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Contest Essay

Leviathan’s Greatest Deception: Exposing the False Promise of Life “at the Expense of the State”

Third Prize, Student Division

“Everyone wants to live at the expense of the state. They forget the state wants to live at the expense of everyone.”
—Frederic Bastiat


Most libertarians will, at some point or another, succumb to the misanthropic feelings displayed in Bastiat’s remark. Despite the voluminous research annually published by brilliant libertarian social scientists, the enthusiasm of young libertarian activists, and the generous funding bestowed on many libertarian think tanks, the state continues its inexorable growth, with the public’s apparent blessing. To describe our work as Sisyphean would be overly generous; at least Sisyphus had occasional control over his stone’s trajectory—we, on the other hand, apparently see the size of government move only in a single direction. The libertarian’s uninterrupted frustration provides ample reason for him to resent, or even despise, his fellow man. If our fellow citizens are as lazy and avaricious as Bastiat implies, however, why should we wish to provide them liberty at all? They certainly do not deserve it. The answer is that man’s relationship with the state is slightly more complicated than Bastiat suggested, and filling in the gaps can help us resolve this conundrum and move toward a free society.

In substance, Bastiat was correct. Many of the programs citizens demand from their government can only be described as, “something for nothing.” For liberty advocates, this realization is disheartening; if the average man is as slothful and predatory as Bastiat suggests, how can we ever expect liberty in a democratic nation? My argument is that Bastiat’s remark needs to be appended; we need a more thorough understanding of precisely what people want and expect from the state. While a substantial portion of any nation’s population may desire, as Bastiat implied, “to live at the expense of the state,” the state’s growth cannot be entirely explained by the desire for a free lunch. Rather, I suggest that the state’s growth is driven by a different desire: security. As libertarians, it is our responsibility to understand how the state manipulates this basic human aspiration, and compose our rhetoric, research agendas, and political activism accordingly.

The Quest for Security and the Hatred of Risk

While many public policies are clearly predicated on a desire to live at the state’s expense, I see little evidence that the average man truly expects to receive a life of lavish comfort from the state without having to exert himself. Instead, modern man is terrified of uncertainty and the world’s natural insecurity, and is desperate to rid his life of unpredictability. Each day we are painfully reminded of the fundamental unfairness of the world: a couple loses their dream home to a natural disaster; a dedicated worker loses his job during a recession; an unexpected illness deprives a family of its breadwinner; a stock-market crash destroys a retiree’s accumulated wealth; a diligent student graduates from a top university, yet nonetheless faces dismal job prospects coupled with crushing student-loan payments; an ordinary office worker dies in a terrorist attack or other act of random violence. It all seems so unjust, and we are often inclined to shake our fists at the heavens, cursing the unfairness of our lot. We believe that, if we work hard and play by the rules, we should reap the appropriate benefits. The state’s allure stems from its promise of security. Much of mankind believes that, if we simply provide the state more power, we can finally rein in the world’s stochastic elements and never again feel like playthings of the gods.

In my estimation, the average man does not want everything handed to him; he does, however, want his living standard to follow a consistent upward trajectory. He is not against working for it, but he wants his lifestyle to change like a ratchet—only moving in one direction. Provided he goes to work and continues to follow societal norms, he should be as wealthy tomorrow as he is today, if not more so. Because economic slumps, wars, natural disasters, and other vagaries of fate are not his fault, most of us believe that he should not suffer for them. We desire what Thomas Sowell (1999) described as “cosmic justice.” The state promises to forever banish these insecurities and provide justice to the world, and most of us believe this promise.

In the social sciences, this hatred of unpredictability and possible loss is known as “risk aversion.” Generally speaking, risk aversion is the tendency of individuals to willingly trade higher expected payoffs for greater levels of certainty. A great number of us would prefer a secure, low-paying job over an insecure existence as an entrepreneur—even if starting our own business could eventually create incredible wealth. This explains the extraordinary popularity of federal entitlement programs like Social Security. It is comforting to believe that, no matter what, the state will provide for us in our old age or enfeeblement, and most of us happily pay exorbitant tax rates to maintain that sense of security. We should not forget President Bush’s utter failure to instigate any kind of Social Security reform in 2005. People consider Social Security a sure thing, and for that reason do not want it reformed in any way.

It may be the case that mankind has always despised uncertainty and looked to the state for protection against the whims of fate. French philosopher Chantal Delsol (2003), however, suggests that this fear of uncertainty is particularly acute in the modern world. Possessing neither the tragic fatalism of his ancient pagan ancestors nor the Christian hope for redemption in the next life embraced by his more recent foregoers, modern man is particularly agitated by the world’s many uncertainties. Having rejected even the possibility of the transcendent, modern man has become obsessed with maintaining his material comforts, and, according to Delsol, will give technocrats anything they ask in exchange for a promise of stability:

Contemporary man does not want to take risks, not for lack of courage, but because he fears the uncertain, fears encountering unanswerable questions. He not only needs material security, but peace of mind as well. In this respect, our age is a kind of high-security zone, in which technology and the state allow us to avoid risk. It is as if the considerable progress accomplished in order to further our well-being and peace of mind had proportionately reduced our ability to expose existence to risk. (p. 212)

If Delsol is correct, the growth of the state can be at least partially traced to a specifically-modern spiritual sickness. In contrast to Bastiat, I am not convinced that most people fail to understand that the state seeks to live at the expense of everyone else. I think most proponents of the “cradle-to-grave” welfare state intuitively recognize that the inevitable tradeoff for security is mediocrity. They surely realize that a “risk-free” existence has a hefty price tag. Unfortunately, many clearly do not care, and happily accept the opportunity costs associated with risk mitigation.

Leviathan understands man’s desire for stability, and never misses an opportunity to take full advantage of our feelings of insecurity. Robert Higgs (1987) demonstrated how the American state has consistently taken advantage of every foreign and domestic crisis to extend its prerogatives. Every time Americans face an economic downturn or foreign policy dilemma, the public cries, “do something!” The state inevitably obliges, expanding in size and scope in the process, and maintaining its new privileges even after each crisis has passed. Unfortunately, it is hard to argue that the state has tricked anyone in this process, or that democracy has failed to give the public precisely what it requested.

The Chimera of Security and the Proper Libertarian Response

Whether man’s obsession with material security is a peculiar modern development, or an ingrained aspect of our nature, changing a society’s aggregate preference order such that liberty trumps security is a burdensome, probably impossible, task. Where does that leave the libertarian? I argue that trying to weaken our fellow citizens’ desire for guaranteed security is an unattainable goal. Even if we could make it perfectly clear that “the state wants to live at the expense of everyone,” I am unconvinced that many minds would change. Instead, I think the libertarian’s task is to demonstrate that the state’s “guaranteed security” is, and always was, a sham. We allow the state to live at our expense, but the state does not allow many of us to actually live at its expense. In fact, unbridled state power is a threat to our very existence. By highlighting this fact, we can undermine the state’s allure.

Because, for most of us, the fear of instability overrules our enthusiasm for greatness and wealth, I think libertarians make a mistake by emphasizing the individual prosperity created by free markets. Most people will turn down a chance to become an economic Randian Übermensch if taking that chance necessarily involves a non-zero probability of ending up in the poorhouse. Certainly, there have always been those entrepreneurs who dare to take risks, and the world is better for them. They are too few in number, however, to serve as the base of a political movement. Instead, we must emphasize the state’s utter failure to provide the basic security we were promised. We may not be able to convince people that a zero-risk life is actually a terrible, dehumanizing existence, but perhaps we can irrefutably demonstrate that the state cannot provide such a life. The evidence of the state’s failure to secure our material well-being abounds.

If we learned anything from the world’s recent economic troubles, it is that the political leaders attempting to manage the world economy have failed in their effort to create permanent prosperity and economic peace of mind for average citizens. Furthermore, despite the explosive growth of the so-called “social-safety net,” individual-level economic insecurity has actually risen dramatically in recent decades in the United States, and the average American was less economically secure at the start of the twenty-first century than the average American in the 1950s (Hacker 2006). That is, despite the state’s promises to the contrary, there is much more economic downward mobility today than there was when we possessed a much more modest welfare state. These data are embraced by statists who use them to argue that we need more social safety nets, but the numbers are actually more favorable for the libertarian position that the Great Society and other programs actually had a negative influence on our economic well-being and long-term individual economic security.

We hand despotic powers to the United States Federal Reserve, secure in the promise that the economic overlords running our central bank will tame the business cycle. Alas, economic downturns are not a thing of the past, as we were reminded recently (Woods 2009). In fact, as the Austrian business cycle theory predicts, when central banks consistently hold interest rates too low, speculative bubbles and painful corrections inevitably follow (Hayek 1931; Mises 1953). We should furthermore never miss an opportunity to point out to our risk-averse fellow citizens that rapid inflation is one of the most destabilizing forces known to man, as anyone familiar with the history of Weimar Germany can attest.

If we really want to feel materially secure, we should create incentives for responsible individual saving and investment. Unfortunately, the bureaucrats running the printing press create an insidious disincentive to put money away for a rainy day. Because of the money supply’s incessant growth, we recognize that our dollars will be worth less over time (Rothbard 1994). To get any kind of return, we must make increasingly risky investments just to stay ahead of the game. For all the economic insecurity created by free markets, unbridled capitalism cannot spur hyperinflation. Only the state can do that, and, unfortunately, the American state is clearly on such a path. The “empire of debt” created by our political class cannot last forever (Bonner and Wiggin 2006). When we finally have to pay the full price for a generation of profligate spending, can there be any doubt that our political class will respond by devaluing the currency? As that day approaches, the state’s promise of security—that, when all else fails, we can “live at the expense of the state”—will become increasingly unbelievable to ordinary Americans. The government may be able to shower dollars on us, but if the value of those dollars is asymptotically approaching zero, who really cares?

America’s political conservatives, who frequently pay lip service to the idea of limited government, change their tune when it comes to foreign affairs. Conservative enthusiasm for the warfare state has, for several decades, been particularly frustrating for proponents of liberty (Rothbard 2007). However, in this arena as well the state has demonstrably failed to provide its promised security. The nation’s warmongers reaped great dividends from 9–11. Unfortunately, there is little evidence that the “War on Terror” has successfully made Americans any safer (Scheuer 2004). In fact, the public is probably increasingly amenable to arguments that our global empire is the cause of our insecurity, not its solution. Granted, there are undoubtedly some Americans for whom imperial glory is its own reward, and such people can probably never be successfully incorporated into the liberty movement. Others who supported our wars of choice because of fear, however, may be persuaded that a foreign policy of peace and freedom is more likely to preserve their lives and property than a policy of incessant, expensive adventuring and bloody campaigns for global democracy. As our Messianic meddling in the affairs of other nations makes the world more dangerous, rather than less, the neoconservative talking points about our security being dependent on the victory of “democracy” in the Middle East and South Asia will ring increasingly hollow.


Libertarians are fond of Jefferson’s maxim that “a society that will trade a little liberty for a little order will lose both, and deserve neither.” Jefferson was correct. In terms of rhetoric, I think we are most persuasive when we note that sacrificing our liberty only increases disorder. We must never stop exposing the truth of the Faustian bargain our fellow citizens are eager to make with the state.

Guaranteed security is an impossible, ludicrous aspiration, but by pursuing it by means of the state it we are ironically becoming less secure. Even more ironic is the fact that the best way to ensure our safety and property is to abolish our world empire, maintain a sound currency, and enforce the state’s constitutional limits. The libertarian should never cease reminding his fellow citizens of the new dangers the Leviathan state introduces into our lives. We must make it clear that, if we want to secure our material well being, the last thing we should do is hand unlimited power to the Bushes, Obamas, and Bernankes of the world.

I am not confident that liberty advocates can ever banish the individual desire to live at the expense of others. Nor do I think we can create in our fellow citizens a greater tolerance for risk. We do have one fact working in our favor, however: the state cannot actually provide us a risk-free existence. In fact, the state is the cause of our increasingly precarious situation. As the government’s failures continue to accumulate, faith in the state will falter. It is the libertarian’s duty to expedite that fall by giving it a push.

We must never miss an opportunity to expose the lies used to aggrandize the state; our entitlement programs and world empire will eventually bankrupt this nation and undermine the very fabric of our society. Libertarians have always noted this, but evidence for the truth of our arguments is growing increasingly irrefutable. By undermining faith in the state’s ability to provide for our material security, we undermine the state itself. If our fellow citizens finally become convinced that they cannot actually live at the expense of the state, they will simply not tolerate a state that lives at their expense.

Works Cited

Bonner, Bill and Addison Wiggin. 2006. Empire of Debt: The Rise of an Epic Financial Crisis. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.

Delsol, Chantal. 2003. Icarus Fallen: The Search for Meaning in an Uncertain World. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books

Hacker, Jacob S. 2006. The Great Risk Shift: The Assault on American Jobs, Families, Health Care, and Retirement, And How You Can Fight Back. New York: Oxford University Press

Hayek, Friedrich. 1931. Prices and Production. New York: Augustus M. Kelly, Publishers.

Higgs, Robert. 1987. Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government. New York: Oxford University Press

Mises, Ludwig von. 1953. Theory of Money and Credit. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Rothbard, Murray. 1994. The Case Against the Fed. Auburn, AL: The Ludwig von Mises Institute

———. 2007. The Betrayal of the American Right. Auburn, AL: The Ludwig von Mises Institute.

Scheuer, Michael. 2004. Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror. Dulles, VA: Brassey’s, Inc.

Sowell, Thomas. 1999. The Quest for Cosmic Justice. New York: The Free Press.

Woods, Thomas E. 2009. Meltdown: A Free-Market Look at Why the Stock Market Collapsed, the Economy Tanked, and Government Bailouts Will Make Things Worse. Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing.

George Hawley is pursuing a Ph.D. in political science at the University of Houston. He was a 3rd prize winner in the Student Division of the 2010 Sir John M. Templeton Fellowships Essay Competition.