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The Politics Of Fear

September 19 2006 at 11:49 AM
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Foundation for Economic Education
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News & Commentary
THE GOAL IS FREEDOM
The Political Economy of Fear

September 15, 2006
by Sheldon Richman

Sheldon Richman is the editor of The Freeman and "In brief."

Freeman columnist Robert Higgs has won the 2006 Thomas Szasz Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Cause of Civil Liberties. I can think of no one is more deserving of this award. Past winners include James Bovard, Phil Zimmermann (author of "Pretty Good Privacy," the computer encryption program for everyone), Nat Hentoff, Rep. Ron Paul, Richard Epstein, and Karl Hess. (Full disclosure: I am a charter member of the selection committee.) Higgs won in the general category; Australian psychologist Robert Spillane won in the professional category.

For years Higgs, Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, has documented in books and articles how government maintains its power over people, and hence steals their their liberty, by exploiting various fears: fear of external enemies, fear of social insecurity, fear of government itself.

His work and the work of Thomas Szasz, author of more than two dozen books on how government subjugates people in the name of mental and physical health, complement each other admirably. As Szasz, also a Freeman columnist, has shown, the government-medical complex promotes -- and increasingly imposes "cures" for -- fear of insanity, physical illness, suicide, drug addiction, obesity, smoking, gambling, and much, much more. Higgs picks up this theme when he writes in Szaszian fashion, "[A] host of personal peccadilloes has been medicalized and consigned to the 'therapeutic state'" ("Fear: The Foundation of Every Government's Power"; see also "We're All Sick, and Government Must Heal Us" [pdf] and "Government Protects Us?" [pdf]).

Both writers are fond of H.L. Mencken's insight, "The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary."

Higgs has become a specialist in what he calls the "political economy of fear." In "Fear: The Foundation of Every Government's Power," he discusses, in historical and theoretical terms, how fear of threats -- real, imagined, and fabricated -- lies at the very heart of politics: "[Governments] exploit it, and they cultivate it. Whether they compose a warfare state or a welfare state, they depend on it to secure popular submission, compliance with official dictates, and, on some occasions, affirmative cooperation with the state’s enterprises and adventures."


Welfare State

First it was foreign invasion and the government itself that the people were to be protected from. All the population had to do was surrender enough liberty and money, and the state would keep it safe from . . . "them." (Considering all the money it has spent, at times its failures have been spectacular.) Later the menu of fears was extended beyond foreign threats. Higgs writes:

Not long after the democratic dogma had gained a firm foothold, organized coalitions emerged from the mass electorate and joined the elites in looting the public treasury, and, as a consequence, in the late nineteenth century the so-called welfare state began to take shape. From that time forward, people were told that the government can and should protect them from all sorts of workaday threats to their lives, livelihoods, and overall well-being -- threats of destitution, hunger, disability, unemployment, illness, lack of income in old age, germs in the water, toxins in the food, and insults to their race, sex, ancestry, creed, and so forth. Nearly everything that the people feared, the government then stood poised to ward off. Thus did the welfare state anchor its rationale in the solid rock of fear. Governments, having exploited popular fears of violence so successfully from time immemorial (promising “national security”), had no difficulty in cementing these new stones (promising “social security”) into their foundations of rule.

This is no less true in the United States than elsewhere. Americans pride themselves on their limited self[!]-government, but that only indicates how deeply embedded is the official fear-inducing ideology of state protection. Government officials and their intellectual contractors exert great effort to promote that ideology because, frankly, there's lots of power and money at stake. The "public" schools' and mass media's roles here should be obvious. "By keeping the population in a state of artificially heightened apprehension," Higgs writes, "the government-cum-media prepares the ground for planting specific measures of taxation, regulation, surveillance, reporting, and other invasions of the people’s wealth, privacy, and freedoms."

If it all sounds like a protection racket, that's because it is. Not that there aren't real threats in life. But even many of those have their roots in government's domestic and foreign conduct. As the Public Choice theorists teach, government has its own dynamic, an internal principle of expansion that is inexorable unless checked by the people's eternal vigilance. And as Ludwig von Mises demonstrated, one government imposition creates the rationalization for the next, ad infinitum. Has any government remained limited? Does any government wish to remain so?

Robert Higgs's award is well-earned. By identifying the basic method by which government parasitically fastens itself on a population, he has increased our comprehension of the state's standing threat to our freedom. Such comprehension is crucial if the human race is to reclaim its libertarian birthright.

©2005 Foundation for Economic Education. All Rights Reserved.
http://furl.net/item.jsp?id=11888823

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