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Keeping Bad Company?

Dr. Mixon is Professor of Economics at Berry College, Mt. Berry, Georgia.

My eight-year-old son had climbed the wall of the nearby convent and was busily helping himself to some apples when the nuns apprehended him and his gang of four. When informed of his misdemeanor, I reacted like any other young parent: I blamed the company he was keeping. My innately blameless child had obviously fallen in with bad company. Time has taught me that he was, in fact, doing what young boys do.

A recent Daedalus Books catalogue brought this incident, now two decades past, back to mind. Bemoaning a lost rain forest, as chronicled in one of the catalogue’ s offerings, an editor lamented a world “where the government has lost control to bankers, builders, and outlaws.” The government, whose innate tendency is to do the right thing for the environment, has been keeping bad company.

Maturity and experience provided perspective regarding my son’s mischief. By now we have seen overwhelming evidence that when government defrauds its citizens, wastes resources, and behaves in a generally unseemly fashion it is not being misled by bad company; it is just doing what governments do. Why don’t we find this evidence compelling?

Albert Jay Nock explains why so many repeatedly give government one more chance: “Republicanism permits the individual to persuade himself that the State is his creation, that State action is his action, that when it expresses itself it expresses him, and when it is glorified he is glorified.”[1] They do not find the evidence compelling because they choose not to.

The misty-eyed, anthropomorphic view of the State is entirely consistent with the modern intellectual view, fathered by Rousseau. Paul Johnson describes this view: “The rich and the privileged, as an ordering force, would be replaced by the State, embodying the General Will, which all contracted to obey.”[2] Obedience is entirely appropriate, since Rousseau assures us, “The General Will is always righteous.”[3]

The General Will is echoed in Lincoln’s phrase “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Nock describes this phrase as “probably the most effective stroke of propaganda ever made in behalf of republican State prestige.”[4] Certainly, Lincoln’s sentiment shifts the presumption toward the State. Given this sympathetic view of the State, the citizen, as Nock says, “Looks on its failures and malfeasances with somewhat the eye of a parent, giving it the benefit of a special code of ethics. Moreover, he has always the expectation that the State will learn from its mistakes, and do better.”[5]

Among recent issues, this abiding faith in the State’s ability to reform itself is most obvious where the environment is concerned. As a result, serious analysts too often favor putting the fox in charge of the henhouse. The WorldWatch Institute observes, quite correctly, that “national landuse policies foster degradation . . . . For example, the governments of Brazil and Indonesia supported by World Bank loans—have sponsored resettlement programs that encourage people to clear tropical forests to create new cropland, even though that land will only sustain cropping for a few years.”[6] Nonetheless, it sees reformed government leading the crusade to improve the environment: “Over the next few decades, government policies will encourage investments that promote stability and endurance at the expense of those that simply expand short-term production.”[7]

Nock warns us to support moves to reduce government’s role in the environment rather than hoping that it will someday cease being hoodwinked by “bankers, builders, and outlaws.” If government’s role in the environment can be limited, Karl Hess, Jr., said, for example: “Human actions that are detrimental to the land will be limited in space and time. There will no longer be environmental mistakes on the scale of the Homestead Acts, fire suppression, below-cost timber sales [or] the federal grazing program . . .”[8] Reducing government’s ability to get into mischief, rather than quixotically trying to reform the incorrigible, should be our goal. []

  1.   Albert Jay Nock, Our Enemy, The State (San Francisco: Fox and Wilkes, 1992), p. 25.
  2.   Paul Johnson, Intellectuals (New York: Harper and Row, 1988), p. 28.
  3.   Quoted at ibid.
  4.   Nock, op. cit., p. 25.
  5.   Ibid.
  6.   WorldWatch Institute, State of the World, 1989 (New York: Norton, 1989), p. 29.
  7.   WorldWatch Institute, State of the WorM, 1990 (New York: Norton, 1990), p. 189.
  8.   Karl Hess, Jr., “Sacrificial Lands,” Reason, June 1993, p. 40.

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