Through history, no institution has come close to government in its ability to inflict violence, terror, chaos, and death. War is almost exclusively the province of government. Every legal system rests in government the right to initiate force against its own citizens, to take money from them to fund itself, to promulgate laws, to decide what is just and what is not, and to dispense its justice and inflict punishment. Just an enumeration of those powers should leave one apprehensive; a survey of the historical record should leave one pale with fright.
Ten words transmuted a healthy American fear of government into an embrace: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Fear, per se, is not something to be afraid of. Conscientious parents try to inculcate all sorts of fears in their offspring: of poisonous creatures and plants, strangers offering rides, drugs and alcohol, unprotected sex, and the wrath of parents. Government, per se, is something to be afraid of, but Franklin Roosevelt’s alchemy turned the Founding Fathers’ dangerous master into the Superhero that would save the citizenry from the fearsome things it was not supposed to fear. Roosevelt’s famous admonition was a smokescreen; fear was his most powerful ally.
Perhaps the best explication of the causes of the Great Depression is Murray Rothbard’s America’s Great Depression. The brand new Federal Reserve stoked an inflationary boom during the Roaring Twenties. Such booms and their attendant speculative manias, fed by artificial, central-bank bolstered credit, always go bust (the current “boom” will meet the same fate).
For the first time since June 1921, the money stopped increasing [in mid-1929], and remained virtually constant. The great boom of the 1920s was now over, and the Great Depression had begun. The country, however, did not really discover the change until the stock market finally crashed in October. (Rothbard)
Roosevelt was a second-rate mind, but a first-rate politician (the latter has come to require the former). He had no inkling that the government’s central bank had caused the Great Depression, but he knew the American people were afraid, and their fear was just the ticket for his massive expansion of government power. The only thing the New Deal’s hodgepodge of programs did to the economic contraction was make it worse (unemployment was higher and the GDP lower in 1938 than in 1933, when he took office), but that wasn’t the point. Roosevelt’s program had permanently changed the relationship of the people and the government. From that time forward, the government was responsible for redressing fears, even if the government itself had created the conditions that led to those fears.
The US is protected from foreign invasion by the Pacific and Atlantic, its huge land mass and varied topography, friendly neighbors to the north and south, and its dominance of the Western Hemisphere. Roosevelt had promised during the 1940 campaign to keep the US out of burgeoning wars in Europe and Asia, although he was itching to join the fights. Whether or nor the Roosevelt administration provoked Japan into attacking the US, and whether or not Roosevelt knew beforehand of the attack on Pearl Harbor, are still matters of debate, although a strong case can be made for the latter and a very strong case for the former. Grievous as Pearl Harbor was, there was no way Japan, a comparative dwarf, was going to launch an invasion of the giant US, but the attack served Roosevelt’s purpose—it created a groundswell of support for the country’s entry into the war.
Any country at war is fearful. You can still read breathless accounts of the “existential threat” the US faced during World War II, and how, had we not intervened, we’d be speaking Japanese or German today. Germany could not defeat Great Britain across the 26-mile English Channel. It was also engaged in a losing campaign in the USSR. Even had it won instead of lost both engagements it still would have had to cross either the Atlantic or Pacific and fight an industrially and militarily superior opponent on its home territory, while trying to keep the people it had conquered subjugated. The only chance Germany ever had of defeating the US was to develop the atomic bomb, but the US had most of the physicists and the industrial capability to construct isolated, difficult-to-detect research and enrichment facilities. The allies were astonished at the end of the war when they saw just how rudimentary the German effort was.
The government came up with another danger: domestic subversion by US enemies. People of Japanese descent were put in internment camps, Hollywood was enlisted in a massive propaganda campaign directed by the government, and everyone was kept on edge, warned to be watchful for fifth column activities. No grand plots were uncovered, rather, it was our ally, the Soviet Union, that engaged in most of the espionage and surreptitious penetration of important government, military, and industrial programs (including the atomic bomb).
Roosevelt constructed the templates for government-inspired fear that have been used ever since: economic insecurity, foreign domination, and subversion from within. It is now the government’s power-expanding job to confront all three, so it often cries “wolf.” Since the end of World War II, the American people been told to be afraid of something: the Cold War, the red scare, falling dominoes in the Korean peninsula and then Southeast Asia, missile gaps, nuclear holocaust, the radical left, the radical right, Islamic extremism and terrorist plots, sleeper cells, domestic terrorists, the USSR, Russia, China, Iran, and so on. Government has grown in a Rooseveltian fashion to address all these threats and fears. It has stationed troops and weaponry and made war all over the globe; it monitors our electronic interactions and communications, where we go, and what we buy and sell; all to keep us safe at night. To scare aware any economic monsters in the closet it has gone deeply in debt and had its central bank buy up that debt and suppress interest rates, lest anyone try to rely on themselves rather than the government to meet life’s contingencies.
The government has promised largess it can’t deliver. The mounting debt has slowed the economy to a crawl and promises future financial crises. Our intervention in the Middle East has notched up the chaos; thousands of refugees attempting to escape it have drowned in the Mediterranean, and each new “war” on a terrorist group creates more terrorists. Governmental surveillance has rendered a good part of the Bill of Rights a dead letter, but the security we traded for our liberty remains ever elusive. Roosevelt deliberately got it wrong: what we have to fear is a government peddling fear. Even in a flock of sheep there are smarter and dumber lambs, and the smarter ones have realized that their shepherd is a wolf. On present form, the 2016 election promises the flock a choice between escorts to the slaughterhouse. The defining issue of our times is whether enough get wise, and do something about it, before we’re all converted to lamb chops.
A TIME OF OPTIMISM, NOT FEAR