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Why Are Politicians Always Trying to Scare Us?
December 6, 2007
Robert Higgs


  1. Introductory remarks by David Theroux
  2. Presentation by Robert Higgs
  3. Questions and Answers

David Theroux
President, The Independent Institute

Good evening ladies and gentlemen, my name is David Theroux and I’m the president of the Independent Institute. I want to welcome you all to our Independent Policy Forum this evening and for braving the rain. And I hear the traffic is a little intense—we have a book on that by the way, if you’re interested, called Street Smart—you name the topic.

We hold the Independent Policy Forum here and also in our office in Washington, DC, on a regular basis. And the forum, for those of you who have not been here before, is a series of lectures and debates and seminars on different issues involving top scholars and other experts. And we’re delighted to have our program this evening, which as you may recall is called, “Why Are Politicians Always Trying to Scare Us?” and our speaker this evening is Robert Higgs, who is the author of the new book, Neither Liberty Nor Safety: Fear, Ideology and the Growth of Government.

For those who also are new as well as those who’ve been here before, I hope that you got a copy of the packet when you registered. You’ll find information about our book programs as well as upcoming events. We invite you to go to our Website, which is—you’ll find an awful lot of material, including articles from past issues of our journal, The Independent Review, which Dr. Higgs is also the editor. I’m also pleased that one of our associate editors, Andy Rutten, is here with us tonight from Stanford.

And the institute, as you may know, is an academic public policy research institute. We produce lots of books. We have a quarterly journal called The Independent Review, and this is our recent issue. And the institute gets involved in many conference and media projects. And there’s really no area of government policy that we might not deal with, nor area of public discussion or issue.

For tonight, as I’m sure you have gathered, it seems like it’s been since ancient times that politicians and bureaucrats, interest groups, and others have gained resources and control over the public by playing to peoples’ fears of various crises. And our speaker tonight is well regarded for an earlier book he did called Crisis and Leviathan.

This fear mongering is part of a process, which Dr. Higgs will talk about. The idea is that only these people can offer solutions to these problems, but it seems that the solutions often, if not always, make the problems worse. The tactic has been facilitated by a widespread belief that gaining economic, military and personal security requires sacrificing liberty and the rule of law and so forth. So the idea is not just to frighten people, but to make this institutionalized in society.

The title of the book, as you may have gathered, is from a quote by Benjamin Franklin, in which he said, “Those who would give up essential freedom to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” In his new book, Dr. Higgs is examining how fear mongering by politicians and their allies erodes peoples’ willingness and ability to govern themselves. And the question is, was Franklin right? Or was he wrong? Or was he exaggerating this idea that there is no real tradeoff between freedom and security?

In the aftermath of 9/11, and looking at issues ranging from global warming to healthcare, whatever, we see almost on a daily basis, in the media and elsewhere, some sort of fear that seems to be driving public discussion.

Our speaker tonight is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute. He’s also editor, as I said, of The Independent Review. He received his PhD in economics from Johns Hopkins University, and is a recipient of many awards, most recently the Gary Schlarbaum Award for Lifetime Defense of Liberty from the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Some of you may have been here almost exactly a year ago when Bob received the Thomas Szasz award for Outstanding Contributions to the cause of Civil Liberties. He’s also received the Lysander Spooner Award, the Friedrich von Wieser Memorial Prize for Excellence in Economic Education, and the Templeton Honor Rolls Award for Education in a Free Society.

He’s the editor of many books. Here’s one that we featured at our last event, called Opposing the Crusader State. He’s also the coeditor of a number of other institute books, including The Challenge of Liberty and Re-Thinking Green, all of which he’s co-edited with my colleague Carl Close. His other books he’s edited include Hazardous to Our Health? on the FDA, and one of my favorites actually, called Arms, Politics, and the Economy on the U.S. Defense establishment.

And of course, in addition to his new book, Neither Liberty Nor Safety, he’s the author of many other books, including Depression, War, and Cold War; Resurgence of the Warfare State; Against Leviathan; Competition and Coercion, as I mentioned, Crisis and Leviathan. He’s the author of at least 100 articles in scholarly journals—many popular articles in major papers like The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere. And you’ll find many of his commentaries all over the Web these days. So I’m really pleased to present once again Bob Higgs.

Robert Higgs
Senior Fellow, The Independent Institute

Thank you very much David. I’ve reached the stage in life where I have to make a choice between seeing you and not seeing my notes, or vice versa. So I hope I won’t be too annoying if I’m putting on my glasses when I decide to have a look at you and taking them off when I need to look at my notes. I remember going for years watching speakers who did that, and I thought, that’s annoying, why do these guys do that? But now I know.

So I’ve written this book, as David said, and he also mentioned, I’ve written other books, and I’m sure many people are asking how can we stop him before he writes again. And so I’d like to give you a fairly firm promise that there won’t be much in the future, that I think I’ve just about had my say, and maybe I’ve had my say over and over and over. And so if I say things tonight that sound familiar to many of you, and you say, well he’s been saying that for 25 years, I apologize in advance.

But I find that many people haven’t taken these things to heart, and so I keep saying them in hopes that even more people will pay attention to them and take them to heart, and perhaps act accordingly. Because what I discovered in the past six years or so, was that after 9/11, when it looked as if we had the potential for another crisis similar to those that had occasioned spurts of government growth in the past, I responded to inquiries from journalists and other people by saying that yes, I think here’s what’s going to happen, because these things have followed a certain pattern in the past, and we now have the potential for them to follow exactly that same pattern again. And they did. They followed almost the same pattern as in the past in essential ways.

Of course, every episode is distinct in its details, and the past six years are certainly different from, say, what happened during the Great Depression, or what happened during either of the World Wars. But in the way that I’ve analyzed what I call the ratchet phenomena in the growth of government—they’re all the same. They all work in essentially the same way, and for the same reasons.

And that’s why I was in a position to make some forecasts in September of 2001 that are on record as what I thought would happen, that I think have proven to be, unfortunately, all too accurate as events have unfolded. It’s not because I had some powers of prophecy, or because I’m a seer—it’s just that there’s a certain logic in the way politics operate. And if you study history long enough you begin to get a sense of what that logic is, and to see that it continues to apply in certain circumstances, and those conditions exist today. And I’ll say a little bit more about that as I go along tonight.

Now, the title for tonight’s forum that David gave is Why Are Politicians Always Trying to Scare Us? And we could actually dispose of this very quickly and go back and have some more wine by simply referring to the great H. L. Mencken, who among probably millions of quotable statements said the following. He said, “the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populous alarmed, and hence clamorous to be lead to safety, by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”

Now, Mencken was a master of graceful hyperbole, and yet, I’d say that statement is at least 90 percent truth, along with 10 percent hyperbole. The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populous alarmed, and hence clamorous to be lead to safety, because that puts them in a position to be exploited more effectively by the politicians and their supporters, which is what politics is for, after all.

Many people have romantic notions of what politics is for, but I’m going to try to cut to the chase tonight and talk about what I think basically goes on in politics. Let me say first of all that the reason I’ve focused on fear directly in this recent book and in some of my other writing lately, more so than in the past, in which I’ve spoken about crises of different kinds and it was obvious that in those crises, such as the World Wars and the Great Depression, many people were afraid. Afraid of foreign enemies, or afraid of loss of employment, or income, or something, during the Depression.

I didn’t try to go any lower down. I didn’t try to get down to discussing fear at its most basic level in the abstract, but I’ve tried to do that more in the last few years. Fear is very effective because fear is the strongest emotion human beings feel. We feel all sorts of emotions, of course. We feel love, we feel compassion, and lust, and what have you.

But none of them can compete with fear, because when people are possessed by fear, it overrides everything else. And included in that everything else is rational thought. When people react in fear, they react, as it were, automatically—the way animals do. Fear operates at the most elemental level that we human beings, as animals, can act at. It causes us to act quickly and without a lot of thought—almost instinctively—not rationally.

And that’s good in a way, because if we didn’t have this capacity, we probably could not have survived. Fear serves a purpose, as Darwin would say. If you’re not afraid, then you don’t react to threats, and you may succumb to them. So fear is not something we can get rid of, nor should we. We wouldn’t want to get rid of fear. Aristotle said a man would be crazy not to fear anything—earthquakes, or the waves—and I think he was quite correct. But fear can be misused, exploited. It can be cultivated, it can be heightened. It can be turned into a political resource. And that’s what I’m going to say something about tonight.

Now, I’m going to talk about fear in relation to politics, and in particular in relation to the fact that societies have rulers and they have ruled people. The people who have the effrontery to rule us call themselves the government. They understand about fear. They exploit it and cultivate it. And whether they compose a welfare state or a warfare state, they depend on fear to secure popular submission and compliance with official dictates, and on some occasions, cooperation with their enterprises and adventures.

And I maintain that without popular fear, no government could endure more than 24 hours. If we weren’t afraid of anything, what would we need with government? We would all be able to rely on our own actions and measures and devices. We might cooperate with others in the process, but we wouldn’t need what we know as government. What we know as government is basically organized robbery.

Now, when we talk about the bedrock of government, many learned people over the ages have maintained that government rests on public opinion. In fact, this goes back for centuries, that we can find people maintaining this position. Certainly David Hume is one of the most famous people to develop the thought that all government rests on public opinion. But many others have endorsed his argument.

I’m going to maintain that public opinion—I’m not going to dispute what Hume and others have said—but to maintain that the public opinion is not the rock bottom, that there’s something even below public opinion, and that that something is fear. The more primordial, deeper.

Murray Rothbard in his brilliant essay on the anatomy of the state considered fear, but he did not consider it the foundation of government, he considered it one device among several that governments use to keep people in line. Another successful device, he called it, to obtain peoples’ acquiescence in their domination. Every ideology endows government with legitimacy—requires however, I maintain, and is infused by some kinds of fear. Fear is a necessary though perhaps not a sufficient condition for the viability of government as we know it.

Of course ideologies involve not just fears but hopes. But when we look at what it is people hope for, we can often see that what they hope for is a release from their fears.

A very interesting writer named David Altheide—I’m not sure he pronounces his name that way—but David Altheide has remarked that, “people do want to be saved and freed, but they want to be saved and freed from fear. And this is what makes the mass media’s messages of fear so compelling and important for public policy and the fabric of our social life.” Altheide has written a very interesting book on how the mass media contribute to the maintenance of a state of chronic fear and apprehension in modern populations. And for years I’ve been struck by this phenomenon.

Once upon a time I used to watch, while eating my lunch, something called Headline News. Now, this is not what I would call a highly intellectual news program, something like the USA Today version of the news, but I watched it to just find out whether something truly big might have happened that day that I needed to take note of.

But as I watched it day after day, I became aware after a while that there was always some story on Headline News that I eventually called the fear du jour. There was always some new threat that they had just announced—a scientist had discovered that pigeon flu was about to kill us all, or that there was some new toxin in the water in Newark, and it looked as if it would wipe out New Jersey by sundown.

And every day it was something like this. Almost every day a new one, too. An endless number of fears du jour.

And so after a while I got ready. I got primed. It was like a research project, and I said OK, what’ll it be today?

Now of course, in retrospect, it’s interesting that the world’s population has not been wiped out yet despite hundreds of CNN warnings that it was impending. Here we are, more numerous than ever, with higher incomes and standards of living. How could this be? I don’t know how we manage to avoid all of these horrible fates that the television producers had in mind for us, day by day.

There’s an old saying in the newspaper business—“if it bleeds, it leads.” So if there’s been a murder, or there’s been a fire—any horrible, bad thing that’s happened, that’s what gets the headline on the front page. And of course television news people do the same thing.

For six years I lived in a little town north of Philadelphia, and I watched the nightly news on the Philadelphia TV station. And my wife and I came to refer to the fire—because every night on TV there was a fire story. It’s as if there weren’t enough warehouses in Philadelphia to keep this going. But every night another one would burn up. And there’d be tremendous film footage of these flames leaping into the night air.

Apparently people never tire of these images, and it can become almost humorous after a while, but I think we need to appreciate that it serves a purpose. That it gets people used to a chronic state of apprehension, of thinking that there are bad things out there happening, and they could happen to me. Without their thinking too hard about what the odds are that they’re going to happen to you. Right?

It’s true, there are quite a few murders every day in the United States. But it’s a country of 300 million people. What are the odds somebody’s going to murder you tomorrow? Not very high, particularly if you stay out of certain parts of town. Your odds are very good indeed then.

So the media are very important. If it bleed it leads. And I have my own little saying for television, which is, whatever may terrorize we prioritize. Just think how many terrorism threats we’ve had discussed or announced on the television since September 11th, 2001, and yet there hasn’t been another terrorist incident since then in this country. So I’m sure we’re all getting impatient for next one.

One of my favorite writers is a man named Fred Reed. Perhaps some of you read the essays that appear by him on from time to time. And he had one a while back—last May, actually. This one was called “Why the US Government is Hated All Over the World.”

Fred is an American who moved to Mexico. He lives in Guadalajara, and he’s married to a Mexican woman, so he has an interesting perspective on life in this country, because he knows it intimately, I assure you. Fred’s a remarkably well-informed man, just astonishingly well informed sometimes. But he lives far away most of the time. And he comes back from time to time.

And one of the points he made in this article was to say that a curious state of fear prevails in America, but it is a governmental creation—a calculated, manipulative Disneyland.

He said, “Recently, I was in Washington. Everywhere there were the artificialities of fear. The steel popup barriers in the roads, the stop-’em bombs steel poles on the sidewalks, the endless warnings to reports suspicious behavior on loudspeakers in the subway. The searches of everything. The metal-detecting doorways, even on buildings of county governments of schools. Schools, for Christ’s sake—what is wrong here? And then, of course, the confiscation of shampoo at the airport.”

And then Fred says in his characteristic way, “This is nuts. Look at how we’re acting here. We’re all acting as if we’re under siege. Look at what we’re doing to one another. You’d think there was a danger out there.”

And he also makes reference to the bullying of people entering the US. And he tells a little bit about his wife, Violeta. “Violeta had a visa, issued by the consulate, both times when we went to the US. Still she got bullied by the border Nazis. It was ugly. I am obviously not a Mexican, but I get the same hostile questioning as to where I am going, why I was in Mexico, and so on. It is none of their business where I go in my country. Or shouldn’t be, but there are no limitations on governmental powers now. A friend, married to a Mexicana, again with a visa, got separated from her, and both got abusive questioning. She came out crying. America was not like this. Now it is.”

And I think Fred is absolutely right. It wasn’t like this, and now it is, and it’s this way everywhere we go.

I live in a small town—or outside a small town—in southeast Louisiana, and I can’t go into my damn courthouse without passing through a bunch of armed men who make me partially disrobe, and glare at me, and menace me, and threaten me to empty my pockets. What is going on here? What is going on here? Do they really think Osama bin Laden is going to mount an attack on the St. Tammany Parish courthouse? It’s absurd, and yet people tolerate this.

As Fred noted, it doesn’t happen by accident. An atmosphere of fear, normally, might occur after say the events of 9/11. People might have been afraid, but that fear would have dissipated. It would have worn away. And people would’ve eventually realized that it’s not being repeated. Maybe it was a one-time thing. Probably there’s no big threat. That’s what tends to happen when some terrible thing happens once and then it doesn’t happen again. People don’t remain fearful forever because they were scared once upon a time. But our fears in this country have been revitalized over and over.

I ran across an interesting report—actually not too long ago, in November the first this year—which had to do with Donald Rumsfeld’s operating style when he was the Secretary of Defense. Rumsfeld enjoyed barraging his subordinates with little memos. They referred to these things as snowflakes. Rumsfeld’s snowflakes. And he was always dumping them on people as a way to goad them to go in certain directions or take care of certain things.

This sounds like the kind of foolish thing that one would learn as an MBA student. There’s always some kind of fad in business, you know. So now, this year the MBA students are told to send out snowflakes to subordinates.

But Rumsfeld, wherever he got this, did it all the time. And in April 2006, when he was under siege because a series of retired generals had denounced him and called for his resignation in newspaper op-ed pieces, Rumsfeld produced a memo after a conference he called with military analysts, and it said, “talk about Somalia, the Philippines, etc. Make the American people realize they are surrounded in the world by violent extremists.”

Now think about that. Here’s a very high-ranking official of the federal government who sent his subordinates out to “make the American people realize that they are surrounded in the world by violent extremists.”

We all know that there are people in the world who are interested in committing acts of terrorism. There’s some here, and some over there. And they’re scattered around. There may still be a couple in Hamburg, and there are probably a few hundred in Pakistan and so forth. We know there are people out there who would like to commit acts of terrorism.

But isn’t that a far cry in a world of six billion people? From thinking that we are surrounded by violent extremists? It seems to me to call up very different imagery from my own personal appreciation of how many terrorists there are out there, and how big a threat they pose to me.

Frankly my appreciation of the threat they pose to me in person is so close to zero, I consider it zero. It’s obviously possible I would be harmed by a terrorist, but the odds are .000 whatever. It’s not worth thinking about. Certainly not at the level of thinking about how carefully you’re going to drive when you leave here at night. That’s a much greater threat to your well being than terrorism’s every going to be.

But we’ve got a government that wants us to worry about being surrounded by terrorists. And I think some people have actually, as a result of being bombarded by these kinds of warnings, come to actually be afraid of terrorism, and to alter some of their behaviors as a result of that fear.

Now, there are a great many public fears that we might take notice of. And when I talk about fear here tonight, I’m not talking about every kind of fear. I’m not talking about my personal fear that ya’ll are going to laugh at me because I’m a poor speaker, or Pedro’s fear that Maria will turn down his marriage proposal. I’m talking about the kinds of fears that are widely shared by many people in the public—classes of fear. And I just made a small list of these things to use in my presentation tonight. And it includes: death or injury at the hands of foreigners. Death or injury by terrorists, whether foreign or domestic. Death or injury because of environmental harm of some kind.

Perhaps some of you have heard of something called anthropogenic global warming. Admit it, you’ve heard of it. See, and that’s going to fry us all in short order, and so forth.

People fear loss of labor earnings because of unemployment. Loss of income or capital from investments. Loss of life or health from communicable disease. Loss of income or social respect because of some form of discrimination. Loss of cultural or language community, perhaps because of a so-called “invasion” of immigrants.

Harm from unsafe foods, medicines or medical devices. Loss of business income. Destitution in old age. Illness or injury in old age. I’m sure I could’ve extended this list, but you get the idea. There are quite a number of things that people are afraid of or apprehensive about that many people are afraid of. These are widespread, they’re public fears.

And the state then comes along and promises to allay the threats that go with these fears. They say, look, I’m from the government and I’m here to help you. In fact I’m here to help you by protecting you from the things that you’re afraid of.

They know the things we’re most afraid of. Politicians don’t know a lot, but they know something about people. They get out and press the flesh, and listen to what people complain about. So if we’re afraid of death or injury by foreigners, they provide national defense. And they want to spend quite a lot of money to do that, because that’s a big job.

Death or injury by terrorists—that calls for a global war on terror. And when we’ve killed the last terrorists, the war will be won. Right?

I don’t know. People take these things seriously. They’re done in politics. Guys standup in the floor of the Senate and talk about this with a straight face. I’ve seen it.

Death or injury because of environmental harm. So what we have an abundance of, environmental controls to save us from those kinds of threats. Loss of labor earnings because of unemployment, the government provides unemployment insurance, and all kinds of welfare for the unemployed. A loss of labor earnings because of an accident on the job? We have worker’s compensation insurance and other ways. We have even vocational rehabilitation, if people get hurt on the job.

We have loss of income from capital, or capital from investments—well, the government has thousands of subsidies and bailouts to keep that wolf from the door. A loss of life from health from communicable disease, we have public health measures and healthcare insurance of different kinds. And before long we’ll have national health insurance in this country—won’t that be droll? That’ll be really nice. People will love that. I guarantee it.

A loss of income or social respect because of discrimination? Well, we have anti-discrimination laws to protect people from that. Loss of cultural or language community? We’ve got the border controls for that, and immigration restrictions, and related things. Unsafe foods, medicines and medical devices? The government has provided us with the Food and Drug Administration and other public health measures to save us from those harms.

Loss of business income? That’s a doozie. Businessmen are afraid of losing income, so the government has provided tariffs, anti-competitive regulations, import quotas, price supports, tax breaks, licensing. It’s hard to stop myself, because there are a great many more things the government has provided basically to prevent businessmen from losing income that they would lose if the government didn’t intervene and they had to simply make their way in the market unaided.

Destitution in old age? Well, the government gives us Social Security pensions. Illness or injury in old age? Medicare. And you know, if I’d made a longer list, I could’ve matched everything with a government program that’s going to take care of the harm hooked to the fear that people have. So the government know we’re afraid of things, and it’s made it its business to relieve us of those fears.

Now I think about fears in several different general classifications, and I’m going to back up a little bit now and, as it were, retrace the development of this phenomenon. One thing we may be afraid of is the government itself. I know I am.

Obviously a lot of people are afraid of some parts of the government, like the IRS—I’ve never met anyone who welcomes an audit. Or people may be afraid of genuine threats. I’ve been sarcastic here in mocking some of this, but there are real dangers in the world, there are real threats that people face, and people may look to government to deal with these threats. And thirdly, they may look to government to deal with threats with are spurious, and may actually have been concocted, or created, or publicized by the government even though they’re not real, or not serious.

So there are certain classes of fears, but the point I want to make is that it doesn’t matter what kind of fear we’re talking about here among the public, governments exploit all of them. All of them—whether they’re real, spurious, or even of the government itself.

Now, people like to think sometimes that government were formed when people realized that we needed government, that without government we’d have these problems we couldn’t deal with involving public goods or externalities and so forth. That’s the way economists talk about this. So the philosophers used to think—they got together and they formed a social compact. And sometimes you’ll read essays by journalists, and they still make reference to the social compact as if there were one: “You can’t do that. That violates the social compact.” Well what compact? I didn’t sign this thing. Did you? What is this? So that isn’t really how governments came into being. Right?

For most of human history there were no governments in the sense we know about them at all. There were just little groups of related people. That’s all—maybe 20, 30—probably—usually no more than 70 or 80 people. And these little bands roamed around in the savanna, and they hunted things to eat, and they had a little bit of authority, like family authority. There might have been someone—the oldest guy—who knew a little more than the younger ones, and they might have looked to him for direction or something, but there wasn’t anything like we think of as government through most of human history.

And what we actually think of as government didn’t develop probably until what we think of as civilization began to develop. They occurred together, although most people are confused about the direction of causation. The civilization actually came before the governments, then the governments came along to, as it were, exploit the civilization.

Governments originated in conquest and subjugation. They originated when people came into conflict. Eventually people got thickly enough populated in certain places, and resources sufficiently inviting that people did begin to fight with one another, and some of them were successful in suppressing groups and conquering and subjugating them—and exploiting them. They might enslave the people they conquered, or they might simply take all the goods that the conquered people possess—their foodstuffs or what have you. So governments were in their beginning just simple bands of robbers.

But there’s a difference between robbers in the sense of what we call roving bandits. They go here and there. They find somebody who has something they think worth stealing, and they take it and they move on.

Government is what Mancur Olson refers to as the stationary bandit. He’s the bandit who’s not satisfied as take what you have and then go somewhere else—he takes what you have and he stays there. And he says, I want more tomorrow. Or I want more next year, and the year after that, and the year after that. So the stationary bandit doesn’t leave you.

Now subjugated people, for good reason, feared for their lives. Often many of them were killed in the process of being subjugated, so they knew they were up against it, and if the conquerors gave them a choice—pay tribute or we’ll kill you—they knew that the conquerors meant business, and so very often they chose to pay, and to keep paying, rather than be killed.

So this is the sense in which people respond to government and pay tribute to it, because they’re afraid of it. They’re afraid of it. In this sense, government is not anything like a genuine protector, it’s a protection racket, you see, because the mafia, when it comes around, says we’ll protect you—what they mean is, we’ll hurt you if you don’t pay us. Your protection money is protection from us, pal. And of course, if somebody tries to horn in on their territory, they may commit mayhem against the intruders too. So this is one original sense in which government uses fear, literally by threatening peoples’ lives.

Now, that’s good of course, but it doesn’t work well for long. Because when you treat people like that they resent it. And they look for ways either to diminish the amount that they’re coughing up to you or to somehow hurt you, to sabotage your whole exploitative operation. If they have a chance to overthrow you or kill you, they take it. So this is not a good deal for the stationary bandit. There are better ways to operate, more reliable ones, easier ones.

But to move out of this stage, governments need legitimacy. They need for people to believe that they’re not just being robbed, but that the tribute they pay is right and proper, and that it ought to go to these rulers.

In order to gain legitimacy, governments historically, and probably almost from the very beginning, joined forces with the priests. As far back as we know anything about governments—say the Egyptians, some of the early civilizations of the area that the U.S. armed forces now occupy –the rulers were themselves considered to be gods. And so people were in awe of them. They believed that these rulers, being gods, had powers that ordinary human beings don’t have, and those powers could be used against them. So they were awed. They were made to believe that the rulers were not simply human beings exploiting them, but they were superhuman in some fashion, and eventually this kind of joining the priesthood to the warrior class, the uniting of throne and altar, served to legitimate the rulers.

They didn’t always claim to be gods. Sometimes, especially later on, they claimed only to be appointed by God, or blessed by God, or descended from God. There are all kinds of ways of linking rulers to gods. I was struck by a speech I ran across given by Kaiser Wilhelm to the German troops in WWI, in which he emphasized that Germans were the people chosen by God, and that he was God’s appointed leader, and that this was a divine war in which they were engaged. Because it seemed anachronistic—wow, here we are, 1914, 1915, and they’re still using this kind of ruler-god link in a blatant way. That lasted a long time, the union of throne and altar, and in some ways it still exists.

I don’t know anybody who believes that George W. Bush is a god, but there apparently are a lot of people that somehow he’s divinely appointed. He says he thinks that. And other people in the evangelical religious groups seem to think that as well. They’ve given very strong support to Bush and his wars, thinking that he's on a mission from God.

Now, that worked throughout most of history—to get legitimacy from linking yourself to some divine source or mission. But rulers also found it helpful if they could make people believe that they were actually the protectors of the people, rather than the exploiters of the people. So they began fairly early to work at that. That can get very confusing, because it’s pretty clear that sometimes they are protecting the people. If invaders came into the area, they would often, sure enough, go out and try to get rid of them, and defeat them and drive them away. And that certainly looks, at first glance, like protecting the people. But it was protecting the people in the same sense that a shepherd drives away the wolf from his flock. Yeah, he protects his sheep. But the shepherd does not recognize that the sheep have any rights. And indeed, he believes, and acts on the belief, that when it suits his purposes, he will shear, or slaughter the sheep at his pleasure.

Still, in the meantime, it makes sense to protect them. So he drives away the wolves. So rulers have done that for a long time, and it led people to the misapprehension that the rulers really cared about them, that they wanted to protect them, that they were devoted to protecting them when they were basically just protecting their sources of income.

The stationary bandit not only protects people from foreign invasion, and sometimes domestic disorder as well, but he may invest in what economists call public goods. He may keep order. He may establish some kind of legal regime. He may stipulate rules that are useful. He may say we all drive on the right hand side of the road in this realm, and it’s good to have a rule. He may build roads and bridges and dams and other things that are useful to people, and help them become more productive.

But again, people have been led to believe that rulers do these things because they have the people’s interest at heart. But there’s an easy rule that rulers can follow for whether it’s in their interest to invest in public goods. And that is, whether the additional productivity of the people that results from these investments will yield them a great stream of tribute sufficient to justify the current cost of investing in public goods.

So you can do this formally, and compute present values and everything—I’m not supposing that Charlemagne did this—but I believe he understood the principle. And indeed, rulers for a very long time have understood the principle. The reason you invest in measures to make people more productive is because it will yield you more tribute. That’s always been the case. To do otherwise is to strangle the goose that’s laying the golden egg for you. That’s stupid.

Now of course, rulers that have a very loose grip on power, you’ll notice as you look around the world, don’t do much of this. It’s the rulers who have a very strong grip on power that have the confidence, that if they give up income today, that they could seize, and use some of their tribute to invest in public goods to make people more productive, that they’ll be around in the future to get the payoff from those peoples’ greater productivity.

So you find that in a country like the United States, or a Western European country, governments invest in lots of public goods. Whereas in a country like Bolivia, Paraguay, or Burundi, not so much, because the rulers don’t have as strong a grip there, and it’s not in their interest to refrain from simply looting people while they can loot and get away with it.

Now this protection that rulers promise people is often bunk anyhow, and one way you see it is by looking at the bunkers. I’m not making this up.

One thing we’ve noticed historically is that the first people government protects when there’s a threat are government officials. They get treated a lot better when it comes to protection. Did you ever notice that if somebody kills a policeman, suddenly every cop in 100 miles is out there with automatic weapons intent on demolishing the first suspect they run across? They really come out of the woodwork when a police officer is killed, or even not killed, but simply attacked.

But suppose I’m attacked. Well, the best we can expect out of that is a lethargic investigation—all in due course, you know. We’re pretty busy here, and he’s just a no-account ordinary civilian. They protect themselves a lot better. In many societies, there have been actually separate degrees of penalty for laws. If you commit a crime against a government official, the penalty is substantially greater by law than if you commit it against anybody else.

They take care of themselves. And the way we saw this in the bunkers recently was after 9/11, President Bush established a shadow government of 75 or more officials—I’m reading from a report on this—who live and work in mountainside bunkers outside Washington, in case nuclear-armed terrorists strike in the nation’s capital. Now, if you happen to be living in DC, well, duct tape is what they recommend for you. But they’ve got nuclear secure bunkers for themselves. They’ve got a system called Continuity of Operations Plan.

I don’t know if some of you noticed, but recently there was a new presidential directive on the continuity of operation of government, which basically declares that the president will have dictatorial powers whenever he says he wants them. Which is whenever he says that there’s a national emergency. And under this directive he will take control of any part of the economy, the entire government—there won’t be any division of powers anymore, there’ll just be the president deciding everything that’s now decided by Congress and the Judiciary.

It’s an astonishing directive. Look it up. I think you’ll be amazed at what this provides for. This isn’t even an executive order. This is just a plan that the president has issued for his subordinates about what they’re going to do as soon as he declares a national emergency, if they choose to.

“Under the classified Continuity of Operations Plan, the 75 to 150 senior government officials, drawn from every cabinet department and some independent agencies, work out two fortified sites along the East Coast. In a worst-case scenario, the shadow government would help Cheney”—I’m reading—“would help Cheney manage America’s affairs after a crippling strike on Washington and the presidency.” And in fact, this whole plan here is basically Dick Cheney’s grandchild, as are so many other things in the past six years.

The Bush aides said Cheney helped shape the project by drawing on his experience in government during the Cold War, when the United States made contingency plans for a nuclear strike from the Soviet Union.

I actually toured one of those bunkers—there were many of them in the United States. I toured one in the north end of Seattle. Must have been about 15 years ago, and it was still set up to be occupied at any time. It had all the food stores, and equipment, and fuel for the generators. It was a very big underground facility, suitable for probably, well, I don’t know, 50 or 60 people at least to live in indefinitely, and have power and food, and water, and communications, and so forth. And it was built in such a way as to withstand a nuclear explosion over the city of Seattle.

Now they really had never sent me a notice that I should go there in the event of an impending nuclear attack, and I took that as a subtle indication they really didn’t want me there, that it was for somebody else. Not for people like me.

The Pentagon also rotates top military officials to secure sites. A few hours after the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, five military helicopters settled into a hidden landing pad at a Pennsylvania mountain site and other military personnel arrived in buses to Site R. The hollowed out granite mountain shelter built in the early 1950s to withstand a nuclear attack—that’s a huge thing, that Site R. It’s like an underground hotel it’s so big.

But you notice this is all for high government officials. Now, basically, giving you three sort of stages in the development of the stationary bandit, one was: fear for your life and pay tribute. The next was: fear for your soul and pay tribute. And then the third was: look to the rulers for protection and pay tribute. And the final one, which brings us up into modern times, is: embrace a collectivist ideology and pay tribute to the rulers.

The development of nationalism in the last several centuries brought with it the idea that people have a popular duty to the state. Historically the state was just a group of people that ruled you and exploited you, and maybe you believed they were divine or not, but they weren’t one of you—you knew that well enough. But with the development of nationalism, and particularly with the development of democratic dogma, people came to believe that they and the state were one and the same thing. We all vote for one of us to be the ruler, the ruler’s not anything special, he’s just one of us.

And as democracy became more and more widespread, as the franchise was spread, more people had a vote, became involved in some way in the governmental processes, a lot of organized coalitions were formed as people attempted in a sense to just get their snouts in the trough along with the rulers. Because now it’s all democracy—we’re all here slurping from the same trough under democracy, so we’ll organize my interest group, and you’ll organize your interest group, and that’s democracy in action.

But you see, at the end of the day, you can only be a net gainer in this process if somebody else is a net loser. And, in general, what this has been always is that certain groups didn’t organize very well—or at all—and others, particularly those groups with small numbers with an intense interest in a certain government policy, organized much more readily, and so the small organized groups became, as it were, part of the supporting coalition of government, and looked to the government for benefits of all sorts that they could get. It wasn’t always a direct payment, or money or something like that.

It might be some kind of policy that had indirectly the result of bettering their position. Say businessmen go to their legislators and try to insist on licensing for people in their business, for example. That’s a way to cut down on competition from the unlicensed. And therefore there’s less competition, and the people who are in the profession will, other things equal, earn more income from it than they would if there were more suppliers. So they gain indirectly.

And there are countless ways to gain indirectly from government. So these organized coalitions are always looking for new and better ways to use the power of government to get something at the expense of the general public or their competitors, or foreigners, or someone else.

This led directly to the welfare state, which has its origins in the late 19th century, and didn’t spread to this country very quickly. First it began in Germany, spread to other European countries, and didn’t really hit the United States in full force until the 1930s. But then it hit very hard and spread very quickly from that point onward until now we have countless programs, some of which I mentioned when I was going down my list, of ways in which the government is doling out help or protection of some kind to people through the political process.

Now, that brings us to a point where we have pretty big, involved governments, and it also brings us to a point where the intellectuals have become fully engaged. They’ve, as it were, taken over from the priests.

It used to be the priests were the ones that were in charge of providing the rulers with legitimacy, but starting in probably the 19th century, in any important way, the intellectuals began to be the sources of legitimacy for the stationary bandits. And they would provide countless theories of why the welfare state was a good idea, or why big government activities of all kinds were necessary and essential for the public’s well being.

And probably a lot of you have been to universities, so you know that a big part of what universities do nowadays in the social sciences and humanities is to concoct justifications for stationary banditry. They don’t quite represent it that way. These are all ways of bettering mankind.

But you see, I learned to be suspicious of ways of bettering mankind that require the government to point a gun at innocent people and say, give me your money, or I will kill you. Which is what taxation always involves, ultimately. We don’t think of it, because we just give them the money. We don’t make push come to shove. But if you think it through, you’ll realize that if you’re adamant, if you’re stubborn, if you say, no, I won’t pay my taxes, then they issue you a summons, and you say no, I won’t go to court, and they come to arrest you, and you say, no I won’t be arrested—you’re getting perilously close to the point at which they either club you into submission and haul you off to jail, or they shoot you on the spot. You are not at liberty to decline these blessings. We’re all supposed to pay when told to pay.

So the stationary bandits have all these justifications for what they do. And then every time there’s a crisis, as I’ve been writing for 25 years, they seize on that crisis to jack up their activities to an even higher level in the guise of protecting people from the latest terrible threat that people are afraid of. And in a panic, people always think, yes, yes, we must have this; the government must help out here and protect us. And once the government takes over some new area, then it never recedes to the status quo of the pre-crisis period, for all sorts of reasons. I’ve written a lot about that in the past, so I won’t go into it now.

Now, the political economy of fear has some economic attributes just like any kind of production has. I speak about the laws of production when what we’re producing here is fear.

One aspect is there is diminishing marginal productivity, so that if the government says we face a certain threat, and people respond—yeah, they really do become afraid of it, and approve of some government measure to protect them—but it never happens, then the next time government says, well, we face that fear. Well people are not quite so frightened that time.

And you keep this up, and eventually people are not frightened at all. They say, they’re always telling us that we face threat x, but it never happens. This is baloney. They’re just trying to scare us. They’re just trying to mill us into line here. Forget it.

So it doesn’t work. There’s diminishing marginal productivity. And because of that the government requires new crises to relieve people of their sense of serenity, and to make them fearful and worried again so that government can make them again submissive to increases in government power. During the Cold War we saw this in a very stark fashion with a series of so-called gaps.

Probably many of you remember the missile gap that was a campaign issue in the election of 1960. The Democrats, and Jack Kennedy, claimed that President Eisenhower had allowed a dangerous missile gap to develop between the U.S. missile forces—ICBMs—and the Soviets. So now we were in grave danger because they had more of these things, or more powerful ones than we did. And that was a big campaign issue that helped Kennedy win the election. But before that there were other gaps that weren’t quite so highly publicized, but were publicized quite a bit.

Right after the end of the war there was a troop strength gap. The Red Army had these millions of men under arms, and the U.S. Army had reduced its ranks tremendously at the end of the war from 12 million down to about a million and a half. And so the Soviets had two or three times more troops, and we faced a troop-strength gap. So many people argued we needed to build up our armed forces.

And then came a bomber gap. The Russians were supposed to have bigger or better bombers than we did. Then the missile gap came along. And in the ’60s the anti-missile gap came along, because we were told that the Soviets had ringed Moscow with an anti-missile system so that we couldn’t even get at them with our bombers any more—they would be shot down, and maybe even our incoming missiles would be shot down—that wasn’t so clear. But we didn’t have an anti-missile system, so we had to have one. Otherwise we would face this terrible missile gap.

This just kept going until the end of the Cold War. There was a defense-spending gap in the 1970s that the conservatives complained of with a lot of publicity. There was a thermonuclear throw-weight gap, which meant that the Russians had huge missiles that could lift a warhead of a ton, and ours would lift only three-quarters of a ton. So there was throw-weight gap. And people spoke of the hollowing out of the U.S. Armed Forces in the 1970s—that was a big conservative issue, leading up ultimately to Reagan’s election in 1980. That sort of politicking contributed.

All of those gaps, by the way, were spurious. Not one of them was real, with the possible exception of the thermonuclear throw-weight gap. But when you think about it, that’s idiotic. Who cares if the Russian missile can lift more than ours? We had 40,000 of these damn things. We could have destroyed life on Earth a thousand times over with what we had. What did we need with a bigger one? It was absolutely absurd, as indeed, were almost all of these gap worries. If you think about them for long, they make no sense whatsoever.

And if we have here any aficionados of the film Dr. Strangelove, you’ll recognize the logic we’ve got going here. And what’s so beautiful about Dr. Strangelove—which in my judgment, humble though it be, was the greatest film of all time—is that Strangelove is absolute, 100 percent truth. It looks crazy. But when you look into what was really being done in the armed forces at that time, you find it’s not crazy at all—it’s all too close to the literal truth of what was being planned and argued, and the way it was being planned and argued. I can’t even get started on that. It’s too horrible.

This was nonsense stuff—but it did make some people afraid. It made them think that somehow the United States was being improperly or incompletely defended against the Russians and that put us somehow in jeopardy of all being killed. We were—I hasten to add—all in real jeopardy of being killed, because when you have two sides with thousands of nuclear warheads 30 minutes away from one another and already targeted, we’re in grave danger. And we were. And it’s one of the luckiest things in all human history that we didn’t fight a nuclear war. So if you believe in God, thank God.

Now the media come into play here again and again. And in a sense their role is to soften up people, to make them kind of chronically afraid, so that when some crisis comes along, they will be more than ready to give the government—or actually to demand that the government take measures to protect them. So it’s all this. If it bleeds it leads, if it terrorizes it gets prioritized—and what have you. So we create an artificial apprehension.

And in this context we call forth a veritable army of opportunists. These are not necessarily people who have any strong ideological convictions whatsoever. They’re mostly just people that want to make a buck, and promote their careers, and do other things that most of us are trying to do to get through life comfortably.

You’re all familiar with something called the military-industrial complex, whose principal purpose is to enrich the workers and stockholders of defense firms by making a lot of useless junk that purports to be helpful to the armed forces. But most recently we’ve got a new complex spring almost out of nothing, and I call it the security-industrial complex. And these are contractors, not supplying the Pentagon, but supplying other government departments for the purpose of supposedly protecting the homeland.

In 1999—just a few years ago—there were nine contractors providing the federal government with homeland security equipment or services. Nine. When I did a brief study of this—oh, it’s almost two years ago now, I think—there were nearly 40,000 contracting firms, many of them providing the Department of Homeland Security with goods and services, others providing other government departments with Homeland Security goods and services.

They make gizmos, equipment. A lot of them are massaging data, or purporting to create information management systems. There must be thousands of them working on ways of keeping us all under surveillance, of collecting information about every move we make.

Forty thousand. I’m sure by now it’s more, because the growth was astronomical. And think of that—we’re now spending in this country close to $50 billion a year for Homeland Security goods and services.

If you look into this, what you find is that this industry has the things that every industry has. It has newsletters, magazines, websites, labor exchanges, you name it. You want a job in Homeland Security? Hit the web and you’ll find places that bring employers and employees together. If you’re some kind of an IT person, you’ve got it made. All kinds of engineers, you’ve got it made. Computer jock, you’ve got it made. Homeland Security. This is opportunism. This is people who see their chance, and they’re taking it. And the taxpayers are paying for this.

And if there were a real threat, and these measures were having some real effect in meeting it, it’d be a little different. But the threat is next to nil. It’s almost wholly imaginary; it’s almost—almost—one of Mencken’s hobgoblins—not quite, but almost. And it’s become the pretext for tremendous volume of robbery, of citizens, and creation of a great deal of fear to pull this off.

Outright war, of course, is the best thing of all for government. Government grows faster during wartime than any other time. Government officials exercise greater powers then than in any other time. Opportunists do better in war than in any other time, because during war the public is most afraid, and most willing to pay high taxes and to surrender liberties. And that’s been our history from the beginning of this country, but it’s the history of other countries as well.

John Zogby, the pollster, wrote after the September 11 attacks, “I’ve never seen anything like it before. The willingness to give up personal liberties is stunning, because the level of fear is so high.”

Finally, let me tell you a little bit about how fear was used in a very calculating way by the Bush administration in the lead up to the election of 2004. As I mentioned before, if there’s a threat and nothing happens, that threat dissipates after a while and people’s fear wears away.

And that wasn’t good for President Bush seeking reelection, because he staked everything on his role as the leader of the war on terror, and the protector of the American people from terrorists. And already, in 2004, Iraq was turning sour, so he needed to hype the terrorist threat where people were still willing to swallow the idea that he was protecting them from real terrorist threats.

And so they put the government on this very hard. Particularly Secretary Ashcroft worked hard, and the Homeland Security czar worked hard, and many others worked hard at this, spreading publicity about terrorist threats. Jim Bovard wrote an interesting piece actually published fairly recently—a couple of months ago—called “How Bogus Fears Bought Bush Four More Years.” And just a little summary here.

He says, “Bush was reelected in large part because he boosted the number of Americans frightened of terrorism in 2004. In October, 2001, 73 percent of Americans feared another imminent terrorist attack.” So right after the even, 73 percent feared an imminent terrorist attack. “By early 2004, only 55 percent had such fears.” So you see, we’d had a substantial reduction already. “But by August, 2004, the figure had rebounded to 64 percent. This 9 percent proved vital for Bush, because people who saw terrorism as the biggest issue in the election voted for him by an almost 7-to-1 margin.” All right?

So people who think terrorism is the main threat we face are going to vote for Bush. The more such people you can create, the more Bush voters you create. That’s how they went about doing it.

There’s another interesting piece written by John Judis, the editor of The New Republic in August this year, and it’s a little differently put together but considers the same issue in part. Judis started out by talking about some psychologists who’d done some interesting experiments on fear. And they found out that if you can make people afraid of their own death, particularly, then in the process you trigger some other things that go with that, some predictable outlooks in these people. To sort of summarize, they wrote, “the mere thought of one’s mortality can trigger a range of emotions, including a disdain for other races, religions and nations, a preference for charismatic over pragmatic leaders, and a heightened attraction to traditional mores.” They call this “worldview defense.” People who are afraid of being killed are more likely to exhibit these various traits of worldview defense.

To me it reads a little bit like you’re creating American Conservatives if you can make people afraid. But I don’t want to say this is only something that happens to Conservatives, and that’s not what they’re saying either. They’re saying it happens to anybody.

And “Bush’s popularity”—I’m now quoting Judis—“was sustained by mortality reminders. The psychologists concluded in a paper published after the election that the government’s terror warnings, the release of Osama bin Laden’s video on October 29th, and the Bush campaigns reiteration of the terrorist threat,” such as Cheney saying on election eve, if you make the wrong choice, then the danger is that we’ll get hit again. Subtle Dick Cheney. “That these things are integral to Bush’s victory over Kerry.”

And I think probably some of us can remember how hard they were working along these lines. It was their only issue as I recall. Normally people say it’s the economy, stupid. But Karl Rove thought, it’s the terrorism, stupid. And he was right. They pulled it off just by playing the fear card once again, and playing it very hard on that occasion.

So I’ll just conclude by a short statement that from top to bottom, the government wants us to be afraid, needs us to be afraid, invests greatly in making us afraid. Were we ever to stop being afraid of the government itself, and of the bogus fears it fosters, the government would shrivel and die, and the host would disappear for tens of millions of parasites in the United States, not to speak of the vast number of others in the rest of the world who now sap the public’s wealth and energies directly and indirectly by means of government power. Thanks.

Audience Member

Do you think the state is careful not to create too much uncertainty with their fear, in order to not hurt their income personally?

Robert Higgs

I think the state usually creates fear as a package along with some kind of program or promise to alleviate the threat. At minimum, they will assure us that they are working on it very hard, and it’s just a matter of a short while before they get a handle on it.

So I don’t think they want us to simply be uncertain. The subtitle of this book is “Fear, Ideology, and the Growth of Government.” And they need not just the fear, but they need us to all subscribe to the ideology that causes us to look to government as our savior. That’s what most people have believed in this country for a hundred years or so. It goes back to the Progressive Era, when for the first time masses of people became persuaded that the federal government in particular is, and should be, and can be, effectively their savior of first resort. And politics has operated on that basis almost entirely that way for the past century.

If we didn’t think that, if we had the typical ideological outlook of people in the 1840s, for example, and federal officials announced that there’s some grave threat, and they’re going to take care of it, well, we would just laugh and say, “Fat chance that you clowns can take care of it. We’re going to have to get on this and take care of it ourselves. Or maybe the local government can help out, or somebody we can have a handle on here.” But they certainly didn’t expect the federal government to do very much to solve their problems in the 19th century, until toward the end, people began to move in that direction with the intellectuals goading them to do so.

Audience Member

I was wondering if you think we might be in the intermediate stages of the formation of a police state. I mean, the parallels to this and 1938 Germany, along with the words like Fatherland and Homeland, and all the different agencies that are being set up—by the way, with the help of people that used to be Nazis. Do you think we’re in the early stages or even intermediate stages of a police state formation?

Robert Higgs

I think this country’s well along to being a police state right now. When you look at the surveillance measures, when you look at the claims the federal government is making. The president has virtually declared himself not subject to the laws of the land. He’s said in so many lawyers’ words—of lawyers on his staff and in the Justice Department—that as a unitary executive, and Commander in Chief, he will do whatever he thinks necessary for national security. Anything. He’ll do anything. And he’s written signing statements on scores of acts. When he signed them, supposedly signing them into law, he’s also written provisos on there that he doesn’t necessarily hold himself to be responsible for enforcing them.

So the fact that the people have accepted this from the president, to me, is still mind-boggling. I thought people had more spunk in this country than that. I thought at least some of the Democrats that have been strong supporters of civil liberties would just denounce that to the heavens. And a few of them have, to their great credit. But this has never been a big issue. Most people don’t even know anything about these signing statements. And yet this has been one of the principle pillars of building the power of the so-called unitary executive, for Bush.

And if you have a person who’s not bound to obey the law of the land, or the Constitution, or anything else, you’ve simply got a dictatorship. It’s an electoral dictatorship. I really do expect that Bush will step down at the end of his term. But if these precedents are used by the next occupant of the office, which they well may be—that’s been the tendency in the past, that once one president has pushed the powers of the presidency out, successors have tended to exploit those powers—then we simply have a dictatorship in this country. With elections. With all the kind of rigging of those. I’m not a believer in the democratic process certainly as it exists in this country. I think it’s a fraud, and a sham, and a disgrace, and a joke. But we still have these elections, and somebody’s elected, and he becomes president, and then he becomes dictator, as things now stand.

These people can make war when they want to. They can lock anybody up they want to. They don’t have to charge them if they don’t feel like it. They can hurry them off to Guantanamo, or to some hidden prison somewhere, it’s entirely up to them. There’s no recourse whatsoever. Neither the person apprehended nor anybody else can do anything about it. That’s not a free society.

But it goes far beyond that. The police state aspects of this country go all the way down to the local level. I mentioned my courthouse and the thugs at the door. That’s the case all the way across the country. We’ve become a society of armed thugs, police for the most part. And they’re arresting people for things that shouldn’t be crimes. We’ve got hundreds of thousands of people in prison now who committed crimes that harmed no one. They should never have been crimes in the first place, but there they are. We’ve got jihads, like the DEA going after doctors for prescribing pain medicine. I had just a powerful article in my journal a couple years ago on that very inauspicious development.

And most people don’t know about this, but I am convinced that what we have left—you know, we don’t have a 100 percent police state. We can still do things. I can still stand here and say these things to you, and no one has burst in to club me. So there’s freedom of speech, in a way. But there’s not complete freedom of speech because if you want to go out and hold up a placard when the president comes to town, the police will shoo you away from his route and confine you to an area, and arrest you if you go out and try to show your placard anywhere else. That’s happened over and over. So people’s speech rights have certainly been constrained—and they’ve certainly been chilled as well.

We all know now that these surveillance measures being taken by the intelligence agencies and the armed forces cover us all. They're not choosing people, or they’re not getting warrants to investigate people for reasonable suspicion of crime, they’re trolling through the Internet and through the telephone system, and they’re just eating up data and doing what they feel like with it. We don’t even know when it’s being trolled.

They’ve created something called national security letters, which are self-issued warrants. Self-issued warrants. A government official who wants to arrest me, or search my house, doesn’t have to go to a judge and say, look judge, here’s evidence that Higgs has committed a crime, or that he’s about to commit a crime, and we want to search his house. They just sit down and sign a paper that’s their own warrant to come and search my house. And the next thing you know the FBI is searching my house.

Or they’re going to an employer, and they’re saying we want everything you have, information about Higgs. And furthermore, by law, you may not tell Higgs, or anyone else, including a lawyer, that we’ve been here and got this information from you.

Talk about suppression of free speech. This is a direct order given to people—and this isn’t like a handful of national security letters—they’ve issued tens of thousands of these things. And every time they collect this information this way, people’s speech is totally suppressed. They’re ordered, and they would be guilty of a felony if they speak of what’s happened. And then they’ll be punished. So if that isn’t a police state, I don’t know what is a police state.

We need to remember that after the end of World War II, when people went out and did studies among the German people, and asked them what it was like to live under tyranny, most of them didn’t know they had lived under tyranny. They didn’t think they’d lived under tyranny. They just thought they had a government, and yeah, good citizens obey the government, and then we were in war, and when you’re at war you defend your country.

They didn’t know the Hitler government was tyranny, dictatorship. You think we’re going to know when we have tyranny or dictatorship? We all go around here whistling past the graveyard all the time. It’s a free country. It’s a free country. Crap, it’s a free country. This hasn’t been a free country in decades. Not even close.

We’re subject to countless officials investigating us, spying on us, imprisoning us, arresting us, for things that ought never to happen—ought never to happen. Yet they happen routinely.

And when I go around and give talks to people about this, sometimes—particularly if it’s especially upscale, bourgeois crowd—first of all, they consider lynching me, and because they’re upscale bourgeois people, they don’t do that. They take violent offense, and they simply cannot imagine that their government would ever harm them in any way. Because of course, upscale, bourgeois people, especially the ones that vote for Bush, know they’re not going to be molested in any direct way that the people are aware of. Their data, and their phone calls, and their e-mails, and all that are still fair game, but the government doesn’t care about them. That’s their supporters. They’re not going to molest them.

Think about all these guys that have been arrested as so-called terrorists in this country. Like the guys in Miami who were supposedly plotting to blow up the Sears Tower. Or the guy who was supposedly going to bring down the Brooklyn Bridge with a blowtorch. You know? Think about this.

They have big news conferences in which the Attorney General of the United States comes out and announces these apprehensions. He can breathe freer now.

These things are absurd. They’re hilarious almost—because they go out, and they find some poor, feeble-minded people. They put an informant among them. They plant some ideas; they give them some combat boots. And the next thing you know, they’ve got a case. And these poor guys have been arrested and hauled off to prison. That’s our government at work.

That’s just fraud. That’s just fake. They want to make us think they’re on the job. And the trouble is, they are on the job. It’s the job that’s the problem.

Audience Member

Comment if you will on non-government fear-mongers—and by this we could take Al Gore, or we could take anyone in the gun-control industry—their relationship with the state, and their relationship with the media.

Robert Higgs

Well, a lot of interest groups that are not formal parts of the government do try to monger fear of all kinds. And often it’s a clear kind of lobbying tactic. Teachers want us to be afraid of an educational crisis. People of all sorts want us to be afraid of crime waves. Anytime three guys are shot in a row, there’s a crime wave. Or if several women are raped, there’s a serial rapist out there.

The newspapers make hay, and the TV makes hay, but there are people who make their living off of the response to these things. So if you’re a public school teacher, you’d like the people to be afraid of an educational crisis. If you’re somebody that works for the court system, you want people to think there’s a drug epidemic, and we need to arrest a bunch of drug dealers, and haul them into court.

There are always gainers. All of these measures involve people who are not always employees of the government, but nonetheless indirectly serve the government when it responds to these threats.

So fear mongering is certainly not a monopoly of the government. Anybody can try that, but you notice what they’re trying to do is bring about a certain use of government power. It’s fairly uncommon for people to go out and try to stir up fear and then their solution doesn’t involve government at all.

Do an exercise here. I used to be a professor. I’ll give you an exercise. As an exercise, try to make a list of 10 instances of private individuals or groups fear mongering in a way that doesn’t involve government. That’s due on Monday.

I think you’ll have trouble, frankly, because as I said, the ideology of this country—and for a long time has been—the government is the problem solver of first resort.

Most people don’t even think about any other way to deal with what they perceive to be a serious problem. The first thing they think about is, serious problem, what should government do? And you notice all the politicians when they talk about these things talk about it the same way. At one point Bush himself was pretending to be a conservative, and he kind of blurted out, government has to solve problems for people. Wow. Edmund Burke would have been befuddled by that.

Government’s got to solve problems for people. People are children. They’re incompetent. They’re fools. Thank God for government officials who are smart and competent and know how to solve problems. They have a proven record. All right? Look at all the problems they’ve solved. Wow. It’s impressive.

Audience Member

I’m half a foreigner in a way, but what you’ve said I think is basically true of a good many governments. But what can the poor general populous like us—what recourse do we have to counteract any of this? I mean it’s even come down to where parental rights are being eroded.

Robert Higgs

I think that what can be done about are many things, and in another way they don’t amount to much. I, frankly, am not the right person to answer that question, because I’ve never purported to have the answers to how we get out of the situation. Indeed I don’t think we can. But you don’t want to hear that.

I try to remind myself as a historian that things have been bad in the past sometimes. I mean, human beings have been in worse fixes than they are in today in the United States, that’s for sure. And they got out of them. So it’s possible we’ll find a way to get out of this fix too. But I don’t have a formula for that.

What I do always recommend to people is that they take individual measures. I’ve recommended to many younger people that they immigrate, that they leave this country. Because I think the country will be a much worse police state soon, and if my personal situation permitted it, I would leave myself. Because I don’t think this is going to be a good place to be very soon. It’s not a good place for many people already. But I think it’s going to be a horrible place down the road. And so one thing people could do would be to leave the country.

Now the problem with that is that you got to go somewhere, and the place you go is probably going to be bad too. So those recommendations usually get around to what I think is the least bad place somebody could go, and I won’t go into that here.

But there are other things that you can do to protect yourself. Basically, we can all try to stay out of harm’s way as best we can. Of course, we should all avoid doing anything that encourages these processes. We should, anytime we have an opportunity, speak out against what’s being done. We should denounce the people who are doing these things. We should do anything we can to create a climate of opinion in which these evils are recognized and condemned publicly. Because one of the things we know in retrospect, particularly from some excellent work by Timor Kuran, who’s now at Duke University but was at USC for a number of years.

Timor analyzed a number of episodes in history in which a sudden change had taken place. Regimes are overthrown, for example, all at once, when people had thought they were strong, that they would last forever. And the way that communism came down in the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe, for example. But there have been other abrupt changes that have happened like that as well.

And what he argues—and I think correctly—is that very often, when there’s a situation that’s tyrannical or oppressive, people for good reason are afraid to speak out. And so in public they say things that are positive about the regime, or about the actions of the regime—they actually sound as if they support it and favor it.

And that’s just self-protection, because if you’re in Cuba, or if you’re in Czechoslovakia and under communism, there’s certainly going to be an informant nearby. Your neighbor’s probably an informant, or somebody passing by on the street may be an informant. All of these highly controlled societies were riven with informants. And so people had to protect themselves by never speaking or acting in a way that gave away their true beliefs. Even if they hated the regime and they hated its actions and they wanted more than anything to see it overthrown, they dared not tell anybody but their most trusted friends, and usually only family members did they trust.

I remember one friend of mine who was from Prague who told me that when she and her mother and father spoke in their apartment, they would go to one side of the apartment and speak softly, because they knew the neighbor on the other side of the wall they went away from was an informant. And so people had to be very careful.

But what happened in some of these places is that, in one way or another, dissent began to be expressed. And when someone had the courage to stand up and express dissent, then people recognized—he’s saying just what I think. And then a few others had the courage to join and say, “You’re absolutely right, you’re right. This is horrible. These things are wrong. This government should be changed.”

And then it snowballs. Suddenly there’s a cascade of effect, and you have in a very short time gone from a condition, in say, Czechoslovakia, where hardly anybody will even speak out against the regime, a couple years later there are tens of thousands of people marching down the main streets in Prague demanding that the regime step down—and succeeding. Succeeding because there’re so many of them. What are the police going to do? Arrest millions of people? They can’t do that. They were just overwhelmed. But this happened quickly.

So the possibility always exists that people are just cowed. They’re cowed by social pressure. They’re cowed by not wanting to look foolish. They’re not wanting to stand up in public and sound like Robert Higgs. I mean who would? But they may still think those kinds of thoughts.

It’s not good form. You may have lost invitations to a cocktail party, but when people find the courage to stand up and say black is black and white is white, then it may spread, and it may spread remarkably fast in certain circumstances.

Audience Member

We’ve had a litany tonight of things the government shouldn’t do, or if they’re doing it, they’re doing it for the wrong reasons. What do you consider legitimate government functions?

Robert Higgs

Well, that’s easy for me, because I don’t believe there are any legitimate government functions. I just am opposed to government as we know it, which is the government of a coerced submission. I consider that criminal and wicked, and everything that flows from it is wrong.

That doesn’t mean that every action the government takes is a wrong action. Government does all sorts of things that in themselves are fine. They’re great. They’re wonderful. But it does this with money it gets from people by threatening to kill them, although they’re innocent of any wrongdoing. That’s wrong. And so this kind of government is wrong. It’s just wrong. I don’t believe in it any longer.

It took me almost a lifetime to reach this position. If things are worth doing, people will find voluntary ways to do them. I honestly believe that. And I believe the ways they find will work better than having these mendacious, incompetent buffoons with guns try to be the problem-solvers for society. We can all see the product of that. This is not a good way to run things. It perpetuates problems rather than really solving them.

So my answer is just, run away from this and build a society on the basis of free and voluntary individual cooperation.

David Theroux

I want to thank Bob for ending on what could be called a natural law position. And as you may remember, the founders of this country were all subscribers to, the idea of natural law and natural rights. The Declaration of Independence was inspired by that tradition. We’re very grateful for Bob for being a scholar who is standing up and challenging others to join with us in that regard.

So copies of his book are here. If you haven’t gotten one, we hope you will. They are next door. I’m sure Bob would be delighted to autograph copies. If you’d all join with me in thanking him again for his talk and so forth.

And I also want to thank all of you for joining with us, especially on sort of a dreary evening. And we hope that you’ll join with us for our next event. Thank you for coming. Good night.


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