On the Impossibility of Limited Government and the Prospects for a Second American Revolution

June 28, 2008
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[This essay was originally published in Reassessing the Presidency: The Rise of the Executive State and the Decline of Freedom, edited by John V. Denson, pp. 667–696.

In a recent survey, people of different nationalities were asked how proud they were to be American, German, French, etc., and whether or not they believed that the world would be a better place if other countries were just like their own. The countries ranking highest in terms of national pride were the United States and Austria. As interesting as it would be to consider the case of Austria, we shall concentrate here on the United States and the question of whether and to what extent the American claim can be justified.

In the following, we will identify three main sources of American national pride, the first two of which are justified sources of pride, while the third actually represents a fateful error. Finally, we will look at how this error might be repaired.

I – A Country of Pioneers

The first source of national pride is the memory of America’s not-so-distant colonial past as a country of pioneers.

In fact, the English settlers coming to North America were the last example of the glorious achievements of what Adam Smith referred to as “a system of natural liberty”: the ability of men to create a free and prosperous commonwealth from scratch. Contrary to the Hobbesian account of human nature — homo homini lupus est — the English settlers demonstrated not just the viability but also the vibrancy and attractiveness of a stateless, anarchocapitalist social order. They demonstrated how, in accordance with the views of John Locke, private property originated naturally through a person’s original appropriation — his purposeful use and transformation — of previously unused land (wilderness). Furthermore, they demonstrated that, based on the recognition of private property, division of labor, and contractual exchange, men were capable of protecting themselves effectively against antisocial aggressors — first and foremost by means of self-defense (less crime existed then than exists now), and as society grew increasingly prosperous and complex, by means of specialization, i.e., by institutions and agencies such as property registries, notaries, lawyers, judges, courts, juries, sheriffs, mutual defense associations, and popular militias.1

Moreover, the American colonists demonstrated the fundamental sociological importance of the institution of covenants: of associations of linguistically, ethnically, religiously, and culturally homogeneous settlers led by and subject to the internal jurisdiction of a popular leader-founder to ensure peaceful human cooperation and maintain law and order.2

II – The American Revolution

The second source of national pride is the American Revolution.

In Europe there had been no open frontiers for centuries, and the intra-European colonization experience lay in the distant past. With the growth of the population, societies had assumed an increasingly hierarchical structure: of free men (freeholders) and servants, lords and vassals, overlords, and kings. While distinctly more stratified and aristocratic than colonial America, the so-called feudal societies of medieval Europe were also typically stateless social orders.

A state, in accordance with generally accepted terminology, is defined as a compulsory territorial monopolist of law and order (an ultimate decision maker). Feudal lords and kings did not typically fulfill the requirements of a state; they could only “tax” with the consent of the taxed, and on his own land every free man was as much a sovereign (ultimate decision maker) as the feudal king was on his.3

However, in the course of many centuries, these originally stateless societies had gradually transformed into absolute — statist — monarchies. While they had initially been acknowledged voluntarily as protectors and judges, European kings had at long last succeeded in establishing themselves as hereditary heads of state. Resisted by the aristocracy but helped along by the “common people,” they had become absolute monarchs with the power to tax without consent and to make ultimate decisions regarding the property of free men.

These European developments had a twofold effect on America. On the one hand, England was also ruled by an absolute king, at least until 1688, and when the English settlers arrived on the new continent, the king’s rule was extended to America. Unlike the settlers’ founding of private property and their private — voluntary and cooperative — production of security and administration of justice, however, the establishment of the royal colonies and administrations was not the result of original appropriation (homesteading) and contract — in fact, no English king had ever set foot on the American continent — but of usurpation (declaration) and imposition.

On the other hand, the settlers brought something else with them from Europe. There, the development from feudalism to royal absolutism had not only been resisted by the aristocracy but it was also opposed theoretically with recourse to the theory of natural rights as it originated within Scholastic philosophy. According to this doctrine, government was supposed to be contractual, and every government agent, including the king, was subject to the same universal rights and laws as everyone else. While this may have been the case in earlier times, it was certainly no longer true for modern absolute kings. Absolute kings were usurpers of human rights and thus illegitimate. Hence, insurrection was not only permitted but became a duty sanctioned by natural law.4

The American colonists were familiar with the doctrine of natural rights. In fact, in light of their own personal experience with the achievements and effects of natural liberty and as religious dissenters who had left their mother country in disagreement with the king and the Church of England, they were particularly receptive to this doctrine.5

Steeped in the doctrine of natural rights, encouraged by the distance of the English king, and stimulated further by the puritanical censure of royal idleness, luxury, and pomp, the American colonists rose up to free themselves of British rule.

As Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, government was instituted to protect life, property, and the pursuit of happiness. It drew its legitimacy from the consent of the governed. In contrast, the royal British government claimed that it could tax the colonists without their consent. If a government failed to do what it was designed to do, Jefferson declared, “it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”

III – The American Constitution

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