TAMPA, October 28, 2012 – Nine days before Election Day, Americans are hunkering down into their traditional Republican/Democratic camps. Supposedly, the future of American society rests upon which corporate-backed candidate wins the presidency. Americans of the past would have regarded this as complete nonsense.
In late 1775, the shot heard ‘round the world had been fired and the American colonists had Boston under siege. Still, most Americans either favored reconciliation with Great Britain or were undecided.
Then, in January 1776, Thomas Paine released his instant bestseller, Common Sense. It is this pamphlet that is credited with persuading a critical mass of American colonists to support American independence from Great Britain. In it, Paine laid out his arguments about the role of government and why the British constitution failed in fulfilling this role for American colonists.
The very first plank he laid down in his argument was that government was evil.
“Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil;”
Paine, Jefferson and other founding fathers recognized government for what it is: the pooled and organized capacity for violence of the whole society. This idea comes straight out of John Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government. There is no law, no matter how minor, that is not ultimately backed up by the threat of violence.
This is no less true today than it was in 1776. Despite “social contract” theories and other linguistic gymnastics that attempt to euphemize the nature of government, it remains merely organized violence. This is apparent to most people when the government wages war, but somehow it escapes them otherwise.
Yet, even when the government runs a healthcare program, you pay for it or they will come to physically force you to pay. If you resist, you will be killed. It is no different for education, housing, or the ultimate canard, “job creation.” Even a parking ticket is backed by the threat of violence. Yes, you will get many “reminders” if don’t pay before any real action is taken, but eventually the government will come and physically force you to obey.
That is the inescapable nature of government. That’s why Paine and the founding fathers believed it was evil.
Then why constitute a government at all? The founders believed that although government was evil, it was also necessary. Although society, meaning people voluntarily associating and trading their various products with one another, is always a blessing; some of the people will commit violence against the life or property of others, at least some of the time.
So, as Paine wrote, man “finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest.” The government’s job is to defend peaceful citizens against violence committed by others. It is society’s bouncer.
While the term hadn’t been coined yet, the founding fathers were libertarians.
The bouncers aren’t the source of fun in a nightclub any more than government is the source of general happiness in a society. Neither do the bouncer’s run the nightclub. They are employed by the owners, and not for their creativity, ingenuity or compassion. They are employed for their ability to use brute force and are told to stay out of the way unless they are needed. Bouncers are a necessary evil in a nightclub for the same reason that government is a necessary evil in society, if necessary at all.
Yet, judging from the rhetoric of both parties’ politicians and the poll results, social media posts and other expressions of opinion by most of their supporters, most Americans don’t seem to see government this way anymore. One can only conclude that most Americans believe that government is good in and of itself, and that it just happens to be populated with corrupt or incompetent people at the moment.
Not only do most Americans seem to view government as a good, but they seem to want government to solve just about every societal problem, all of which were caused by government in the first place. The bouncers have been running the nightclub for a long time and Americans don’t seem to be able to figure out why it isn’t any fun anymore.
The most disturbing aspect of this belief in the goodness of government is the conversation surrounding the presidential election. Most Americans not only believe that the government can solve problems, rather than just employ force, but that the election of one man can actually save or destroy the republic. If that’s true, then any difference between America and the most barbarous empires in history is gone.
It is generally believed that the United States transformed itself from a relatively poor, agrarian society to the wealthiest nation in history because of the individual freedom available to its citizens. That freedom resulted from Americans recognizing that government is evil. It resulted from a libertarian theory of government.
America is at a crossroads, but Mitt Romney and Barack Obama don’t represent the fork in the road. They are both the same road. Whether you are looking for “Hope and Change” or “Smaller, Simpler and Smarter Government,” neither Romney nor Obama will provide it.
The first step in changing course is to rediscover America’s founding, libertarian idea that government is evil. If you think the presidential election can make a difference, why not take Gary Johnson up on his proposition? Be libertarian with him for one election. What do you have to lose?
Tom Mullen is the author of A Return to Common Sense: Reawakening Liberty in the Inhabitants of America.