In Our Enemy, the State, Albert Jay Nock distinguished between the government and the State. Sadly, these terms have become interchangeable in everyday parlance: “Statism” is simply a more euphonious and serviceable word for “governmentism.” But until the New Deal, while virtually everyone would have recognized that the United States had a government, whether it had a “state” would have been a much more complicated question. For Nock, the government is the machinery created by the Founders to protect our individual rights, our shores from foreign enemies, and, well, that’s about it. Even a police force was an iffy proposition for Nock. “When Sir Robert Peel proposed to organize the police force of London, Englishmen said openly that half a dozen throats cut in Whitechapel every year would be a cheap price to pay for keeping such an instrument of tyranny out of the State’s hands,” Nock wrote. “We are all beginning to realize now that there is a great deal to be said for that view of the matter.”
The State — properly capitalized — is a different creature altogether from mere government. It is an instrument of will. It seeks to tell people how to live. Worse still, it uses force to do so. Worst of all, its paramount purpose is not answering the question “What’s best for the people?” — that is at most a secondary consideration — but “What is good for the State?”
Kevin Williamson’s new book is quite possibly the best indictment of the State since Our Enemy, the State appeared some eight decades ago. It is a lovely, brilliant, humane, and remarkably entertaining work.
Though he sometimes sounds like a reasonable anarchist, Williamson is not in fact opposed to all government. But he is everywhere opposed to anything that smacks of the State. There’s an old line about how to carve an elephant: Take a block of marble and then remove everything that isn’t an elephant. Williamson looks at everything we call the State or the government and wants to remove everything that shouldn’t be there, which is quite a lot. In what may be my favorite part of the book, he demolishes, with Godzilla-versus-Bambi ease, the notion that only government can provide public goods. In fact, most of what government provides are nonpublic goods (transfer payments, subsidies, etc.), and a great deal of what the market provides — from Google and Wikipedia to Starbucks restrooms — are indisputably public goods.
Williamson offers a wonderfully Nockian tutorial on how all states — and nearly all governments — begin as criminal enterprises, while acknowledging that not all criminal enterprises are evil. Criminals — whether we’re talking Somali warlords, Mafia dons, or the Tudors of England — often provide vital goods and services, from food to security. Often what makes them criminal is that they are competing with the State monopoly on such things.
Sidestepping the distinction between State and government, Williamson instead identifies what causes the Dr. Jekyll of government to transform into the Mr. Hyde of the State. He calls this elixir “politics.”
Williamson’s core argument is that politics has a congenital defect: Politics cannot get “less wrong” (a term coined by artificial-intelligence guru Eliezer Yudkowsky). Productive systems — the scientific method, the market, evolution — all have the built-in ability to learn from failures. Nothing (in this life at least) ever becomes immortally perfect, but some things become less wrong through trial and error. The market, writes Williamson, “is a form of social evolution that is metaphorically parallel to biological evolution. Consider the case of New Coke, or Betamax, or McDonald’s Arch Deluxe, or Clairol’s Touch of Yogurt Shampoo. . . . When hordes of people don’t show up to buy the product, then the product dies.” Just like organisms in the wild, corporations that don’t learn from failures eventually fade away.
Except in politics: “The problem of politics is that it does not know how to get less wrong.” While new iPhones regularly burst forth like gifts from the gods, politics plods along. “Other than Social Security, there are very few 1935 vintage products still in use,” he writes. “Resistance to innovation is a part of the deep structure of politics. In that, it is like any other monopoly. It never goes out of business — despite flooding the market with defective and dangerous products, mistreating its customers, degrading the environment, cooking the books, and engaging in financial shenanigans that would have made Gordon Gekko pale to contemplate.” Hence, it is not U.S. Steel, which was eventually washed away like an imposing sand castle in the surf, but only politics that can claim to be “the eternal corporation.”
The reason for this immortality is simple: The people running the State are never sufficiently willing to contemplate that they are the problem. If a program dedicated to putting the round pegs of humanity into square holes fails, the bureaucrats running it will conclude that the citizens need to be squared off long before it dawns on them that the State should stop treating people like pegs in the first place. Furthermore, in government, failure is an exciting excuse to ask for more funding or more power.
Fans of Williamson’s “Exchequer” blog on NRO will not be surprised to learn that the “end” growing near has to do with the huge debt crisis threatening the U.S. and the world. He runs the reader through all of that with an (apparent) ease that should arouse envy in any writer and shame in nearly every economist. It is Williamson’s hope that the fiscal destruction he sees ahead will give birth to the kind of creativity that has improved so many parts of life outside the deadening hand of politics.
The End Is Near made me think fresh about all manner of things, and I’m grateful for it. But I also came away with some disagreements. First, in a very obvious sense, politics can get less wrong. The American Founding is argument-settling proof of that. By recognizing our inalienable rights, the folly of hereditary titles, the evil of arbitrary power, the value of property, the need for checks and balances, etc., the Founders created a system to keep politics — or what Nock would call the State — at bay as much as possible. Indeed, one of the problems with Williamson’s use of the term “politics” is that it is too capacious. Many times when he is talking about the ethical deficiencies of politics, what he is really talking about are the deficiencies of what Hayek and others would call (state) “planning.” In that context, Williamson is quite convincing. But he loses me when he says that politics in and of itself cannot be “ethical.”
Even taking into account the obligatory caveats about slavery under the Constitution, the Founders’ system was indisputably less wrong than all that came before it. I doubt that Williamson would disagree with that. The problem, as the Founders would instantly recognize, is that a people not reinforced with the dogmatic conviction that the State or Williamson’s “politics” must be kept at bay will, in due time, become seduced by politics. That is a huge problem today (see “Julia, Life of”). Still, however much the Constitution may have failed to completely fend off the marauders of politics, we’ve yet to have our Alamo.
For related reasons, I think he’s slightly wrong, or not entirely right, when he says: “The voluntary exchange is not an ethical principle — it is only a process, another piece of social software.” While this may be a question of semantics, I would argue vociferously that voluntary exchange — i.e., commercial transactions between buyers and sellers — involves an ethical principle because it satisfies human wants and needs in a non-coercive manner, something the State is by definition incapable of doing (there will always be at least one taxpayer who objects to what the government is doing, rendering literally every government action somewhat coercive). Moreover, respect for voluntary exchange yields an obvious and indisputable moral good: the alleviation of poverty and an increase in human happiness. Voluntary exchange is the hamster turning the wheel of nearly all material, technological, and economic advancement. A politics that recognizes the sanctity, or at least legitimacy, of commerce is ethically superior in principle for doing so. The politics of North Korea are less right than the politics of the United States, for lots of reasons; one of them surely stems from the fact that we recognize some limits on where politics can or should intrude. The insight that politics should stay out of some things, learned after centuries of religious wars and other horrors, was hard earned, and we shouldn’t diminish its importance or dismiss it with a disdain for the bathwater of “politics.”
Where I think Williamson is entirely right is that politics — or the State — is being utterly humiliated by the accomplishments of the private sector. For millennia, politics and technology evolved at about the same rate, which is to say very slowly. Since the Enlightenment, to pick a serviceable benchmark, the rate of change and progress (not the same thing, after all) outside the realm of politics has increased geometrically while the rate of change within politics has rarely achieved even arithmetic advance. Indeed, politics is often prone to regression. That’s because politics is governed by the Deweyan fallacy that planners are smart enough to run other people’s lives and businesses. Meanwhile, the realm of Nockian social power is fueled by the Hayekian insight that freedom fuels problem-solving. Individual liberty yields the iPhone. Politics protects the post office.
My disagreements, while philosophically serious, are ultimately minor when rendered as judgments on this book. Indeed, one of the things that make it so wonderful — and so reminiscent of Nock — is that it invites the reader to question first principles and come to his own conclusions. If you want to keep the government the way it is, Williamson is essentially saying, fine. But you should have no illusions about what you’re keeping.
— Jonah Goldberg is the author of Tyranny of Cliches and a contributing editor at National Review.