Wednesday, May 25, 2005

The State, a Creature of Love or Fear?

Robert Higgs and Daniel Klein offer complementary views about the state's hold over us. Klein's "The People's Romance: Why People Love Government (as Much as They Do)," acknowledges several factors, then focuses on our communitarian impulse:
If government intervention creates an official and common frame of reference, a set of cultural focal points, a sense of togetherness and common experience, then almost any form of government intervention can help to ‚“make us Americans.‚” If people see government activism as a singular way of binding society together, then they may favor any particular government intervention for its own sake -- whether it be government intervention in schooling, urban transit, postal services, Social Security, or anything else -- because they love the way in which it makes them American.

Of course, love of government as a binding and collectivizing force does not exist in anyone's sensibilities as an absolute. Everyone seeks other goals as well and understands that some government interventions are more costly than voluntary solutions, and people make their judgments according to their understanding.

People may favor government for other reasons: they fancy themselves part of the governing set; they yearn for an official system of validation; they want to avoid the burden of justifying a dissenting view; they fear, revere or worship power. All such factors work in conjunction with self-serving tendencies of less existential nature‚—privilege seeking, subsidy seeking, and so on‚—and with the rationalizations of these tendencies. Furthermore, people may be biased toward government because cultural institutions indoctrinate and cow them.

All such tendencies may be part of a general account of “collectivism‚”—in the sense of statism. In this article, I seek to expand our understanding of just one factor of collectivism that never operates in isolation from the others and not necessarily the most significant: people‚’s tendency to see and love government as a binding communitarian force.
Klein concludes, hopefully:
[B]arring major war, the prospects for deflating TPR [the people's romance with government] are looking up (for this reason, I suspect the Democratic Party is in serious trouble). Correspondingly, the prospects for a libertarian enrichment of culture are also looking up. Even if policy isn’t fixed, even if the overall political culture is not improving, wealth and technology are increasingly enabling individuals to resist and withdraw from the dominant political culture. That culture does not engulf people as it did previously. We may look forward to diverse political cultures that accommodate vibrant communities of the mind wise to the statist quackeries and misadventures that surround us.
Higgs, some of whose writings are in Klein's bibliography, focuses elsewhere in "Fear: The Foundation of Every Government's Power?":

All animals experience fear—human beings, perhaps, most of all. Any animal incapable of fear would have been hard pressed to survive, regardless of its size, speed, or other attributes. Fear alerts us to dangers that threaten our well-being and sometimes our very lives. Sensing fear, we respond by running away, by hiding, or by preparing to ward off the danger....

The people who have the effrontery to rule us, who call themselves our government, understand this basic fact of human nature. They exploit it, and they cultivate it. Whether they compose a warfare state or a welfare state, they depend on it to secure popular submission, compliance with official dictates, and, on some occasions, affirmative cooperation with the stateƃ‚’s enterprises and adventures. Without popular fear, no government could endure more than twenty-four hours. David Hume taught that all government rests on public opinion, but that opinion, I maintain, is not the bedrock of government. Public opinion itself rests on something deeper: fear.[1]

Higgs's conclusion is more wistful than hopeful:

Were we ever to stop being afraid of the government itself and to cast off the phoney fears it has fostered, the government would shrivel and die, and the host would disappear for the tens of millions of parasites in the United States‚—not to speak of the vast number of others in the rest of the world‚—who now feed directly and indirectly off the public’s wealth and energies. On that glorious day, everyone who had been living at public expense would have to get an honest job, and the rest of us, recognizing government as the false god it has always been, could set about assuaging our remaining fears in more productive and morally defensible ways.

Human nature is complex; both Klein and Higgs's explanations are therefore plausible: We look to government out of fear (or mistrust in others and in our own abilities) and out of a need for a social bond. Leviathan will wither -- if ever it does -- only as we become more competent and knowledgeable as individuals, therefore more skeptical about politicians' motives and the state's efficacy, and thus less dependent on the state.