Fear: the foundation of every government's power.

Author:Higgs, Robert
Position:Etceteras ...
 
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Neither a man nor a crowd nor a nation can be trusted to act humanely or to think sanely under the influence of a great fear.--Bertrand Russell, "An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish" (1)

All animals experience fear--human beings, perhaps, most of all. Any animal incapable of fear would have been hard pressed to survive, regardless of its size, speed, or other attributes. Fear alerts us to dangers that threaten our well-being and sometimes our very lives. Sensing fear, we respond by running away, by hiding, or by preparing to ward off the danger. To disregard fear is to place ourselves in possibly mortal jeopardy. Telling people not to be afraid is giving them advice that they cannot take. Even the man who acts heroically on the battlefield, if he is honest, admits that he is scared. "He would be a sort of madman or insensible person," Aristotle wrote, "if he feared nothing, neither earthquakes nor the waves" (1938, 249). Our evolved physiological makeup disposes us to fear all sorts of actual and potential threats, however, even those that exist only in our imagination.

And thy life shall hang in doubt before thee; and thou shalt fear day and night, and shalt have none assurance of thy life. (Deuteronomy 28:66) The people who have the effrontery to rule us, who call themselves our government, understand this basic fact of human nature. They 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. Without popular fear, no government could endure for more than twenty-four hours. (2)

David Hume argues that all government rests on public opinion, and many others have endorsed his argument (for example, Mises [1927] 1985, 41, 45, 50-51, 180; Rothbard [1965] 2000, 61-62), but public opinion, I maintain, is not the bedrock of government. Public opinion itself rests on something deeper and more primordial: fear. Hume recognizes that the opinions that support government receive their force from "other principles," among which he includes fear, but he considers these other principles to be "the secondary, not the original principles of government" ([1777] 1987, 34). He argues: "No man would have any reason to fear the fury of a tyrant, if he [the tyrant] had no authority over any but from fear" (34, emphasis in original). We may grant Hume's statement yet still maintain that the government's authority over the great mass of its subjects rests fundamentally on fear.

Murray Rothbard considers fear briefly in his analysis of the anatomy of the state, classifying its instillment as "another successful device" by which the rulers secure from their subjects acceptance of or at least acquiescence in their domination--"[t]he present rulers, it was maintained, supply to the citizens an essential service for which they should be most grateful: protection against sporadic criminals and marauders" ([1965] 2000, 65)--but Rothbard does not view fear as the fundamental basis on which the rulers rest their domination, as I do here. Of course, as many scholars have recognized, ideology is critical in the long-term maintenance of governmental power. Yet every ideology that endows government with legitimacy requires and is infused by some kind(s) of fear. Unlike Rothbard, who views the instillment of fear as only one "device" among several by which the government retains its grip on the masses, I maintain that public fear is a necessary (though perhaps not a sufficient) condition for the viability of government as we know it. (3)

Jack Douglas comes closer to my own view when he observes that myths (a term he uses in roughly the same way that I use the term ideologies) "are predominantly the voice of our emotions, the images of our passionate hopes and fears, or our passionate longings and hatreds" (1989, 220, emphasis added; see also 313 on "the very powerful fear of death that reinforces all of the others [the other natural passions]"). In his extended argument about the longstanding, overarching "myth of the welfare state," however, Douglas places more emphasis on the element of hopes (millennialism) than on the element of fears. Yet even the ideological hopes, I maintain, often center on people's hopes for governmental deliverance from various sorts of fears. As

David Altheide remarks, "People do want to be 'saved' and 'freed,' but they want to be saved and freed from fear, and this is what makes the [mass media's] messages of fear so compelling and important for public policy and the fabric of our social life" (2002, 15-16).

The fear need not be of the government itself and indeed may be of the danger from which the government purports to protect the people. Of course, some of the threats that induce subjects to submit to government in the hope of gaining its protection and thereby calming their fears may be real ones. I am not maintaining that people who look to government for their salvation act entirely under the sway of illusory threats, although I do insist that nowadays, if not always, many public fears arise in large part, if not entirely, from stimulation by the government itself. If the people's fears may be (1) of the government itself, (2) of real threats from which the people look to the government for protection, and (3) of spurious threats from which the people look to the government for protection, we must admit that the relative importance of each type of fear varies with time and place. In every case, however, the government seeks to turn public fear to its own advantage. (4) "Directing fear in a society is tantamount to controlling that society. Every age has its fears, every ruler has his/her enemies, every sovereign places blame, and every citizen learns about these as propaganda" (Altheide 2002, 17; see also 56, 91, 126-33, 196, and passim).

The Natural History of Fear

And my heart owns a doubt Whether 'tis in us to arise with day And save ourselves unaided. --Robert Frost, "Storm Fear" (5) Thousands of years ago, when the first organized groups we would recognize as governments were fastening themselves on people, they relied primarily on warfare and conquest. (6) As Henry Hazlitt observes,

There may have been somewhere, as a few eighteenth-century philosophers dreamed, a group of peaceful men who got together one evening after work and drew up a Social Contract to form the state. But nobody has been able to find an actual record of it. Practically all the governments whose origins are historically established were the result of conquest--of one tribe by another, one city by another, one people by another. Of course there have been constitutional conventions, but they merely changed the working rules of governments already in being. ([1976] 1994, 471) (7) This view of the origin of the state has great antiquity. As long ago as the late eleventh century, Pope Gregory VII (1073-85), the leader of the momentous Papal Revolution, which began during his papacy and ran its course over a span of nearly fifty years (even longer in England), wrote: "Who does not know that kings and princes derive their origin from men ignorant of God who raised themselves above their fellows by pride, plunder, treachery, murder--in short by every kind of crime--at the instigation of the Devil, the prince of this world, men blind with greed and intolerable in their audacity?" (qtd. in Berman 1983, 110).

Although certain analytical purposes may be served at times by likening government to a form of exchange between the ruler and the ruled, a la public-choice theory, or by supposing that government might "conceptually" reflect a unanimously accepted "social contract," a la constitutional economics, these characterizations fail to acknowledge government's "essentially coercive character" and bear little resemblance to the actual historical establishment of governments--or to their functioning today (Yeager 1985, 269-72, 283-85, 291; see also Olson 2000, 2, 11). The subjugation theory, in stark contrast, rests on a mountain of historical evidence. As Ludwig von Mises remarks, "[f]or thousands of years the world had to submit to the yoke of military conquerors and feudal lords who simply took for granted that the products of the industry of other men existed for them to consume." Moreover, "[t]he supplanting of the militaristic ideal, which esteems only the warrior and despises honest

labor, has not, by any means, even yet been completely achieved" ([1927] 1985, 151).

Fear for Your Life and Pay Tribute to the Rulers

Losers who were not slain in the conquest itself had to endure the subsequent rape and pillage and in the longer term had to acquiesce in the continuing payment of tribute to the insistent rulers--the stationary bandits, as Mancur Olson (2000, 6-9) aptly calls them. Subjugated people, for good reason, feared for their lives. Offered the choice of losing their wealth or losing their lives, they tended to choose the sacrifice of their wealth. Hence arose taxation, variously rendered in goods, services, or money (Nock [1935] 1973, 19-22). (8) Thus, for example, in thirteenth-century Bavaria, perhaps the most advanced of all the German principalities at the time, "the entire population of the duchy was taxed, free and unfree, secular and ecclesiastical; and the taxes were administered by a corps of ducal officials" (Berman 1983, 510). Max Spindler remarks that this "tax obligation ... made the existence and the sovereignty of the state palpable to every single person" (qtd. in Berman 1983, 510, from a 1937 work in German).

Subjugated people, however, naturally resent their imposed government and the taxation and other insults it foists on them. Such resentful people easily become restive; should a promising opportunity to throw off the oppressor's dominion present itself, they may seize it. One excellent example...

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