(Note: The following first appeared as Lawrence W. Reed’s "Ideas and Consequences" column in the December 1999 issue of The Freeman, a monthly journal published by the Foundation for Economic Education. It has been reprinted, along with several of Mr. Reed’s essays, in a new book titled "Striking the Root," which focuses on the superiority of individual liberty over government coercion.)
Perhaps the most important principle one can ever learn about the nature of government is this: It is different from all other institutions in society because it is the only one that can legally employ force. Unfortunately, it is a principle that has been largely erased from the American memory bank. More than a hundred years of compulsory public education may be largely to blame.
Let’s get something straight before we go any further. To note that government rests on the use of force is not some radical, anarchist idea. It is the very definition of the institution and its ultimate distinguishing feature. For much of the last half millennium, political scientists of virtually every stripe accepted the notion as fact. No respectable scholar tried to paper it over and pass government off as some kind of voluntary, benevolent society.
America’s Founders understood this principle well and crafted a regime that never purported to eliminate force; they only sought to restrict it to a narrow sphere of life and thereby preserve a large measure of individual liberty. George Washington purportedly observed, "Government is not reason. It is not eloquence — it is force! Like fire it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master." In other words, even when government does no more than what he wanted it to do, and when it does those few things very well as a "servant" of the people, it’s still dangerous because behind it all is the employment of legalized force.
A deeply rooted understanding of this inherent character of government is a pillar of the free society. It’s the yellow caution light that prompts wise and peaceful citizens to deliberate long and hard before accepting an expansion of government duties. It creates a healthy skepticism about seductive schemes to supplant private initiative with public action. It discourages attempts to impose a collective conformity at the expense of the individual.
If you are an advocate of the free society today, you surely have noticed erosion in the understanding of this principle. It may not be an exaggeration to assert that the erosion has been massive and far more deleterious to our liberty and well-being than all but a few ever imagined.
This point struck me hard recently when I read a letter to the editor of a local newspaper. The letter writer was responding to a previously published commentary by a man who had argued that Ernest Hemingway opposed government funding of the arts because he felt that artists should be independent of political influence. She took issue with the commentator on the grounds that Hemingway "did accept money from benefactors." Accepting money freely given by patrons, in the mind of the letter writer, was indistinguishable from accepting money from the government.
Similarly, I have witnessed countless occasions when individuals argued that if government does something and is well intentioned, it couldn’t possibly be coercive; or, that if it’s "democratic," it’s somehow voluntary. The mere fact that politicians are elected validates almost whatever they do as nothing more than consensual acts between altruistic adults. A much more sober and rational view of the limitations of a democratic republic, preferable though it is to any other form of government, is the one that describes it as two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.
So it is that we’ve arrived at the point described by Edgar Freidenberg’s 1964 classic, Coming of Age in America, where "American high school students viewed the government as a benign institution that one should obey because it was working for the benefit of all the people." How is it possible for such a sad state of intellectual affairs to befall a nation founded on liberty and a realistic view of the state? How did it come to be that millions of Americans recoil at the "radical" suggestion that government and legalized force are one and the same?
I can think of no other source of the problem than a century of government ("public") education. When nearly 90 percent of Americans are schooled for 12 formative years by government employees, most of whom earned their teaching degrees at government universities, why should we expect anything other than an obsequious citizenry that views government as the benevolent vicar of what Rousseau called "the general will"?
The history of American public education is replete with statements by professional government school advocates that reek of statism. Judge Archibald Douglas Murphey, founder of the public school system in North Carolina, said that government must educate because "parents know not how to instruct them. . . . The state, in the warmth of her affection and solicitude for their welfare must take charge of those children and place them in school where their minds can be enlightened."
A 1914 bulletin of the U. S. Bureau of Education stated, "The public schools exist primarily for the benefit of the State rather than for the benefit of the individual." And Edward Ross, a prominent sociologist, offered the most chilling description of the role of government in education: "To collect little plastic lumps of human dough from private households and shape them on the social kneading-board."
This outcome was predictable from the earliest days of American public education, and it’s no different from anything else the government comes to dominate. He who pays the piper calls the tune. It just isn’t in the interests of the government or those who depend on it to sully their own nests with an honest admission that their handiwork is financed and imposed at gunpoint. As education scholar Joel Spring put it 20 years ago, "A teacher, school administrator, or elected official in charge of schools may believe that his personal values represent the general values of the community; worse, he may think that his values should be adopted by the community."
Such explicit statements notwithstanding, it would be hard and perhaps politically counterproductive to argue that today’s deficient government school system derives from some grand conspiracy. To explain the appalling ignorance of the American citizenry regarding the essential nature of government, conspiracy theories are not necessary. It’s sufficient simply to observe that few employees of the system will rise above immediate self-interest to even recognize, let alone propagate, the notion that government in general and their jobs in particular rest on legalized force.
What difference does all this make? A lot. I can think of no situation more hostile to liberty than a failure of a free people to tell the difference between government and everything else.
Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.