An institution that claims the right to initiate force and has the means to do so is an institution to be feared. History confirms the fear: government has been responsible for more deaths and destruction than any other human instrumentality. That the hallmark of government—legally sanctioned violence—produces carnage should come as no surprise. Remarkably, over the last century fear of government has been transmuted to fear of its absence, even as governments have racked up new records for carnage. The shift has been marked by a widespread psychological and moral deterioration that evades the reality of state destructiveness and insists on more of it.
While fear can be quite rational and produce a rational response—rushing to higher ground because of a looming tsunami—it is emotionally corrosive, stifles reasoned analysis or deliberation, and magnifies itself in groups. As such, it’s a lever for mass manipulation. Manipulative maestro Franklin Delano Roosevelt pivoted the US from its traditional skepticism of government to wholehearted embrace. The stock market crash of 1929 and ensuing recession were the inevitable bust of the credit-fueled boom, sponsored by the Federal Reserve, that preceded it (see America’s Great Depression, Rothbard, 1963, and The Great Deformation, Stockman, 2013). The New Dealers claimed that capitalism had failed, but it was central bank-promoted credit, untethered from the real economy, that had failed.
Roosevelt converted that failure into a fear-based demand for more government. Somehow, in a way that was never logically explained (because it was impossible to do so), coercive redistribution would ensure economic security. It self-evidently diminished the economic security of the coerced, but it didn’t do much for the beneficiaries either; the economy in 1938 was in worse shape than when Roosevelt took office in 1933. The many New Deal programs, regulatory agencies, taxes, laws, and regulations meant to improve upon “failed” capitalism distorted or destroyed the regulation inherent in competition, took money from productive individuals and businesses for nonproductive purposes, created a class of agents dependent on rent seeking from the government, and burdened the economy with uneconomic mandates.
World War II was another instance of government failure—the punitive terms imposed by the victors of World War I on Germany—leading to another frightening outcome, the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Axis alliance (see Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War, Buchanan, 2008). After Pearl Harbor, the demand for the US to join the Allies was overwhelming. The end of the war seemed to confirm the proposition that the US government was the best guarantor of a good night’s sleep. It reigned over the only major economy not destroyed in the war, it had the most powerful weapon the world had ever seen, and was the leader of the western democracies. For the tiny remnant who still believed that the biggest thing we had to fear was government itself, the unrivaled power of the US government evoked nothing but terror.
The New Deal and the war had left a mixed economy of residual private incentives and activity overridden by arbitrary government control. To call that system capitalism was a fallacious wave to the past. Other legacies from the Roosevelt years: the welfare state, confiscatory tax rates, and deficit finance. The first two put into practice the Marxian bromide, taking from the able and productive to give to the needy. Perpetual deficits levied a growing call on future production. Unmet “needs” and deficits, with their attendant debt service, generally grew faster than underlying production. That has been the case in the US. It didn’t take prodigious foresight to see that its economic arrangements—the basis of its so-called economic security—were inherently unstable, but that insight was rarely publicly expressed. After all, expected consequences are far less fearful than “unexpected” surprises.
Nothing is scarier than an enemy bent on your annihilation, which the US has supposedly had since the end of World War II. The Soviet Union and then Islamic extremism have justified maintenance of a confederated empire, foreign intervention, ever more intrusive domestic surveillance, and military and intelligence budgets that dwarf the rest of the world’s. All this security has created various insecurities. It has been expensive, no small consideration for a nation $19 trillion in the hole with at least $100 trillion in unfunded liabilities. Little noted, the relative costs have shifted against offensive strategies in foreign lands and in favor of domestic insurgencies. Thus, a string of US and friends military engagements in southeast Asia, the Middle East, and northern Africa have failed to defeat local insurgencies, and have been interminable and costly.
And destabilizing. Foreign intervention by the US and members of its confederated empire have decimated entire regions and created a flow of refugees to Europe and the US. The confederation says it has taken the war on terrorism to the terrorists, but the terrorists have reciprocated, taking the war on interventionism to the interventionists. In the western nations, people now live under a constant cloud, fearful of random violence inflicted by Islamic extremists. The real risk is far less than many risks that are routinely accepted, like getting in a car, but the government and media don’t fill their propaganda and news cycles with stories of those who die in auto accidents. Draconian restrictions on civil liberties, accepted as necessary to fight terrorism, have been mostly ineffectual, but fear is fear. Each new incident creates a demand for more intervention and repression.
Fear corrodes character and morals, and we live in an age of government-promulgated fear. Beneficiaries of government largess, from the proverbial welfare queens to bankers and defense contractors, seldom ask themselves from where it comes or why they should receive it. They instead bend every effort to ensure that it’s never withdrawn, a terrifying outcome. The productive who involuntarily supply that largess dread the next regulation, tax, or government caprice, but for the most part stay silent, fearing retribution. People around the world dread war, and the US, the country most prone to waging it, fears their retaliation. Even those who control governments fear the inevitable consequences of their arrogant ineptitude, and the risk they will lose their power, privilege, payola, and perhaps, their lives.
Brexit is dangerous; Donald Trump is dangerous; separatist parties are dangerous; nationalism is dangerous; devolution is dangerous; liberty is dangerous; anything that challenges the legitimacy of the world’s most dangerous institution, and the power of the people in control, is dangerous. However, when you boil it down, that’s all they’ve got, all they’ve ever had: fear. Threats, subterfuge, and coercion produce regress, not progress, and their consequences are the fiscally and morally bankrupt world we know today, a world that could be on the brink of cataclysmic war.
Fear cannot and should not be vanquished. It has its evolutionary place, increasing humans’ and other species’ chances of survival. However, the object of fear must be correctly identified. A herd of wildebeests that runs from ant hills but cozies up to lions will not last long. The widespread embrace of that which should be feared the most dramatically reduces humanity’s odds of continuance. The inevitable tsunami approaches. Get yourself and those you care about to higher ground.
THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION: AN AGE OF