From Crisis Comes Leviathan

by | Dec 10, 2015


Lovers of big government love crises because crises are the sure-fire way to get big government. It is during crises that many people go into a fright-filled panic, demanding that government assume extraordinary powers to keep them safe. Government officials, of course, are always willing to oblige, given their love of power over others.

Then, as Robert Higgs points out in his insightful book Crisis and Leviathan (which I highly recommend), once the crisis is over, while the size of government might diminish, it hardly ever returns to the size that it was before the crisis. Thus, with each new crisis, the government only gets bigger, more powerful, and more oppressive.

We witnessed this phenomenon after the 9/11 attacks. We saw it after the Paris terrorist attacks. And we are seeing it again after the shootings in San Bernardino, California.

“We need gun control!” the fear-stricken cry, unable to recognize that California already is ranked near the top in the nation in terms of strict gun-control laws.

We need stricter immigration controls!” the panicked scream, unable to see that the shooters in California were here legally.

As I have written in the past, when crises strike, as they inevitably do in nations whose governmental structure is founded on a national-security apparatus, as America’s has been since World War II, rational thinking is in short supply. At that point, all that fearful Americans are thinking is: “Just keep me safe from the jihadists, the Muslims, the drug dealers, the illegal aliens, the communists, the Russians, al-Qaeda, Assad, ISIS, or whoever. Do whatever is necessary. I don’t care. Just keep me safe.”

As history has shown time and time again, it is during crises that people lose their freedom, at the hands of their very own government — the government they are exhorting to keep them safe. The situation is akin to the chickens who beg the fox to put them into a pen to keep them safe.

Our American ancestors understood this phenomenon perfectly. Examine the Bill of Rights. Notice that it doesn’t give anyone any rights. Instead, some of the amendments, such as the First and the Second, expressly prohibit the federal government from taking away people’s rights. Others expressly restrict the federal government from doing bad things to people, such as conducting unreasonable searches, torturing them into making confessions, denying them the right of trial by jury, and depriving them of due process of law.

Why did our American ancestors demand those amendments to the Constitution? Because they were certain that in the absence of those amendments, US officials would do the things that were proscribed. That is, that they would deprive people of freedom of speech and freedom of religion, confiscate their guns, incarcerate them without due process of law, try them before military tribunals, torture them into confessing to crimes, and other things that totalitarian regimes are notorious for.

Notice something else about the Bill of Rights: Our American ancestors did not include a crisis exception to any of the amendments. That is, there is no provision that says: “In the case of war or other crisis, these amendments are temporarily suspended in the interests of national security.”

Why didn’t our ancestors include a crisis exception for those amendments? Because they understood that crises are the times when liberty is most in danger. When the situation is calm and peaceful, that’s when people are apt to resist any encroachments on their rights and liberties. But that changes radically when a crisis occurs. That’s when people’s hearts and minds start racing. That’s when they go into a fearful panic. That’s when they’re eager and willing to let government do whatever is necessary to keep them safe.

Thus, one of the purposes of the Bill of Rights was to protect us from ourselves — to prevent us, as far as possible, from trading away our freedoms in times of crisis. Our ancestors knew that in the absence of a Bill of Rights, many people, driven by fear, would be apt to do that.

The problem Americans face is that the national-security apparatus that has been grafted onto our original governmental system not only is driven by crises, it is also the producer of the crises.

Consider, for example, the current crisis with ISIS, which has countless Americans pacing the floor, unable to sleep, certain that ISIS is coming to get them and force them into mosques to study the Koran and learn Sharia law or, even worse, take them to the public square to be beheaded.

When you tell these fear-stricken Americans that there is an infinitesimally small chance of this happening, they stare at you blankly. They just want to be kept safe. And so they demand gun control, immigration controls, or other police-state tactics to keep them safe. While they won’t admit it publicly or even to themselves, they effectively want the Bill of Rights to be ignored by the government. They just want to be kept safe.

Even worse, their fear prevents them from seeing that it’s their very own government that has produced the crisis. Before the Pentagon’s invasion of Iraq, there was no ISIS. The reason there is an ISIS today is because there was a US invasion and occupation of Iraq.

The fearful don’t want to hear that. All they want is for the government to keep them safe. And they want to just keep supporting the troops, even if the troops are doing things that are producing the crises. And after all, don’t forget: this is the same government that provides the fearful with their Social Security, Medicare, education grants, farm subsidies, and corporate bailouts. It’s their daddy who takes care of them. They don’t want to get their daddy upset at them.

It’s no different with the threat of anti-American terrorism. It’s rooted in the US national-security state’s policies in the Middle East, especially after the Cold War (supposedly) ended. Once the US national-security establishment (presumably) lost its official enemies — communism and the Soviet Union — which had been the foundation for the permanent, ongoing crisis known as the Cold War, U.S officials went into the Middle East and began killing, maiming, oppressing, and humiliating people. All that produced a new permanent, ongoing crisis involving terrorist retaliation known today as the “war on terrorism.”

Consider the renewed Cold War against Russia. That’s rooted in NATO expansion. NATO is nothing more than a Cold relic supposedly designed to protect Europe against the Soviet Union? Why wasn’t it dismantled when the Warsaw Pact was dismantled? The answer is simple: Because it could serve as a useful source for renewed crises with Russia, which, not surprisingly, we now have.

Do the fearful ever get angry or upset wiith the federal government for this crisis-producing racket? Nope. They’re too scared. All they want is to be kept safe. Nothing else matters — certainly not their liberty and certainly not the Bill of Rights.

In fact, even more perversely, oftentimes people’s fear drives them to demand that the US national security establishment continue doing more of the things that produce the crises that are scaring them to death. Today, many of the fearful are demanding more bombing, more killing, more maiming of people in the Middle East – in the name of keeping us safe — and blocking out of their minds that that is precisely what the national-security state has been doing for decades in the Middle East that has produced the crisis that is now scaring them. And they are also now demanding that NATO absorb even more nations, while blocking out of their minds what is certain to heighten the crisis with Russia and scare them even more.

It’s up to us libertarians to keep our heads in these government-produced crises and to protect our rights and freedoms from being traded away by the fearful. It’s up to us to continue fighting to restore the principles of liberty, free markets, and a constitutionally limited republic to our land. We owe it to ourselves, our posterity, and our American ancestors.

Reprinted with permission from the Future of Freedom Foundation.


  • Jacob G. Hornberger

    Jacob George Hornberger is an American attorney, author, and politician who was a Libertarian candidate for president in 2000 and 2020. He is the founder and president of the Future of Freedom Foundation.

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