"It [the State] has taken on a vast mass of new duties and responsibilities; it has spread out its powers until they penetrate to every act of the citizen, however secret; it has begun to throw around its operations the high dignity and impeccability of a State religion; its agents become a separate and superior caste, with authority to bind and loose, and their thumbs in every pot. But it still remains, as it was in the beginning, the common enemy of all well-disposed, industrious and decent men." ~ H.L. Mencken
A History of Putting Up Too Many Kites
Fear, confusion, and subterfuge have been the grist of every 'crisis' which has plagued this nation. Whether working alone or in collusion with self-interested factions, government has used every crisis-generating event to increase its own power while suffocating the freedom of the individual. Even the individual has been used as a tool in the hands of government to facilitate his own destruction. Statist propaganda over the last century has weakened resistance to group-think; it would not be too much of a stretch to say, as a general rule, that we are all collectivists now. 'We' consign ourselves too quickly to the wisdom and ability of government to provide physical security, economic growth, and social stability.
The first instance of this in American history, post Revolution, was the call for a convention to 'revise' the Articles of Confederation in 1787. Compared to how often a crisis is generated today that results in the expansion of government power, the Constitutional Convention was nothing more than a blip on the radar screen. But it initiated a precedent repeated at a seemingly geometric rate in the post-War of Northern Aggression era. Our present Constitution was the finished product of an event driven by fear, confusion, and deceit.
A recent article by H. A. Scott Trask, 'Rethinking the Articles of Confederation,' offers a spirited defense of the Articles of Confederation and challenges the commonly held view that the 1780s was a 'critical period' in need of intervention by a more centralized and powerful government in order to save the United States from themselves. The United States in the 1780s was like so many periods in history following a long destructive war--an economic mess that could only be cured by the purgative effects of time.
As Trask argues, 'Americans were suffering the natural after effects of a long war financed by debt and inflation, and exacerbated by the continuing circulation of inconvertible paper currency . . . . The postwar depression was a necessary period of hardship during which Americans readjusted to new trade patterns and economic realities, paid debts, and repaired the damage and neglect wrought by war.' Laws could no better alleviate this necessary 'suffering' any more than they could protect a person from falling down a flight of stairs by repealing the law of gravity.
Trask continues: 'Americans, flush with soaring hopes unleashed after the Revolution, wanted to believe otherwise, but there was no political substitute for hard work, reconstruction, self-denial, and patience . . . . many sought political panaceas to escape economic realities.' Interest groups as diverse as merchants, ship builders, and farmers all demanded that their respective state governments 'do something' to ease their suffering, irrespective of the negative consequences that always accompany government intervention in economic affairs. What they failed to account for, as Trask reminds us, was the 'futility of enacting mercantilist legislation within a confederated polity.' They erroneously believed that only uniform laws, enforced by a central authority, could provide the foundation of a 'stable' economic system.
The 'firm league of friendship' established by the Articles of Confederation granted each individual state the power to resist efforts at consolidation by all the other states in the confederation. Liberty was more secure and government more shackled under the Articles. Pleas from interest groups across several states for political consolidation and economic stability would need to be buttressed with more tangible 'evidence' that a consolidated authority was in the nation's best interest.
And so we come to the 'crisis' event that created fear tempered by deceit: Shays' Rebellion. Shays' 'uprising' of western Massachusetts farmers was, in the words of Trask, a 'propitious rebellion' that worked to the nationalists' advantage. They immediately seized upon the event and the potential for similar rebellions to break out in other states. According to Trask, the nationalists 'claimed that the Shaysites, and similar groups in other states, were radical inflationists, communists, and levelers out to defraud their creditors and redistribute property, instead of being, what in truth they were, property-owning, anti-tax rebels who wanted to keep their farms.' As Trask succinctly observes, the nationalists wanted nothing less than to 'scare the country into supporting a more vigorous government.'
After reading Trask's article, I was reminded of a phrase Thomas Jefferson once used to describe Shays' Rebellion. In a letter to William S. Smith, on November 13, 1787, Jefferson said, 'Our Convention has been too much impressed by the insurrection of Massachusetts: and in the spur of the moment they are setting up a kite to keep the hen-yard in order.'
That's exactly what government has been doing throughout our history. The American people are the hen-yard and all the manufactured crises--the 'rebellion' of the Southern states, the sinking of the Maine, the call to make the world 'safe for democracy,' the Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, the Cold War, the Gulf of Tonkin, the 'war on drugs,' Saddam Hussein as 'Hitler revisited'--are the sum total of every 'kite' the government has put up to keep us in line and suffocate our freedom.
Presently, the 'war on terrorism' is the latest kite that casts a shadow over the American people, and it is a very large shadow, indeed. The singular event of September 11 offers the government a trove of opportunities to put up an infinite number of kites and completely shroud the American people in darkness. The recent war in Iraq, and the ongoing disastrous occupation there, promise to multiply the number of fanatics committed to killing Americans. It's only a matter of time before they reach our shores. Government waits for that moment, ever-ready to extend its grip over the American people and their property.
If this comes to pass, it will be largely by our own hand, as we have come to embrace government most when its promises of protection and prosperity have always resulted in our further destruction. It is under such circumstances that energy in government has been the greatest. As Albert Jay Nock once said, 'The State always moves slowly and grudgingly towards any purpose that accrues to society's advantage, but moves rapidly and with alacrity towards one that accrues to its own advantage.'
In a recent interview with Ari Shavit of Haaretz Daily, Thomas Friedman identified the cause of the war in Iraq as something much bigger than a small group of neoconservative intellectuals whispering in the president's ear. As Shavit writes, 'In the final analysis, what fomented the war is America's overreaction to September 11 . . . What led us to the outskirts of Baghdad is a very American combination of anxiety and hubris.' That, and the need to put up more kites.