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The Political Doctrine of Statism

Mises Daily: Monday, May 30, 2011 by


The Patriot Act that was rammed through after the September 2001 attacks was one of the more egregious blows against liberty in our lifetimes. It shredded core rights and liberties that had been taken for granted for centuries. Liberties are never lost all at once, but the Patriot Act, as disgusting in its details as in its name and the rhetoric that surrounded it, was for the United States the turning point, the law that best exemplifies a full-scale embrace of statism as a national ideology. It is a law so severe, so outlandish, as to cause people to forget what it means to be free.

This is why I believe Ron Paul's book Liberty Defined to be one of the most important statements of our time. He defines liberty clearly and cleanly as freedom from coercive interference from the state. That is how the liberal tradition from Aquinas to Jefferson to Rothbard understood it, too, for there is no greater threat to liberty than the state. Its powers must be crushed if we are to revisit what liberty means.

Ron goes further to apply the principle of liberty in many of the most controversial areas of modern life. The purpose here is not to detail some governing blueprint. What Ron seeks to do is much more important. He seeks to fire up the human imagination in ways that permit people to think outside the prevailing statist norms.

In 1945, Ludwig von Mises wrote a similar book called Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War. It is probably the most blistering and thorough attack on National Socialism ever written. He details the peculiar characteristics of Nazi-style statism (its nationalism rooted in the worship of bloodlines). Just as importantly — and very unusually for this genre of writing — Mises sought to explain how Nazism is only a symptom of a larger problem, which is statism itself. He regarded statism as a special doctrine that people come to embrace often without entirely understanding its teaching and claims. It emerges within a context of economic or security emergency.

There is always some great excuse for the trashing of the human freedom that built civilization as we know it. If the state cannot find one, it is glad to invent one. A population that is ideologically gullible or afraid for its security can permit government to run roughshod over people's rights and liberties, and a government that gains such power never gives it back on its own. Rights and liberties must be reclaimed by the people themselves, and the spark that makes this happen is reversing the conditions that permitted the rise of statism. The people must lose their gullibility through ideological enlightenment, and they must lose their sense of fear that the world will fall apart if the tyrant is not in control.

Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War

Part of this process of enlightenment requires an understanding of what was lost when we gave up liberty, and what can be gained by reclaiming it. Mises's book did not overlook this task, with a pithy description of the traditional classical-liberal vision:

In order to grasp the meaning of this liberal program we need to imagine a world order in which liberalism is supreme. Either all the states in it are liberal, or enough are so that when united they are able to repulse an attack of militarist aggressors. In this liberal world, or liberal part of the world, there is private property in the means of production. The working of the market is not hampered by government interference. There are no trade barriers; men can live and work where they want. Frontiers are drawn on the maps but they do not hinder the migrations of men and shipping of commodities. Natives do not enjoy rights that are denied to aliens. Governments and their servants restrict their activities to the protection of life, health, and property against fraudulent or violent aggression. They do not discriminate against foreigners. The courts are independent and effectively protect everybody against the encroachments of officialdom. Everyone is permitted to say, to write, and to print what he likes. Education is not subject to government interference. Governments are like night-watchmen whom the citizens have entrusted with the task of handling the police power. The men in office are regarded as mortal men, not as superhuman beings or as paternal authorities who have the right and duty to hold the people in tutelage. Governments do not have the power to dictate to the citizens what language they must use in their daily speech or in what language they must bring up and educate their children. Administrative organs and tribunals are bound to use each man's language in dealing with him, provided this language is spoken in the district by a reasonable number of residents.

We could add to this beautiful list of traits of a liberal society. There is no welfare state (and there was not before Bismarck and FDR). There are no passports (and there were not before World War I). There are no government identification cards (there were not before World War II). People can use any currency they want to use (people could do so before the Civil War). They can accumulate wealth and pass it on to their children with the full knowledge and expectation that their children's children will benefit too (so it was before World War I). They can innovate in the commercial marketplace without fear of courts, lawsuits, regulators, taxmen, and the customs house. They can negotiate all contracts, associate or disassociate, and hire and fire as they see fit. They do not hear government propaganda piped into stores and other public places. They do not even have to care about politics because the state is so limited and nearly powerless that not even the worst of people can change its essential functioning.

This is not a far-flung dream. Mises's explanation here is a composite of how liberty has worked in various times and various places over the last several hundred years. And he wrote this as a reminder of what people have lost in surrendering their lives and the functioning of society over to government power.

The point that Mises was making with his book was that it is not enough to hate a particular regime; we most oppose the ideological underpinnings of that regime and see what it has in common with the universal experience of tyranny. Nor is it enough merely to oppose government. We must also come to love liberty, to see and understand how it works even though we live in times when liberty is ever less seen — and ever less understood. This was the burden of his great book: to highlight Nazism as a particular application of the broader menace of statism itself.

This is also the point of Ron Paul's Liberty Defined. Yes, he opposes government as we know it. Much more importantly and much more profoundly, he understands the liberty that we do not know, and he strives to help us to love it, dream of it, and work for its achievement.

It doesn't surprise me that Ron's own son Rand Paul turns out to be the only member of the US Senate to dare to stand up to the Patriot Act and call it what it is. He has staked his political career on his action to stop its reauthorization. It is truly the case that if we can't see what is wrong with the Patriot Act, we can't see what is wrong with any despotism in the past or the present. If we can see what is wrong with it, we have a good start on beginning to see what is right about human liberty.