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Government the Exploiter, Not Protector

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If you begin with an incorrect premise, you are bound to arrive at bad conclusions. Nowhere is this more true than in matters of government. The debates over the “war on terror,” the Iraqi occupation, and the Bush administration’s casual approach to civil liberties are premised on the idea that the primary mission of the government in Washington is to protect the American people from harm.

Wrong.

None of the governments we are familiar with was established primarily to protect the general population. Rather, they were set up to enable a privileged class to extract wealth from the general population. They taxed the people to provide subsidies and restricted trade to create monopoly advantage. To keep a good thing going, of course, rulers afforded the people some protection, lest an outside power horn in on the action. But the objective was always to keep the goose laying the golden eggs. Rulers regularly reminded the people about the protection, while keeping the exploitation obscured. Thus the people came to regard their government as a protector, although, invariably, the thing they needed protection from most was … their “own” government.

Americans might concede this point with respect to other people’s governments, but not the one they live under. They have swallowed the story of American exceptionalism hook, line, and sinker. But human nature being what it is, we should be surprised to find an actual government that doesn’t have exploitation at its heart. The moment the political authority imposes taxes, exploitation is born, along with two irreconcilable groups: the tax producers and the tax consumers. The former include anyone who works and trades in the marketplace; the latter, those who live off the former: the government’s personnel and those with political connections. For example, tax money pays government contractors to build things the powerful want built. This is in contrast to the free market, in which entrepreneurs make things consumers want. Government privilege includes tariffs, which keep low-priced imports out of the market, and the myriad regulations, taxes, licenses, and other restrictions that stifle competition.

Throughout modern history, liberal — that is, laissez-faire — movements have arisen to oppose exploitation and to defend the freedom of individuals to work, trade, and live as they wish. The liberal movement that arose in the American colonies came close to formulating a consistent program, but as the new country was formed, power was assumed by those with the old-fashioned mercantilist view that government exists to exploit the industrious. Early America had tariffs, land grants, patents, and cash subsidies. The libertarian rhetoric often remained, but the mercantilists were in charge.

This perspective helps us to better understand American foreign policy, which is integral to the mercantilist system. The American people’s security was not at stake in most of the foreign adventures American presidents have undertaken. Security became an issue only after intervention created resentment against the United States. The national government then had new excuses to flex its muscles at the expense of the people, while appearing to protect them from the danger it had created. U.S. intervention — in the Middle East, in Asia, in Africa, in Latin America — has been portrayed as necessary for national security, but in fact has been part of the system of privilege that harms most Americans.

That system brought the blowback of September 11, 2001. But instead of people’s getting wise to the game, 9/11 only reinforced it by furnishing a pretext for even more government power, intrusion, and exploitation.

Rulers have long played the security card with great agility. Don’t watch us too closely or put restrictions on us, they say, or we will be unable to protect you from those who wish to harm you. People with a penchant for trusting politicians will find that persuasive. But those with some knowledge of the history of government see through the charade.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.