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The Peaceful Transfer of Violent Power

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At the risk of raining on the parade, I suggest that the inaugural festivities are not what they appear. Barack Obama says the pomp and circumstance are not about him but are a celebration of democracy. “For the forty-third time, we will execute the peaceful transfer of power from one president to the next,” he said.

He’s right, but not quite as he meant it. The peaceful transition from the Bush to the Obama regime is indeed the occasion, but let’s focus on exactly what is being transferred. Despite the oratory about hope, change, and renewal, government — as someone, perhaps George Washington, said — “is not reason; it is not eloquence; it is force.” If that is right — and I contend it is — then in the inauguration we have the irony of a peaceful transfer of something that is anything but peaceful: the legal power to use physical force.

This is something to celebrate?

The question would be fair no matter who succeeded George W. Bush. It’s not so much the man but the office that warrants our distrust and (to use Jefferson’s term) jealousy. To modify the words of Judge Gideon Tucker: No person’s life, liberty, and property are safe as long as the occupant of the White House possesses the powers that are invested in the presidency (and government generally).

The essence of government as we know it is the power to use force against people who have never harmed anyone. The most basic power is the power to tax. Indeed, government could do nothing without it. The power to tax is the legal authority to compel people to surrender their money to the state under penalty of fine, imprisonment, and worse for refusal. Whether or not one thinks this power is good (I don’t), one cannot deny that it is based on the threat to commit violence against the nonviolent.

Thus, this week we witness the peaceful transfer of the authority to commit legal plunder.

Apologists for government undertake bizarre mental contortions to show that we have consented to be taxed. Balderdash. I was never asked to consent, and I’m sure you weren’t either. I refuse to accept the nonsensical argument that by not vacating the parcel of land I purchased, I have signaled my “tacit consent” to be plundered and bullied. That implies the government owns the territory it rules and therefore can set the conditions under which it is used. That sounds like feudalism. Are we merely tenants of the governmental landlord?

Built on the power to tax (legally steal) are myriad other powers that entail the threat of violence against peaceful individuals. If you wish to buy things from people outside the jurisdiction claimed by the U.S. government, you may do so only on the terms it permits under its trade laws. If you wish to invite to your home or business someone who lives outside that jurisdiction, again, you can do so only under terms laid down by the government’s immigration rules. You are not free to make your own decisions in the matter.

If you don’t want your money given to others — say, Wall Street banks, auto companies, welfare recipients, stem-cell researchers, military contractors, the Israeli air force, the Iraqi and Afghan rulers — too bad. You have no say. Correction: you have one impotent vote every four years. That’s virtually the same as no say.

If you don’t want the armed forces killing people in your name, again, too bad. No one asked you.

If you don’t want the Treasury and the Federal Reserve stealing your hard-earned money through deficits and inflation, you may as well shut up. It’s going to happen anyway.

This is the power the peaceful transfer of which we celebrate.

We might wonder why inaugurations aren’t more sober affairs. Why all the hoopla? The answer is simple. Government is a horrendous and exploitative imposition on most of us. From the rulers’ perspective, there is always the danger that we may figure this out and refuse to go along. Hence the need for regular propaganda spectacles to reinforce the myth that we are the government.

The prayers of The Who’s Pete Townshend, alas, have not been answered. Most of us are getting fooled again.

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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.