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July 1994
Volume 12, Number 7

The Crisis of Statism
Joseph Sobran

American government, we are told, is notable for its stability. And so it seems, at least on the surface. But stability over a long period, as the Russian tsars could tell us, is no gurantee of permanence. And the tsars fell very suddenly after ruling far longer than the U.S. government's two centuries.

Bear in mind that the United States has already been divided by a terrifically violent civil war, after which its structure was greatly altered, in favor of the North over the South and the federal government over the state governments. Bear in mind too that surface stability may mask radical changes in the structure of the regime, as I believe happened to the United States earlier in this century, when the federal government quietly ceased to be federal and became centralized or (as the Framers would have put it) "consolidated."

The latter change is still going on. And though there is more grumbling about the government than ever before, most Americans still regard their government as legitimate, if not fully competent and perhaps not altogether benign.

Still, something is changing in Americans' attitudes. It can be sensed by anyone who listens to call-in radio shows, or reads the burgeoning literature of dissent, or notices the workings of the "underground economy." It is a growing feeling that the U.S. government is the enemy of the average American.

Since the Declation of Independence, American have been concerned with a philosophical question, to which they had an optimistic answer. The question is, how can the government claim the right to exercise power over its subjects? And the answer was, the right is given by the people, when they deem the government to be just (because it respects and secures their rights) and consent to its exercising power. This consent is thought to be conferred through elections. The very fact that the U.S. government holds elections is thought to certify its legitimacy.

For two centuries, except for the Civil War period, this has been thought to be unproblematic. The simple old answer to the philosophical question has been simplified further, to the formula "This is a democracy." It is an answer that flattens out all the refined reasoning of the founding generation of Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison, but it suffices for most people and pundits.

But this answer no longer satisfies is the way it used to. We have discovered that the mechanisms of democracy can co-exist with tyranny, just as political philosophers since Plato and Aristotle have warned. Moreover, the current discontents of Americans run deeper than any since the Civil War.

The Shocking 1993 siege at Waco, at which the U.S. government effectively destroyed a religion, by violent means, on behalf of claims that were never clearly defined, dramatically showed how far the government is prepared to go in asserting its limitless power over formerly private and local areas of American life. Many Americans could hardly believe their eyes; others found their darkest suspicions confirmed.

At one time nearly all Americans would have assumed that the Branch Davidian "cult" was evil and must have deserved whatever it got from a government that was fundamentally trusted. And this was the line most of the news media tried to sustain. But this time it didn't work. For the first time, millions of Americans found themselves feeling and sometimes saying that the government was the enemy.

This is a perfectly natural thing to feel about any government. After all, a government, whatever else it is, is a legal monopoly of force. The real mystery is why Americans generally haven't hated their government. People usually hate those who force them to do anything. In order to enjoy moral legitimacy, a government for the most part must use force only in ways most people can accept--as against violent criminals, or (more cynically) against individuals or groups whose rights aren't taken seriously.

Americans have recognized their government as legitimate for so long that they and their rulers may have forgotten what an exceptional and precarious condition this is. And as a result, the government has committed a vast sin of presumption, exercising far more coercion than its population will tolerate indefinitely.

We can formulate some general laws of ruling. The more force you use, the more enemies you will make. The more laws you enact, the more criminals you will create. And when you coerce and criminalize too many peiople who think of themselves as law-abiding, you destroy your legitimacy in their eyes.

Here a certain principle of public opinion comes into play. Public opinion can be defined as what everyone thinks everyone else thinks. It decides whether people feel alone, isolated, and helpless in their opinions. Solzhenitsyn tells us that everyone in the Gulag camps felt estranged from everyone else, because each man knew he was innocent but assumed that all the others were guilty. The rebellions in the camps occured when each realized that all were innocent, that the whole system was monstrous and tyrannous.

In the same way, many Americans have felt oppressed by confiscatory tax rates, gun control, business regulations, labor impositions, and countless other interventions. But, until recently, most of these people have felt isolated.

That, in my view, is what is changing radically now. Americans victimized or outraged by government are speaking to each other, have established lines of communication that didn't exist before, and know that they aren't alone. The personal computer can take some credit for this. So can talk radio. But however it has happened, it has happened. Large and diverse segments of the population--gun owners, small businessmen, religious believers, ordinary taxpayers, crime victims, smokers, whites who have been victimized by race, and men who have been victimized by sex quotas--feel acute political discontents, to the point where they are ready to reject the central government as illegitimate.

Another large factor is that the U.S. government has, in a sense, succeeded too well. It has outlived its foreign enemies, anc can no longer count of feeling needed to protect us from evil abroad. Many Americans, including conservatives, put up woh the ravenous welfare state only because they thought the government was protecting them from an even worse socialist power. Now they don't feel they have to tolerate bad government at home anymore.

When these Americans speak of "crime," they aren't worrying about the myriad of former rights the government has recently criminalized. They mean precisely the ancient forms of violent crime the government doesn't manage to control. And they know that the government's favorite targets for harassment and prosecution are precisely those who are law-abiding, and who pose the least danger to others.

Put simply, very few Americans now think of the government as identifiable with "We, the People." The alienation opnce confined to the radical fringes has now reached Middle America. It is no longer "mainstream" to support the central government.

It doesn't help the government's prestige that something like a majority of Americans now feel the profoundest moral contempt for the incumbent president, a contempt surpassing even their low regard for Congress. This mixture of fear and contempt toward government is something new under the American sun. It promises to bring political convulsion before the turn of the century.


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