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Freedom and Government

August 5, 2003

Only a small part of this interview with Tibor Machan appeared on a national television show. Here is the full transcript. Tibor Machan, adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute, teaches at the Argyros School of Business and Economics at Chapman University. You may send him MAIL and view his Mises.org Daily Articles Archive.

Q: So, the sign outside the IRS says taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.

MACHAN: That's just false . . . taxation is essentially a relic of feudalism. It is the rent that kings took for allowing the serfs and others to work the land that the kings owned. But we don't have a monarchy any longer. People shouldn't have to pay to be able to work and to be able to own land. This [is] just the relic of feudalism. It's like extending serfdom into a free Republic.

Q: But it's not feudalism. We're a democracy, we vote for this.

MACHAN: Well, there are inconsistencies in our free democracy, unfortunately. There used to be a draft, which shouldn't have been there. There used to be slavery. There is still taxation.

Q: We're a democracy, the majority vote for politicians, who pass the tax.

MACHAN: The fact is that a majority should have a very limited power over the rest of us . . . majorities in a free society get to elect officials to administer the law but they do not get to make the law because that would mean that they roughshod over the minority and they're not supposed to do that. We're each supposed to have our rights, unalienable rights . . . they're unalienable even by a majority.

Q: But we've, again, voted for it, it's not forced on us. The majority gets good things done.

MACHAN: Now, look, a lynch mob votes right? And yet, it violates due process? If you extend that principle to democracy in general, you realize what's happening is that people, who happened to be a little bit more numerous than the rest force the rest to comply, which is not consistent with the idea of the consent of the governed.

Q: But it's democracy.

MACHAN: Democracy is not sacrosanct. There is such a thing as democratic Fascism; there can be democratic totalitarianism. The founders were terribly afraid of democracy as a form of tyranny. I mean if you realized that you could, if you believed in democracy being that bloated, vote for what haircuts we must all get, democratically, you could votes ties democratically, you could vote everything, [even] marriages democratically. We ought to restrict democracy to very limited functions, namely the selection of the officials who administer the law. That's why we call it "an administration."

Q: Where do you get these ideas?

MACHAN: You think about them. You figure them out. You read history, you read philosophy, you read politics and you think through these issues and you also apply some common sense.

Q: But I'm also leading you to talk about the founders and James Madison saying the government powers would be few and defined.

MACHAN: Exactly.

Q: In that sense, where do you get these ideas?

MACHAN: Well these are radical ideas. People forget that the United States of America was the result of a radical revolution, which had not been officially announced anywhere else in the world to which the world still looks with some measure of amazement and admiration and it's an unusual idea because almost throughout human history, there's always been some gang that took over and allowed some people to speak their rationalizations for that conquest. Finally, with the American Revolution, some ordinary folks, who thought about things decided that maybe it's individuals who matter in society, not kings, not classes, not ethnic groups, not races or anything. Even that wasn't consistently applied and we have, as a result, taxation.

Q: James Madison said the powers of the government should be few and defined.

MACHAN: Exactly.

Q: What would the founders think of America today?

MACHAN: That's speculation, I don't know maybe they would be crazy and like it. Who knows? Now my view is that they should not like it and they'd be turning over in their grave because what they said was is that "we hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights." That means rights that cannot be abrogated, may not be violated, not by majorities, not by kings, not by your local sheriff, not by the vice squad, by nobody. Now, if they really meant this stuff, what else could they do but abhor what's going on right now?

Q: Abhor what?

MACHAN: Abhor for example the drug war, all of the limitations on individual liberty and that we have regulations, prior restraint; you know the press is the only profession, [that's] actually discriminated in favor of [so that] that profession has freedom, almost maximum freedom. But other professions don't. They can be intruded upon before they do anything wrong, before anybody has violated anybody's rights, committed any crime; there's a bunch of bureaucrats sitting over them and badgering them and making them uphold certain standards that they believe these people should uphold but maybe the people have better ideas but they're never allowed to put them into practice.

Q: America is the land of the free. You make it sound like a tyranny.

MACHAN: It's becoming a tyranny. It's always been compromised on that score. There was slavery, certainly a lot of people realize that that wasn't consistent with the Declaration's philosophy, individual rights, unalienable rights and slavery? Give me a break. The fact is that America has never been fully consistent with it's own declared political philosophy. Lincoln, for example, tried to make an adjustment—at least of his rhetoric was that he was liberating the slaves to put America more in line with its own declared political philosophy. Unlike many other societies, where correctives come in from outside, in America, the corrective standards were always there. They just hadn't been fully applied.

Q: All right, we got rid of slavery. It's not a tyranny any more.

MACHAN: Well it's not a tyranny in that respect. It's not a full scale tyranny but there are plenty of petty tyrannies around—almost all of the government regulatory devices are petty tyrannies, not Draconian like a Stalin or a Hitler but they are significant and they erode individual liberty and they impose an enormous cost on our lives.

Q: When you were a kid, the government picked your profession.

MACHAN: That's because I lived in Hungary and there was a totalitarian system afoot there.

Q: But so what happened to you and how can you call America a tyranny?

MACHAN: Well it's because I insist upon a fully consistent free society. It's kind of like in personal lives, just because you lie a couple of times that doesn't mean that you are an out and out liar but you do lie. It'd be nicer if you didn't. Similarly, the United States is a relatively free society compared to previous countries in history and around the globe but it could always use some improvement and what I'm advocating is greater and greater improvement. If nobody does that, then it's going to slide into a really serious tyranny.

Q: We need these rules or we'd have anarchy?

MACHAN: No, we wouldn't have anarchy; we'd have the rule of law, which protects individual rights. Individual rights don't mean anarchy. It means people get to do what they choose to do, so long as they do not violate other people's right. Nobody gets in there and messes with them until it 's been demonstrated in the court of law that they have violated someone's rights.

Q: Unless you directly hurt someone.

MACHAN: Yes. You can directly or indirectly hurt someone; there are cases where you indirectly hurt someone through embezzlement, through fraud, through all sorts of subtle coercive means. A just system isn't like a geometrical structure. There are subtleties, there are gray areas but the default position ought to be individual rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Q: I mean government is now approaching 40 percent of the economy. So what? People don't seem to mind. What have we lost?

MACHAN: People don't mind a lot of things. Sometimes, people don't mind being abused by their spouses either. Sometimes people don't mind when their parents are violent and nasty. That doesn't make it right just because people don't protest; it doesn't mean that all of us have to be blind to these arrogations of individual rights.

Q: People aren't being abused by their government the way people are abused by a spouse.

MACHAN: Actually, they are. I mean a great many people in business are suffering tremendously, they can hardly get going. Enterprises cannot get off the ground because they already have so many expenses imposed by various regulations at the municipal, county, state (and) federal levels; who knows the UN is going to come in next.

Q: But people like this. It's kind of like government is Robin Hood. It takes from the people who can afford it and gives to the needy.

MACHAN: Actually Robin Hood took from the people, who stole by means of taxation; they didn't get rich like Bill Gates did, by means of production and invention. The bulk of the rich back then got rich by taxing a bunch of poor people and Robin Hood took back the taxes. People forget about that.

Q: So, Robin Hood was stealing from the government?

MACHAN: Exactly.

Q: But you tell me that, it's like Robin Hood, the government's great. You take from the people, who can afford it and use the money to help the poor.

MACHAN: First of all, that's not generous, that's not compassionate, that's not kind, and that just is sheer robbery. I don't care why the rich are always bad mouthed. I mean after all, they're human begins too. Just the other day, I read Al Gore saying, the people versus the rich as if the rich were some sort of virus. These are human beings, who—maybe through luck, maybe through effort—(made) a good life for themselves. So, why [are] they punished for this? I don't get it. Robin Hood "stole" from members of the upper classes who lived off taxes that were taken from the poor people, who worked the land, who had to pay the taxes in order to survive on that land because the land didn't belong to them, it belonged to the king and to the noblemen, to whom the king bequeathed the land. Robin Hood said, "Wait a minute, this is robbery. This is not rent. We want it back."

Q: It sounds like you're saying Robin Hood stole from the government.

MACHAN: No, he didn't steal from the government, he repossessed from those to whom the government doled out the money that it extorted, took in taxes.

Q: The government and the cronies of government.

MACHAN: That's right. Exactly. Robin Hood was like me going to the United States Treasury and taking a great deal money from there and giving it back to the taxpayers. That's what Robin Hood did. Robin Hood didn't go to the rich, who happened to have worked hard and got rich and then said. "Well these guys are rich, [so] let's give a few dollars to the poor." That's not what Robin Hood did. Robin was fighting injustice and the injustice was taxation.

Continue reading the entire interview

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