Policies of Fear

Economist Ludwig von Mises, a man who witnessed the rise of totalitarian systems of fascism and communism, noted that totalitarian governments thrive in the soil of etatism, or “the trend toward government control of business”. On Mises’ view, etatism went hand-in-hand with economic nationalism and the glorification of war. There is no better example than Nazi Germany, the home of national socialism. Before Hitler could mobilize resources and support for his Lebensraum-oriented war machine, he first nationalized businesses, turning them from entrepreneurial market ventures to servants of the state. But what does that have to do with us?

Most Americans, whether on the left or right of the political spectrum, feel a natural repugnance when confronted with the thought of government controlling businesses. In other words, we want government to regulate business but we don’t want government to run it— we did learn, after all, about the horrors of fascism and communism over the past 50 years. Or something like that.

Or maybe not. Because things are different now. When faced with the fear of recession and “economic downturn’, giving our government free reign over businesses seems wise. After all, Obama is probably smarter than Bush— he’ll figure out a good way to spend that money and keep those businesses in line.

Watching Fox News, we know that the war on terror is a fight for our very existence. And who in their right mind would question sending more troops, more money, more weapons across the world when threatened with annihilation? After all, we trust our government to keep us safe.

In the 19th century, American colonists burned midwives, female artists, and “hysterical women” at the stake as witches because the gentlemen in power warned of their danger to society. In the 20th century, American courts routinely sentence consumers of illegal drugs to jail time for our safety; we have been convinced by scientists and jurists that doped-up hippies are more dangerous than doped-up housewives, the difference being in a piece of paper called a presciption. We want to be safe, but we know, as our government, the media, and experts of all stripes remind us, that danger lurks everywhere. Since most of us are not experts, we are unable to see all these hidden threats and dangers. But we know our government is omniscient and omnipresent— we see the mark of government in our homes, our towns, our textbooks, our medical diagnoses, almost every apsect of our lives— so we trust the guys in Washington to keep us safe.

Writing for the magazine Christian Century in 1945, after the end of World War II, author and educator Mortimer Smith expressed concern about the extent to which human beings will go along with anything when roused by fear:

“Through the cacaphonous chorus of the postwar planners runs one harmonious theme: the individual must surrender more and more of his rights to the state which will in return guarantee him what is euphemistically called security.”

The word “security”, like the word “safety”, is charged with meaning. But this meaning depends on where you stand. Or how much you can stand. Or your portfolio investment ratio. Or your overall level of anxiety. Or your religious upbringing. Or how many houses you own. For example, I know a few folks who just won’t feel secure or safe until the world wide web is banished. I’ve also had the misfortune of meeting a few who wouldn’t feel safe if their new neighbors turn out to be black or gay or Unitarian. My grandfather never felt safe around anyone who could speak Russian. If there is a political solution that would make all these exemplary people feel safe, it would be some form of totalitariansm.

Fear, in itself, is part of the human condition; it speaks to the tenuousness and frailty of our reasoning abilities. As such, it is hardly a sound foundation for public policy in a democratic republic. (One might argue, of course, that fear is an excellent foundation for public policy in a feudal monarchy or dictatorship.) The war on terror should not be the strategic equivalent of a man battling ghosts with a pillow. Rather, Obama’s call for more troops in Afghanistan should be preceded by a clear strategic reassessment of what might constitute victory. Our concerns about the economic downturn should not lead us to believe that one man, Barack Obama, has more knowledge and wisdom than all the tacit knowledge implicit in the workings of a market economy. We shouldn’t allow fear to trump common sense in the belief that one stimulus package, namely, Obama’s, might be better than another’s, namely, President George Bush’s. The search for practical, reasonable, and successful political solutions to the problems of terrorism and economic insecurity works best when government avoids promulgating the ideology of fear and, instead, focuses on doing a very small number of things very well.

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