My Government Is Worse than Yours

Now that hysteria over my original Brazil column has died down, let me add some comments and reflections about it and what gave rise to the reactions.

To review, I had written a piece praising the many glorious features of Brazil and especially the way in which civilization has managed to thrive by virtue of certain freedoms that we do not have in the U.S.: the freedom to pass on estates in whole to children and the seeming absence of the police-state security apparatus and military-industrial complex that represses us every day in this one-time land of the free.

Many Brazilians were appalled by what seemed to them to be my favorable comparison of Brazil to the United States. Don’t I know that their country is ruled by a wicked socialist dictatorship that strangles the life out of enterprise every day? Don’t I know about the other egregious forms of taxation they deal with constantly? Am I completely unaware of the stultifying bureaucracies that make it nearly impossible to open and run a business?

One thing that all the correspondents said again and again: if you think you have it bad, you should experience our disgusting lives and then you would really know the meaning of despotism.

I also detected in all these letters a sort of idealization of the U.S. that we often find abroad. No matter how much our government tries to wreck our reputation as the place where liberty thrives, many people around the world still like to imagine that we have full constitutional rights and free-wheeling enterprise that they do not enjoy.

As Americans, we should resist this flattery. It is an interesting exercise to travel abroad and discover that, behold, in some ways people living under democratic socialism experience elements of freedom that our current American system (democratic fascism?) denies to us. To me, this is the strongest case for traveling, just so that we can gain some perspective.

But all of this raises an interesting question. Why is it that we tend to be more critical of our own governments than those in other lands?

In a sense, I agree with Noam Chomsky (I’m a sometime fan but not a devotee) who was once asked why he is such a severe critic of the U.S. government but doesn’t have much to say about the evil of other governments around the world.

I’m paraphrasing his answer. First, he knows more about the U.S. government than other governments so he is in a better position to report accurately. Second, his criticisms of the U.S. government can actually have some influence whereas he would have no influence on the policies in Afghanistan or North Korea. Third, because he is a U.S. citizen he has a special and even moral obligation to object when the government that is stealing from him is using that money to murder and oppress people abroad.

He might have had other reasons too but those strike me as reasonable. I might add that we all have a tendency to believe that the government we know the best is probably the worst. For example, many people can tell grim stories of the corruption, graft, favoritism, and brutality of our local governments. We know its victims first hand. We’ve seen it up close and we are appalled.

Our heads should tell us that if it is this bad at the local level, it is surely worse at the state level and unimaginably bad at the central level of the federal government. Most of us have no direct experience with the feds, however, so its depredations are more abstract to us.

It doesn’t help that the sheer numbers that the feds play with are beyond human comprehension. The local official who steals $100,000 is a criminal but what does it mean when a federal agency loses track of $2,000,000,000 in loans? The larger the number, the more abstracted it becomes from our experience.

I take it for granted that all governments everywhere are parasitic, power abusing, thieving, grafting bastions of hypocrisy, depredation, and duplicity. This is not an accident of history but rather an outgrowth of a fundamental structural reality: government operates by different rules from the rest of us.

If we steal, we are doing wrong and everyone knows it. But the government does the same thing and claims it is sustaining the social order — and calls us unpatriotic if we disagree. And that’s only the beginning. The government punishes us for doing things — fraud, theft, murder, kidnapping, counterfeiting — that it does legally every day.

This is not a feature of bad government. The legal right to violate the laws it enforces against the population is the defining feature of the state as we know it. That is to say, there is evil at the very heart of the business of government. The more centralized the state, the less control we have over it and the more egregious the immorality, efficiency, graft, and lies.

I would go further than Thomas Jefferson, who said that the government that governs best governs least. Actually, the government that governs not at all is the best of all.

Returning to Brazil, the difference between the government there and the government here is not a matter of kind but of degree. So it is for all governments in all times and places, which is why we can read about the rise and fall of the Roman Empire and find so many parallels with our own time. Measuring the degree of evil can be extremely tricky. Chomsky is right here: if we wish to decry evil in politics, our primary obligation is to focus on the state we know best, which is our own. In that sense my critics are right, from their point of view, and I’m right from mine.

At the same time, there is more to the task of liberty than hating and decrying the state. The other side of the coin is developing a genuine love of liberty, which implies a love of its most spectacular, people-serving feature: commerce.

Commerce keeps the world orderly and rational and free. It gives us drive and ratifies our efforts. It sparks imagination and defines its boundaries. It feeds the world, sustains and builds civilization, and unleashes the best in the human spirit. It keeps us materially connected and linked to our brothers and sisters across the globe. It makes possible, in our own time, beautiful worlds we could never dream up on our own.

Wherever there is liberty, there is commerce. And this commerce breaks down the barriers that the state erects between people. Commerce ignores borders, draws people together whom the state would like to see separated. It always tends toward the service of human needs rather than civic priorities.

Without some liberty, however restricted it might be, and the commerce it sustains society would die in a matter of weeks. The state alone sustains nothing. This is why, when I travel, I’m very much drawn to finding and watching those sectors where liberty lives and observing the massive contribution it makes to the social order.

I take it for granted that the state is too big, invasive, and horrible — not just in Brazil, not just in the U.S., but absolutely everywhere. What’s really exciting is to see people finding the workaround and making lives for themselves, and that usually means some commercial activity that thrives despite every effort to kill it.

This is what I saw in so many beautiful ways in Brazil. To see liberty work is to see a model for building the future. This is why it is so inspiring to visit real markets, to see what people can do with investable wealth, to observe all the ways in which people manage to make good lives for themselves despite every obstacle.

This is the spirit of liberty. The great merit of the work of Mises Brasil is that it encourages intellectual change throughout society, building from the liberty that currently does exist toward a full-blown free society. This is the path of change. It requires that we see more than what is bad but also see what is good, and build from that.

Wendy McElroy’s forthcoming book from Spy Briefing Books is called The Art of Being Free. She raises a very profound question for serious libertarians. If the state went away, what would you be left with to give your life meaning? Find that thing and you will have found your North Star, the inspiration and driving force for building a vibrant and free future.

Hate the state, yes, but love liberty even more. Decry the thicket, yes, but then find the seed, plant it, and see the garden grow.

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