The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary. – H. L. Mencken
The fundamental task the State proclaims to serve is that of protecting citizens from violence perpetrated amongst one another. For this, it requires a monopoly on violence, and thus only the State, by definition, can be allowed to perpetrate violence against its fellows if it is to have any practical significance. So, what does this entail? If the citizens are imperfect, what grounds do we have to believe that the leaders have some superior nature, which qualifies them for such a position to rule over others? As Claude-Frédéric Bastiat wondered,
If the natural tendencies of men are so bad that it is not safe to permit people to be free, how is it that the tendencies of these organizers are always good? Do not the legislators and their appointed agents also belong to the human race? Or do they believe that they themselves are made of a finer clay than the rest of mankind?
As regular men are no less perfect than those in control of the State, how can we then expect the latter to handle this power any better? If the people, then, cannot be trusted to take care of themselves, how can we trust those with the sole proprietorship of violence to use it appropriately? As anyone can now try to attain power under a democratic electoral system, could we not expect that it would attract those who want power the most, and those most willing and able to manipulate people and cheat in order to do so? When they attain such power, what do they then do? In accordance with Lord Acton’s dictum, they become further corrupted by power itself, through the addiction that comes along with it.
As with addictions generally, they would seek more power and more wealth, but how are they to do so? Many of them would like to implement programs merely through the swing of a pen, and some do (see, for instance: executive orders), but given the risk of losing popularity and not being reelected, they generally try to convince the public that the programs and policies they want to implement are not only beneficial to society at large but that they are absolutely crucial and indispensable. One could point to the fact that this or that program would be inefficient at achieving its desired ends, or that it has unintended consequences, but that’s not what matters for our social engineers – it is that they attain more power and wealth by peddling the narrative that they will improve the general conditions of the public.
F.D.R: Japanese Internment, Gold Confiscation & Welfare State Expansion
Of course, if this is the point, then a crisis would be like a blessing from the sky for the social engineer. How could Franklin D. Roosevelt possibly have justified locking up 117,000 Japanese Americans, for instance? Provoking Japan through sanctions and refusing to negotiate, eventually pushing them to a physical attack when no options were left on the table. This revisionist view of history is supported by what the then-Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson wrote in his diary on Nov 25 about a meeting with the War Department:
There, the President […] brought up entirely the relations with the Japanese. He brought up the event that we were likely to be attacked perhaps (as soon as) next Monday, for the Japanese are notorious for making an attack without warning, and the question was how we should maneuver them into the position of firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves. It was a difficult proposition. [italics mine]
Pearl Harbor was a real crisis, and Roosevelt took full advantage of that to enter the war and to satisfy his contempt for the Japanese people in Executive Order 9066. Around a decade earlier, he also heavily exploited the Great Depression by confiscating gold from private individuals (E.O. 6102), instituting the foundation of the modern welfare state with the New Deal, and provided the State with far-reaching control over industrial activity through the National Industrial Recovery Act.
George W. Bush: USA Patriot Act and Mass Surveillance
No less did many of his predecessors and successors know how to exploit such a crisis. Following the infamous 9/11-attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, George W. Bush commenced the implementation of a mass surveillance infrastructure with the so-called USA PATRIOT ACT. “[…] the civil rights and liberties of all Americans […] must be protected,” they declared, and thus “every effort must be taken to preserve their safety.” Unsurprisingly, not only was it not mentioned that there may at times be a trade-off between liberty and safety (especially when “safety” refers exclusively to security services provided by the State) – they were even presented as inseparable. This act of legislation most notoriously included section 215, exposed by Edward Snowden in 2013 to have been used by the FBI to access telephone call details of billions of people (like who called when and to whom) through the records of phone companies like Verizon, and thereafter handing it over to the NSA. This section was given a sunset clause to December 15, 2019, but was further restricted in an amendment provided in the USA Freedom Act of 2015, as up to 82% of the population was “concerned” that the State was “collecting and storing Americans’ personal information” – a sentiment which likely stems back to the Snowden affair. Despite the backtracking of parts of the legislation, the Patriot Act leaves a bleak legacy for State powers. As recently as January 2019, the FBI attained access to over a million DNA records from Family Tree DNA, one of the largest DNA testing companies in the world, to add genetic information to their database, showing that section 215 is far but dead.
Abraham Lincoln: War Crimes, Radical Mercantilism and National Debt Explosion
Also the highly renowned Abraham Lincoln, often credited for ending slavery in the United States, took great advantage of exploiting crises to expand his powers. Even someone like Jeffrey Rosen, who praises Lincoln as “Our greatest” and “most constitutionally precise” president, points out that
[Lincoln] insisted that the federal government was obligated to resist Southern secession because it violated the Constitution; and he insisted that his powers as chief executive allowed him to abridge individuals’ rights such as habeas corpus, jury trial, free speech, and private property in order to preserve the Union.
In other words, in order to save the Constitution, he had to violate it. But is he really as noble as he’s commonly presented as? There turns out to be a series of horrific accusations and allegations that have been levied against Lincoln by his subordinates. James Ostrowski has made a comprehensive overview of 71 of these, summarizing Tom DiLorenzo’s research on him. Leaving aside his personal issues, among his most damning abuses of power, was
- Invading the South without consulting Congress;
- Illegally declaring martial law;
- Illegally blockading ports;
- Illegally suspending habeas corpus;
- Illegally imprisoning thousands of Northern citizens;
- Systematically attacking Northern newspapers and their employees, including by imprisonment;
- Confiscating private property and firearms;
- Laying the groundwork for the establishment of conscription and income taxation as permanent institutions;
- Censoring all telegraph communication;
- Preventing opposition newspapers from being delivered by the post office;
- Illegally creating the state of West Virginia out of the “indestructible” state of Virginia;
- Executing those who refused to take a loyalty oath;
- Closing churches and arresting ministers;
- Burning and plundering Southern cites;
- Engineering a constitutional revolution through military force which destroyed state sovereignty and replaced it with rule by the Supreme Court (and the United States Army);
- Laying the groundwork for the imperialist and militarist campaigns of the future as well as the welfare/warfare state;
- Creating the dangerous precedent of establishing a strong consolidated state out of a decentralized confederation;
- Using civilians as hostages;
- Creating the federal tax bureaucracy and various taxes that are still with us; and
- Establishing precedents for centralized powers and suppression of liberties that continue to be cited today.
Additionally, the U.S. national debt surged by 2,700% during his term, from $90.6M in 1861 to $2.7B in 1865, setting the precedent for the high deficit spending that has since accumulated the debt to $22T.
All that for preventing some States from leaving the union. Why did they want to do so? “One of the decisive reasons”, claims political philosopher Hans-Hermann Hoppe, “was the Morrill Tariff Act of 1961, which imposed a 47 percent tax on the value of all imported goods.” To provide context, he writes further that
At the time, the American South exported three-fourths of its agricultural output and imported in turn most of its manufactured goods from abroad. In effect, the tariff meant that the South was forced to pay higher taxes that went to the North to subsidize inefficient northern manufacturers and industrial workers .
Which role had slavery to do in the war, then? The northern States eventually started using it as a justification for the war, but Lincoln himself clearly did not perceive it as the primary cause of the war. Rather, it was used as a means to an end. On August 22, 1862, about six months before he issued the Emancipation Proclamation (which he had already begun drafting), he wrote a letter to Horace Greeley, clarifying that
My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy Slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about Slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save this Union, and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.
What was really so noble about “preserving the Union”? Is the states’ ability to potentially dissent decisions made by the federal “government” through nullification or withdraw from it completely through secession not effective ways to hold its powers in check? That’d be a good reason for the federal “government” to seize that ability from the states, and to demonize the idea of secession in general. That’s what happened in and after the Civil War: Secession, an idea which used to be commonly accepted before the war (not only in the South but also in the North), became associated with the issue of slavery, and one can still see the legacy of this today, over 150 years later, as opponents of secession target its supporters as defending slavery (or at least proposing that it’d be a net negative as slave-owners would be provided with the means to maintain such if the state “government” favored it while the federal one opposed it).
Harry S. Truman: CIA, NSA, and Warfare State Expansion
We’ve hitherto looked over the three U.S. presidents responsible for some of the largest expansions of “government” powers in the nation’s history, but there are many more significant cases which provide further documentation of the State’s tendency to exploit crises to expand. Roosevelt’s successor Harry S. Truman, for instance, was the architect of the modern U.S. “intelligence community”, which grew to what Dwight D. Eisenhower termed the “military-industrial complex” a decade later. Lew Rockwell even went so far as to claim that
… the entire Cold War ideology was invented by Harry Truman and his advisers in 1948 as: (1) a political trick to keep from losing more congressional backing, (2) a way to circumvent political pressures for postwar disarmament, and (3) a method to maintain US industrial dependence on government spending, particularly with regard to American corporations operating overseas .
The establishment of the intelligence community especially includes the CIA (1947) and NSA (1952). NSA’s activities have briefly been mentioned in the discussion of the Patriot Act, but the actions and plans of the CIA in the last 70 years are so horrendous that it must at least be discussed briefly in such documentation. Perhaps the most infamous of these is Operation Northwoods, where the Department of “Defense” and the Joint Chief of Staff (JCS) in 1962 requested authorization for the CIA to perpetrate a false flag attack by committing acts of terrorism against American citizens and military targets and blaming it on the Cuban “government” to justify a war against Cuba. John F. Kennedy ultimately rejected the proposal and removed Lyman Lemnitzer as head of the JCS (he got a high-ranking position in NATO the year after), but it should make us wonder: When “government” officials may even consider utilizing such false flag attacks to usurp more power, might there be cases where they have actualized them?
Enter Project MK-Ultra. Between 1955 and 1973, the CIA conducted over 150 experiments on the effects of psychedelic drugs, paralytics and electroshock therapy on mind control and psychological torture in human subjects, some of whom were not even aware they were being experimented on. The project commenced on the pretext that Soviet, Chinese and North Korean agents may have used such techniques to brainwash American prisoners of war in Korea, so with such a covert operation, they’d also figure out how to exploit that against their enemies in the Soviet bloc. One way the CIA used unaware subjects was by locking men through government-employed prostitutes to their “safe houses”, dosing them with LSD, and then observing their reactions, as was done in Operation Midnight Climax (in San Francisco, California and New York City).
There are more such cases which could’ve been further delineated, like Operation Mockingbird (channeling propaganda through manipulating the media) and Operation CHAOS (domestic espionage), but the two I’ve described ought to be well sufficient for realizing that they’re up to no good and ought to be held a close eye on. For this reason, it shouldn’t be surprising that many believe the CIA may have played a role in the assassination of Kennedy the year after when he undermined their usurpations of power in his reaction to the Operation Northwoods suggestion and other CIA misdemeanors. And once one concedes there might be some truth to such a theory, it opens the door for many more. The nature of these theories ought to be further analyzed to understand the discovery and information dissemination of such usurpations of powers in cases where the relevant information appears to have been suppressed or covered up.
The Appeal of “Conspiracy Theories”
The common term for this is “conspiracy theory”, defined on the open-source Wikipedia as “the fear of a nonexistent conspiracy or the unnecessary assumption of conspiracy when other explanations are more probable.” By “conspiracy”, it is here meant “a secret plan or agreement between persons for an unlawful or harmful purpose, especially with political motivation, while keeping their agreement secret from the public or from other people affected by it.” But if conspiracy theories are only based upon an irrational fear as it’s presented in this definition, how come so many people find them so persuasive? Paranoia and schizophrenia may explain a portion of the prevalence of such theories, but it seems rather unlikely that this is the case in general.
Look, for instance, at the hypothetical situation that there actually was some kind of conspiracy perpetrated by powerful people, and (almost) nobody knew about it. It’s not a very unrealistic case, as such powerful people have the resources and interests to cover up such activities. After some historian or other researchers would for some reason investigate relevant files and discover this conspiracy, he may try to share this information, and then risk being called a “conspiracy theorist” by many, while others would be more open to looking at what evidence he may have uncovered for it. This wouldn’t match the definition of “conspiracy theory” provided by editors of its Wikipedia page, given that it would be neither non-existent nor unnecessary, and that it wouldn’t be other more probable explanations. Despite this, it’d still be widely denounced as a “conspiracy theory”.
This is not, of course, to say that all conspiracy theories that may cross a man or woman’s mind may be considered factual – far from it. What I rather try to suggest here is to have the humility to accept that one may not have all the relevant information to develop complete beliefs about everything and that others may have come across information that one hasn’t explored oneself, which includes questions such as that of so-called “conspiracy theories”. As we have seen numerous examples of hitherto, people constituting the “government” are quite willing to exploit crises to usurp more power and wealth, and conspiracy theories tend to arise in response to suspicion that the “authorities” may have covered up or befuddled such conspiratorial activities conducted out of sight of the public.
Crises in Our Time
Politicians naturally haven’t out-grown the tendency of exploiting crises for their own usurpations of power, and likely never will. President Trump declares a national emergency regarding “out of control” immigration, seeking billions of dollars for funding a border wall, which would restrict cross-country freedom of movement, require the seizure of private property (eminent domain), as well as being financed by stolen taxpayer money. The Democrats are no better, as they keep trying to restrict private gun ownership in response to about every single shooting that occurs nationwide, which would both render non-violent gun owners defenseless in case they themselves were subjected to such attacks, whether done by private individuals or State officials. They also exploit “global warming” as a pretext for large Socialist redistribution and regulation schemes like the Green New Deal, though the Senate recently unanimously voted in opposition against it. Additionally, problems arising in the over-regulated private sector are continuously blamed on the lack of State intervention rather than as the causes thereof, thus encouraging more of it to increasingly approach a Socialist system of societal organization. And even this is far from a comprehensive overview of how politicians and other State officials exploit crises in current times.
The State as a monopoly of coercion and compulsion allures people seeking to maximize their own power and wealth at others’ expense and emboldens them to both stage calamities and exploit natural ones in order to do so. This tends to lead to a gap between the interests of the State and those of private citizens. All suggested legislation thereby risks restricting the freedom of the public, as it is nothing more than threats of robbery (fines) or kidnapping (arrest) if one does not act in accordance with them. As Dave Smith has pointed out, “The United States started as the smallest government in world history and has become the largest government in world history.” How this occurred has been illustrated above, both theoretically and with clear historical examples. Does this, however, mean that limited government, in general, is an oxymoron? This cannot be induced from the single instance of the United States by itself, but it can be deduced from the logic underpinning the concept of “State”. As Murray N. Rothbard articulated it,
The idea of a strictly limited constitutional State was a noble experiment that failed, even under the most favorable and propitious circumstances. If it failed then, why should a similar experiment fare any better now? No, it is the conservative laissez-fairist, the man who puts all the guns and all the decision-making power into the hands of the central government and then says, “Limit yourself”; it is he who is truly the impractical utopian.
- Hoppe, H.H. (2007 ) Democracy: The God That Failed, p. 113, footnote 13.
- Rockwell, L. (2014) Against the State: An Anarcho-Capitalistic Manifesto, p. 38.
Image credit: Corbett Report