Half of Americans think that government is their benefactor. The other half think it is a sworn enemy. Depending on the day and the issue, they can and do switch sides.
These hydraulics are at work in the never-ending arguments about taxes, medical care, marijuana, education, war — you name it. This is how government pits one group against another in mutual pillaging, like primitive tribes of people who have yet to discover how to make stuff, trade, and get along.
The struggle is tearing up civilization in an epic battle that neither side will win. The only real victor in this battle is the government itself.
“It is not that governments begin in virtue only to end in sin,” said one astute observer. “Government begins by protecting some against others and ends up protecting itself against everyone.”
These are the words of Robert LeFevre, a brilliant writer who lived from 1911-1986. He had huge influence in his day, long before these views became mainstream among the smart set. He saw everything government does through this lens of divide and conquer. He explained that war and empire are every bit as dangerous to human flourishing as transfer payments, regulations, and loose money policies. He explained the true nature of government as few others have.
His masterful book The Nature of Man and His Government was published in 1959. I think of this as part two of Bastiat’s The Law. It’s that good.
It astonishes me that something so clear, so prophetic, so penetrating, yet so calmly rational could have been written a half-century ago, at a time when most people think government was pretty darn small (and it was, compared with today’s). This book anticipated our times as few books in his time did.
It’s not really an anti-government screed at all. LeFevre said that government is a tool and nothing more. It is created by people who are fearful of something (invasion, old age, poisoning, violence, etc.). They expect government to take away their fears. Instead, it adds to them.
That’s because government can do only one thing: coerce people. It does this by making and enforcing ever more laws that steal your property and run your life. The more it does this, the less people have money and freedom to run their own lives.
Many people deny this. They imagine the government is the means toward social justice, global peace, equality for all, morality and virtue, health and well-being, racial purity or harmony, and prosperity forever without recessions.
True, none of this ever happens, no matter how much money and power the government is granted. But people are not deterred. Why? Because they have not yet come to terms with the truth that LeFevre explains in this short book.
And that is the root of the vast number of social and economic problems we have today. It doesn’t matter who is running the show, wrote LeFevre, any more than it matters who is operating the guillotine. The government is doing what governments do: divide and conquer society and grind the people’s rights and liberties into the dirt.
The mistake, he said, was in creating one in the first place.
Why not just create government and put restraints in place? Well, that’s what the Founding generation attempted to do with the U.S. Constitution. They created an apparatus that deliberately disabled the ability of government to do what it does. There were three branches, complex systems for making new laws, and checks and balances running every which way as in a Rube Goldberg machine.
Old-world observers laughed and said that this was the most convoluted system of government they had ever seen, one that would guarantee that government would never work very well. What they didn’t understand was that that was precisely the point.
But in time, government broke free of the limits. It was bound to happen.
As LeFevre said, government “is an instrument of force and coercion. And there can never be an instrument of force and coercion which will consciously restrain itself. It must be restrained. Yet there is no tool capable of such restraint. For any type of tool, whatever its nature, which is allegedly formed to restrain and contain government, would, by its own nature, simply become a government’s government.”
People say that government has gone mad in our times. LeFevre disagreed. “Government which passes and enforces endless rules and codes is not out of character when it does so,” he wrote. “It is in character. That is the way any government operates. And the longer a given government endures, the more numerous will be the laws it enacts. It is the business of government to pass laws and to enforce them.”
Keep in mind when you read the following that we are talking about 1959 here:
“Today governments concern themselves in general not with criminals, but with law-abiding citizens. Every citizen is a victim of the aggressive tactics of government… the average person today, buttressed in by government, surrounded and overshadowed by government, finds himself a lawbreaker several times during an average day. And this fact turns him from being a law-abiding citizen into a lawbreaking citizen, and equates him with any criminal who, in fact, breaks a law with aggressive intent.”
Yes, but what about the absurdities of the TSA today? What of the excesses of the police, the aggressiveness of the regulators, the wickedness of the bureaucrats, and the invasiveness of the national spy network?
LeFevre responds: “Government has but a single standard: obedience. Its decrees, good, bad, or indifferent, are enforceable. And the men in government cannot recognize a law which need not be enforced. If the government has adopted a policy, the policy must be carried out, even though one policy may be aimed at social stability and the other at social injustice.”
I’m thinking of my recent investigations into how the car came to be regulated. One group of regulators wanted it to be safer. Another group wanted it to consume less gas. The goals are in tension, even contradictory. They both prevailed, and the results are absurd. They created a mess and, in so doing, shut off the creative forces of the market to invent new and better things.
This is only one case. There are millions more. We are surrounded by the distortions born of government rule. We are poorer, sicker, and less civilized than we would otherwise be. And what’s especially sad is that we don’t necessarily know what we are missing, because government makes invention and creation illegal in any sector it fully controls.
LeFevre says it again and again. Government was created by people as a tool. That tool has not accomplished its goal.
“Government, when it is examined, turns out to be nothing more nor less than a group of fallible men with the political force to act as though they were infallible.”
And so he says with positive optimism: It can similarly be uncreated. It can be undone. It can be dismantled. We can have a society based on voluntary action and trade. We need only to make that choice.
I’m thrilled that this book is going to reach a totally new audience with this Laissez Faire Club release. It is packed with wisdom and accessible to everyone. Maybe this release will also go some distance toward illustrating that Robert LeFevre should rank among the 20th century’s most overlooked prophets of both the problem and the solution to our contemporary problems.