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How the State Became Immaculate, Part 3

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During the 1920sand early 1930s, the U.S. government provided huge loans to foreign nations whose exports were subsequently blocked by high U.S. tariffs, artificially held down interest rates and flooded the nation with cheap credit, and championed cartel operations by private businesses.

Economic historian Robert Skidelsky recently attributed the start of the Great Depression to the collapse in world grain prices — a collapse directly tied to the disastrous attempt to corner the world wheat markets by the Hoover administration’s Federal Farm Board. The federal government also severely reduced the currency supply from 1929 through 1932, thereby aggravating the economic slowdown.

After the stock-market crash, politicians were quick to place the blame on laissez-faire economic policies. President Franklin D. Roosevelt denounced the economic system of the 1920s as an “economic tyranny” and declared that “the collapse of 1929 showed up the despotism for what it was.” The selling of the Great Depression as proof of the failure of free markets was one of the greatest intellectual cons in history.

President Roosevelt declared in his first inaugural address: “We now realize that if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress is made, no leadership can become effective.” The military metaphors, which practically called for the entire populace to march in lock step, were similar to rhetoric used by European dictators at the time. Roosevelt had assured listeners in 1932, “The day of enlightened administration has come.”

FDR perennially glorified government power as the great liberator of the common man. In a 1936 message to Congress, he denounced his critics:

They realize that in 34 months we have built up new instruments of public power. In the hands of a people’s government this power is wholesome and proper. But in the hands of political puppets of an economic autocracy such power would provide shackles for the liberties of the people.

Because FDR proclaimed that the federal government was a “people’s government,” good citizens had no excuse for fearing an increase in government power. The question of liberty became totally divorced from the amount of government power — and instead depended solely on politicians’ intent toward the governed. The mere fact that the power was in the hands of benevolent politicians was the only safeguard needed.

Roosevelt sometimes practically portrayed the state as a god. In his 1936 acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, he declared, “In the place of the palace of privilege we seek to build a temple out of faith and hope and charity.”

In 1937, he praised the members of political parties for respecting “as sacred all branches of their government.” In the same speech, Roosevelt assured listeners, in practically Orwellian terms, “Your government knows your mind, and you know your government’s mind.” For Roosevelt, faith in the state was simply faith in his own wisdom and benevolence. Roosevelt’s concept of the state is important because he radically expanded the federal government — and most of the programs he created survive to this day.

The members of Roosevelt’s Brain Trust were confident of their ability to forcibly improve other Americans’ lives. Assistant Secretary of Agriculture Rexford Tugwell, in a 1934 book that praised the Soviet Union’s economic management, captured the spirit of the New Deal: “We have developed efficiency and science in the art of government. Our administrative, executive, and judicial bodies have proved competent to handle the most difficult matters.”

Tugwell informed America: “We must now supply a real and visible guiding hand to do the task which that mythical, non-existent invisible agency was supposed to perform, but never did.” The Roosevelt administration’s “guiding hand” paid farmers in 1933 to slaughter 6 million baby pigs (at a time of widespread hunger) and plow up 10 million acres of cotton fields (at a time when millions were wearing rags).

The Agriculture Department was ridiculed for “solving the paradox of want amidst plenty by doing away with the plenty.” Tugwell did concede that a major impediment to government planning in the United States was the “unreasoning, almost hysterical attachment of certain Americans to the Constitution.”

The aftermath of the Roosevelt revolution

The more powerful the federal government became, the more avidly some politicians exalted government. Adlai Stevenson, the governor of Illinois and later a two-time Democratic Party presidential candidate, declared in 1948: “Government is more than the sum of all the interests; it is the paramount interest, the public interest.”

Passion for the use of government force was hailed as the distinguishing trait of progressive thinking. Sen. Joseph Clark of Pennsylvania wrote in 1953 that “a liberal is here defined as one who believes in utilizing the full force of government for the advancement of social, political, and economic justice at the municipal, state, national, and international levels.”

President John F. Kennedy declared in 1963: “The federal government is the people and the budget is a reflection of their need.” Thus, the fact that politicians wanted to increase government revenue and expand their own power automatically proved that the American people had unmet needs — especially the need to pay more taxes. Liberals were not alone in putting government on a pedestal. Russell Kirk, one of the most respected conservative writers of the 1950s, declared, “Government is … a device of Divine wisdom to supply human wants.” Kirk’s comment should be considered blasphemy by any religious enthusiast who imagines a deity possessing fewer character defects than the average congressman.

During the New Frontier in the early 1960s, Kennedy and his experts promoted the idea of government as an all-wise problem-solver, the natural home of the “best and the brightest.” President Lyndon Johnson declared in 1964: “I believe there is always a national answer to each national problem, and, believing this, I do not believe that there are necessarily two sides to every question.”

Hubert Humphrey, Johnson’s vice president and a three-time presidential candidate, denounced critics of government: “Candidates who make an attack on Washington are making an attack on government programs, on the poor, on blacks, on minorities, on the cities. It’s a disguised form of racism, a disguised new form of conservatism.” Thus, anyone who did not support big government was practically the moral equivalent of a Klansman.

Clinton carries the torch

Today President Bill Clinton is devoting his presidency to persuading the American people that government is far more wonderful than they suspect. In a speech to the Democratic National Committee on January 21, 1997, he listed as one of the top achievements of his first term: “We ended the notion that government is the problem…. Make no mistake, our view prevailed. And you should be proud of it.” Clinton also sought to change the public perception of the presidency: “I think that it is my job to lead, challenge, and take care of the country. And I suppose the older I get, the more it becomes the role of a father figure instead of an older brother.”

The concept of the state profoundly influences how people perceive the nature of government action. Nothing better illustrates how the government — and much of the media — is seeking to deceive the American public than the spin that followed the federal raid to seize Elián Gonzalez on April 22, 2000.

Attorney General Janet Reno called a press conference a few hours after the raid and, when asked about the soon-to-be-famous photo of the Border Patrol agent pointing his submachine gun towards the boy, stressed that the agent’s “finger was not on the trigger.” The Hechler and Koch MP-5 submachine gun sprays 800 rounds a minute — and a finger a half inch away from the trigger means nothing.

Two days later, Reno declared, “One of the things that is so very important is that the force was not used. It was a show of force that prevented people from getting hurt.” This would be news to the people kicked, shoved, and knocked down by federal agents.

White House spokesman Joe Lockhart, responding to a question about the use of excessive force, stressed that the agents “drove up in white minivans” — as if the color of the vehicles proved they were on a mission of mercy. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, in an article headlined, “Reno for President,” declared that the machine-gun photo “warmed my heart” and that it symbolized that “America is a country where the rule of law rules. This picture illustrates what happens to those who defy the rule of law and how far our government and people will go to preserve it.” Garry Wills, author of A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government, wrote on the New York Times op-ed page: “The readiness of people to deplore “jack-booted” tactics reveals the intransigence that made the rescue necessary.” Like a variation of old-time Soviet psychiatry, fear of government agents with machine guns is now a symptom of mental illness.

If politicians and intellectuals had not already succeeded in confusing and deceiving many Americans about the nature of government power, the Clinton administration’s spin on the Elián Gonzalez raid could not have worked. The fact that so many Americans swallowed the administration’s propaganda is a warning that the first bulwark against unlimited power — the common sense of the citizenry — is weak.

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    James Bovard serves as policy adviser to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader's Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of a new e-book memoir, Public Policy Hooligan. His other books include: Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book's Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.