they would all agree to raise their prices and stick it to the customer. Well, you know what, they couldn’t get away with it because competitors came in and undercut them, undersold them. That is why they promoted government regulation, as is still the case today with a lot of entrenched business interests. They established the interests. For example, they wanted the railroads to be able to charge more. They couldn’t do it, because there was so much competition, so they set up the Interstate Commerce Commission allegedly for the public good. The very first act of the Interstate Commerce Commission was to say that you can’t cut your prices. If you were a railroad, you couldn’t cut your prices and try to undercut the other guy. That is what government regulation does.
Has this battle between power and market, as Rothbard put it, been in existence for all of human history? It has. There have been times when things have been better, and we are living in a time right now when things are getting worse, but all is not lost. I deal a lot with young people, and I see huge changes among young people, not only in this country but in other countries as well. They are not buying the government lies anymore. Part of it has to do with their worries about their own economic future — worries about student debt and all the horrible things that the federal government has done to them — but they are not buying the lies. They are looking for another way.
There are some very important things you can read, especially by Rothbard and others. It is possible not to give your consent. Government actually does depend on the consent of the governed. Government is a minority. They need us in order for them to live it up. If anybody has been to Washington D.C. recently — the imperial capital — everybody has a limo, fancy restaurants, mansions, and they are doing very well.
It is possible not to have that kind of a system. It is possible to have competition, market capitalism, not crony capitalism, and it is all a package. We don’t have to give consent, and indeed, if we withdraw our consent once in a while, you will see it when government is trying to do something. They can’t get away with it because people don’t consent to it. So there is a clue as to what is actually possible: it is possible to do something about government tyranny. It is possible to make ourselves freer, more prosperous, have a situation where parents are actually in control of the raising of their children — not the government.
JW: And the education process?
LR: This is why government set up public schools: to make people more stupid, or at least not think independently, not think critically. Horace Mann, the founder of American public schools, made this very specific: that you would be a good little worker, a good little citizen for the government and the businesses that the government approved of.
JW: To paraphrase Hitler, he said, “You say that I cannot have your children. I already do. They are in our schools.”
LR: That’s because Germany, even today with the Hitler-era laws, has one of the most vicious anti-home-schooling governments in the world. Homeschooling is one of the best thing parents can do for, not only for their own families and their own children, but for society at large.
JW: I won the first home schooling case in the United States in 1979. It was the Peter and Ruth Noble case. The father got arrested in the middle of the night by the police. He called me and woke me up out of bed. I asked, “What were you arrested for?” And he said, “Teaching my kids at home.”
Let me ask you this: what is it in human nature that seems to seek out an authority figure or a governing figure? I see people standing in large droves before a politician cheering. What is it in human nature that wants that? Or am I wrong about that? I think this would impede somewhat a libertarian society.
LR: You are very much right. The State would like to be God. The State hates God and is envious of God, politicians, and so forth. They don’t want people being loyal to anything above them. The State attempts to be a quasi-religious organization. They must look back on the days of the pharaohs as the glory days when the government actually was the God. That is probably their ideal.
I think it is always important to remember that everything for good — or for ill, for that matter — is done by a motivated minority. The majority of the people, God bless them, tend not to be relevant. This means we have to be a motivated minority. We have to educate ourselves and understand the fight we are in. What is the best way to save the world? All one can do is present the world with one improved unit. Learn these things yourself, and understand history, understand economics, understand politics. What is the real politics? Not electoral politics which, I would argue, is a scam and a trick to make you think we would be saved if we had Romney instead of Obama.
JW: Government is theater. Would you agree?
LR: Yeah, a bloody theater, a terrible theater, but it is a theater, and they know it. They know this is how to appease the people.
JW: Two psychologists have studied the use of words by politicians in recent years. The most used word now by politicians in America is the word “we.” The use of this word actually gets people to form into a group where essentially they stop thinking. That is connected to the theater concept of controlling people, and I guarantee you that the government hires behaviorists and psychologists, and they study how to manipulate people. What do you think about that?
LR: I remember one of the critics of the Nazis saying that it is an indication of totalitarianism when politicians refer to “our children.” They are not your children. They are God’s children, and they are the parents’ children. They are not the government’s children, but the government, of course, feels they are and they want to shape them. They want to mold them and they want parents to have less and less to do with it. They want them in the public schools from 6 to 6, eating all their meals there and that sort of thing. You know they are not that kind of villain, but they are, in fact, villains. Even if they seem like nice, decent people, they are actually not.
I was once in politics myself before going straight, and I can tell you they are not good people. I encountered only one man whom I thought was thoroughly good, and I had the honor of working for him eventually, and that was Ron Paul, and also the only person in politics I have ever encountered who did not have the lust to rule, the lust to dominate. Ron Paul doesn’t have that, so he was a very odd bird in politics. For him, politics was an educational mission, but most of them want to dominate. Again, most of us are not interested in running the next door neighbor’s family. We don’t want to run the next town. We don’t want to run the next country. We have enough to do with our own families, mowing our lawn, doing our job, earning enough money, and so forth, that is what we want to do. But there are people who want to run the family next door. They want to run the next town. They want to run the world.
JW: So they become government officials.
LR: They go into politics.
JW: Does technology change the ground rules a bit? With emerging technologies, there is the ability for certain nefarious individuals, such as the National Security Agency, to listen, watch everything we are doing, download files, etc. I have talked to NSA agents, former ones, who tell me everything we do is watched. You have the emergence of drones—the slogan now is becoming “He who owns a drone, rules.” Is this going to make it a bit more difficult to move into a society where we have more freedom because the implements of power are now so awesome?
LR: Well, I would argue that this has always been true. Technology, given the state, is always a double-edged sword. The invention of the steam engine was a fantastic thing for the growth of human prosperity, but it also could be used by governments to power war ships. It is true of modern day technology. The internet obviously has been magnificent for commerce, magnificent in many ways for liberty, but also is bent by the government to its own devices and has been essential to the growth of the National Security Agency, which is just one of many, many spy agencies. Just like there are many, many killer CIA type organizations, death squads, and so forth available at the behest of the President and the military and so on.
JW: You hit a key point. The President can murder and kill, but if I do it, I am in prison. Either they will kill me with capital punishment or put me in prison forever.
LR: Does the president okay drone attacks over his scrambled eggs in the morning at the White House? He is sending these drones off to kill people he knows nothing about. Many times, wedding parties are blown up. The famous case in Afghanistan of a bunch of kids out getting firewood, picking up firewood, and they were bombed by a drone. It is murder.
I remember when George W. Bush started his war in Iraq, the first thing he did was bomb a restaurant in Baghdad because he had been told by the intelligence people that Saddam Hussein and his kids were eating in that restaurant. Even if they had been there, it is not moral to have murdered those other people. They happened not to be in there, so he destroyed this restaurant, he killed the owner, the chef, the waiters, the customers, and so forth. That was an act of murder. Of course, Bush didn’t think it was murder. Nobody thought of it as murder. This is just war or bringing freedom to the Iraqis or whatever lies they say.
Again, just because somebody is in the government doesn’t mean he is above the law. The scales fall from your eyes and you see the government in a very, very different way. I’ll mention Murray Rothbard’s great essay, “The Anatomy of the State.” You can find it on www.lewrockwell.com.
The government is not above the natural law. When they see themselves as above the natural law, when they violate the natural law, they are criminals. It doesn’t matter that they have fancy suits and beautiful homes, or that they are wearing all kinds of medals on their chest. They are really no better than Murder Incorporated and the Mafia.
JW: How do you envision an ideal societal transition from our current state of affairs, which again you have described as late fascism, to an anarcho-capitalist system? What are the actual physical steps you think would usher in a system where we would have more freedom and would do away with government?
LR: Well, it would mean people refusing to go along. If people would stop and think, “The U.S. is sending drones to kill people in Yemen. That is not a good thing to do. It is not a good thing to take all our money. Who are these people to say you can’t have 40% of your income that you otherwise would spend on your family, for savings, on your business or whatever? We know better and we are not going to take it.”
The way the police state acts — tasering people, and the police with automatic weapons and tanks — if people don’t go along, the government can’t actually do this to us. Thus, I think the ideal course would be a nonviolent transition, maybe something like what happened in the Soviet Union and has happened elsewhere too. People just refused to go along, and when that happens, even though the government seems like an extremely impressive, extremely impregnable operation of huge walls surrounding a city of power, everything can come down.
I don’t care whether it is the secret police or the military, the spy agencies, the regular police, the tax collectors, the Environmental Protection Agency… However many federal agencies there are running our lives, working for the crony capitalists, hurting the regular person… This actually can come to an end, because government depends on the consent of the governed, and if people withdraw their consent, if they refuse to be part of the gang, if they do not approve of what the government is doing — whether it’s to people in other countries or people in this country — they do not approve of acts of injustice. They do not assume that when the police kill you, that was a good thing, and you know, you really deserved to die, or when the U.S. Army kills you, you deserved to die. So people need to question. They need to educate themselves. It is possible to have the government retreat. I think that is what we all want.
JW: Do we need mass non-violent militant resistance?
LR: I think if civil disobedience would take place, it has to be nonviolent, and it has to be the kind of situation where the government’s own people lose confidence in the government and no longer believe in the government. This happened in the Soviet Union. If soldiers, were called upon to shoot Americans, grab their guns or whatever, we may find that the government’s own agents come to oppose it. They will have come to understand that this is something immoral they are being asked to do, and they are just not going to do it. This has happened in the past, and this is what we have to hope for. I think we see some indications of that already. There are whistleblowers. There are people within the state who oppose it. We want much more of that. Again, this is a struggle. It is always going to be a struggle. But it is a struggle we have to be engaged in if we care anything about the future. We care about our children, our grandchildren and our descendants. If we care about other people, if we care about the people the U.S. Military is killing all over the world, if we care about the tyranny that is being exerted here at home, we have to do something about it. You can’t just sit back.
JW: Here’s the problem, though. The government is preparing for that. The Department of Defense is doing studies on how to put down social civil unrest. They are preparing for what they see as people getting fed up with government. You saw the Bundy Ranch situation, you saw what happened down near the border. They are preparing for this. They are armed to the teeth. They have drones and tanks. They are going to shoot and kill people. Unfortunately, most people seem clueless, because they get most of their news from television. You are not going to get the real news there. The so-called corporate media works in conjunction with the government, hiding the facts. How are we going to get people organized?
LR: Well, you touch on one very important thing. Don’t watch TV news. It is nothing but lies. I have a friend that thinks that watching FOX actually makes you stupider. I don’t know about that.
JW: I think watching TV actually makes you stupider.
LR: I don’t actually watch regular television, and I think it is very, very important to get your news elsewhere. It is possible still on the internet. That is why I have my site, www.lewrockwell.com. It is possible to get the actual facts of the situation. It is not easy, but it is possible.
It is essential not to be dumbed down by the constant government lies and propaganda. I have a friend, Yuri Maltsev, who was one of the last defectors from the Soviet Union. He said that in the Soviet Union, “we assumed that if the government said it was going to rain tomorrow, it was going to be sunny. I mean, we didn’t believe anything the government said.” One of the things that astounded him when he came to the United States was that “most people believe what the government says.” I think this is true, but more and more people don’t believe it. More and more people are withdrawing their consent. More and more people see these people in government as purveyors of lies and distortions and violence. They claim that you and your family, your salary, whatever your savings are, all belong to them if they want to take them. They would claim that there is nothing holding them back from doing whatever they want if they decide it is “good” for us.
JW: There are a lot of folks I have worked with who are starting to mistrust the government. They think it is wacky. They want to change things. They are ready to move forward. They are ready to get involved. Some of them have read your bookAgainst the State. That is a good place to start. If they asked, “What should we do next?” what would be your advice?
LR: I wish I had a 12-step program to give them. I would simply say the first thing, the essential thing, the foundational thing is to know the enemy and know the principles of freedom. You have to educate yourself. There is no substitute for reading books, whether they are e-books or physical books or whatever, because the government doesn’t want anybody learning anything in a real sense. They just want you paying attention to Bill O’Reilly or MSNBC people and so forth. You need to reject all that. You need to educate yourself. In my book I have some suggested readings. If anybody emails me at email@example.com, I am glad to send them a suggested reading list.
That is actually the first step to making yourself a better person, making yourself well equipped intellectually, morally to engage in this fight. It is THE fight. I would argue there is actually no escaping because of what’s happening to the government. We have to take part.
The first thing is you have to learn. Once you have learned some economics, once you have learned some history, once you have learned about the nature of politics, you can’t be fooled and other people will come to you for leadership. They will look to you for advice, and that is the way a movement is built. There are many other things going on and that will go on in the future, we hope and pray. But the first thing is you have to make yourself a better person. You have to read, you have to know, you have to be able to analyze, and inform your conscience. Reading is very, very basic to all of these good things.