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Is a Real Anti-Government Movement Forming?

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Finally some good news. From the Associated Press:

“Public confidence in government is at one of the lowest points in a half century, according to a survey from the Pew Research Center. Nearly 8 in 10 Americans say they don’t trust the federal government and have little faith it can solve America’s ills, the survey found…. About half say they want a smaller government with fewer services.”

The AP also reported, “The survey found that Obama’s policies were partly to blame for a rise in distrustful, anti-government views.”

This would be a cheerful development no matter who occupied the White House. Both parties have contributed to the outrageous growth in the state’s power and a corresponding shrinkage of individual liberty. If the public hasn’t had enough by now, what would it take?

Fortunately, as Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, wrote, “Favorable ratings for both major parties, as well as for Congress, have reached record lows.” And the negative feelings are not just against politicians, who have spent and borrowed the country into bankruptcy. People are increasingly disillusioned with government bureaucracies. “Favorable ratings for federal agencies and institutions have fallen since 1997-98 for seven of 13 federal agencies included in the survey,” Kohut writes. “The declines have been particularly large for the Department of Education, the Food and Drug Administration, the Social Security Administration, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

It’s enough to restore one’s faith in the American people.

The politicians aren’t rejoicing of course. Even Republicans, most of whom say they want less government but don’t really mean it, prefer the people to be enthusiastic about them and their ability to govern. To this day they boast that Ronald Reagan restored confidence in government after beating Jimmy Carter.

But confidence is not what people who value freedom ought to feel toward the government. Thomas Jefferson had it right: “[F]ree government is founded in jealousy, and not in confidence.”

Why did Jefferson think that? Because the government one lives under is almost always the greatest threat to one’s liberty and therefore must be a special object of “eternal vigilance.” It’s government that has the power to start wars, take your money, interfere with your economic affairs, violate your privacy, subsidize things you disapprove of, and perhaps even declare you an enemy combatant and hold you without charge indefinitely. Why shouldn’t that make us wary?

Self-styled “progressives” don’t like criticism of government now that their guy is in the White House. The same people who routinely — and properly — denounced George W. Bush for his war policies and trampling of civil liberties have made a 180-degree turn and now suggest that those who spread alarm about the lengthening tentacles of the state flirt with “sedition” and might even be latent Tim McVeighs. What hypocrisy and demagoguery!

None of this is to suggest that America now has a dominant and coherent pro-freedom movement. The Pew poll shows that 56 percent of those surveyed “say that government does not do enough to help average Americans,” Kohut writes. A coherent movement wouldn’t want government help because it reduces freedom and creates economic havoc. Rather it would call for mutual aid and truly free enterprise, which is not to be confused with government-subsidized and government-protected megacorporations that privatize their profits while socializing their losses.

The Tea Party movement is no less confused. Its members say they want smaller government, but they favor Social Security and Medicare, two of the government’s costliest and most meddlesome welfare-state programs.

Moreover, the Tea Partiers complaining about too much government say almost nothing about the three murderous wars of empire (Pakistan included) Obama is fighting. He didn’t start them, but anyone who understands the connection between peace, prosperity, and individual freedom should be opposing Obama for the violent occupations and bombings he’s continuing. His Cheneyesque civil-liberties record would also be at the top of the agenda of any genuine movement to roll back government power.

Let’s hope the public’s sentiment against government power increases in size and sophistication. Regardless of who’s in power, there’s no greater cause than the cause of liberty.

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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.