Dr. DougIas is Professor of Sociology at the University of California at San Diego, though his studies of human action range beyond the usual professional or academic bounds of any one discipline. He has written and edited twenty-five books on various aspects of the social sciences and his articles have appeared In many professional Journals and other publications.
This article Is from the preface of his book, The Myth of the Welfare State, forthcoming.
“Nothing is more striking to a European traveller in the United States than the absence of what we term . . . government.” So wrote Alexis de Tocqueville of American society in the 1830s. What American in 1980 could possibly think of our society as one characterized by an “absence of government”?
Government at all levels now directly controls nearly forty percent of our wealth through direct taxation, yet anyone with a smattering of economic knowledge knows that the indirect taxation mandated by government regulation is also huge. American society today is a government-controlled society, a society in which all of us are controlled in innumerable ways by a vast number of proliferating government bureaucracies, agencies, committees, police powers, legislative bodies, judicial decisions.
Tocqueville recognized that government powers might someday grow in America into the huge bureaucratic administration of life that had earlier characterized the mercantilist monarchies of Europe. He realized that the welfare of any nation necessitated the legislation of general principles for the whole society by the central government. But he had forebodings that the American government would go far beyond that and turn mass democracy into democratic tyranny. If the central power, he argued, “after having established the general principles of government . . . descended to the details of their application; and if, having regulated the great interests of the country, it could descend to the circle of individual interests, freedom would soon be banished from the New World.” Any educated American in 1980 knows that our huge government bureaucracies now dictate minute details of our everyday lives and enforce their dictates with vast police powers.
America Today an Imperial Bureaucracy
America today is ruled by an Imperial State Bureaucracy headed by an Imperial President. Certainly there are significant differences in the forms of our imperial government; but any historian of the ancient imperial states or of those of the sixteenth-century mercantilist monarchies will easily recognize that the differences are only surface phenomena, while the basic realities of power and its administration are very much the same.
It is only political rhetoric and the ignorance of history now almost universal even among our so-called educated people that makes it possible for people to pretend that “America is still the land of liberty.” Certainly America is still more free by far than those nations now ruled over by the terrible socialist state bureaucracies. Indeed, we are still significantly more free than the cowed peoples of the democratic socialist nations of Scandinavia, once-Great Britain and elsewhere. But anyone who has studied the trends of recent decades knows that we are closing the political gap between ourselves and their state tyrannies at a terrifying rate.
We scholars who several years ago hoped selfishly that we might at least be spared in our lifetime the terrors of pseudo-democratic state tyrannies must now recognize that our hopes are fading rapidly. We social scientists know that in the past few years alone the federal bureaucracy has moved relentlessly to establish committees at all our universities to review our research and, thereby, to control what we can know and say about our society. What greater power can any government possibly wield than the power to determine what can be known and how it can or cannot be known?
And yet there has been no great outcry, no widespread screams of outrage or anguish from our people. The reason for that is that they are firmly in the grip of the myth of the welfare state, the myth that their individual welfare depends upon and is served by the ineluctable ratchet-up in state powers. They believe this myth for many irrational non- reasons. The politicians are paying them off with their own tax-monies and erstwhile liberties: the politicians use police powers to take from them their wealth and their individual liberties to determine how they will live, and then return part of this to them under government constraints—but only on the proviso that they support the politicians who use police powers to take away their wealth and their liberties. It is not too difficult to see how our peoples, in the grip of the great temptation of greed and mystified by the pseudo- science theories that tell them it is all necessary to surrender their liberties in order to have liberties, can be so easily deceived.
Even more ominous than the relative lack of outcry from our people has been the lack of serious outcry from our intellectuals and scientists. Most ominous of all, it is they who have been clamoring the loudest for ever greater imperial state controls. It is even the academics who administer the thought control programs of the federal bureaucracies now trying to dictate how we shall do research. Those who remember that it was the intellectuals and social scientists in Germany who clamored for more state power over German life, and they who repressed any opposition to Nazi thought controls once they came to power, will recognize that the seeds of mass-democratic tyranny are already firmly planted in our society.
The most effective tyranny, and thus the most terrible tyranny, is always imposed by the people upon themselves, at least in the beginning, and they have almost always done such an irrational thing only when their intellectual leaders have convinced them that such tyranny is necessary and good—that it will serve the greatest welfare of the people themselves.
Mass democratic tyranny will probably always be built upon the two great political deceptions of mass equality and mass welfare. Those deceptions will take many specific forms, always conforming to the particular political rhetoric already widely shared in a particular society, but the general message will be the same and so will the result.
In a mass democracy that has triumphed over all traditional values there is no truth, no justice, no social welfare beyond that of the voice of the people. The people determine what is just and good they determine everything by their votes. One man, one vote. One vote, one unit of truth and morality. Majority rules. More votes, more truth, more morality. As our “liberal” intellectuals today would say, what could be more conducive to the general welfare than for all individuals to have an equal voice (vote) in deciding what is to their welfare? Even when they do not say so, most of our intellectuals have now so completely absorbed this tenet of mass democracy that they have nothing but contempt for those who try to remind them of the ancient truth that direct rule by collective ignorance—by mobocracy—always leads in time to tyranny, first to the tyranny of the majority and then to the tyranny of the few when the ignorance of the majority has produced its inevitable social catastrophes.
In America today the same nuclear physicist who would laugh uproariously at the thought that the average businessman should have a vote on whether to allow physicists to study the atom would immediately turn around and insist that he as a citizen and nothing more should have the right to vote on whether the owners of Texas gas wells should have the right to set their own prices for their gas, whether the Federal Reserve should increase the money supply at a faster rate, or whether the federal government should “stimulate” the international economy by running budget deficits and “talking down” the dollar in exchange markets.
The same sociologist who asserts with contempt that the average politician knows nothing about the realities of drug use and their effects would assert with aplomb, and without thinking to consult a single study or learning economic theory, that the government should “solve” the problem of inflation by imposing wage and price controls upon all those businessmen who “set their prices to rip-off obscene profits.”
And the average citizen voter, who can barely read at the so-called tenth grade level, asserts blandly that his votes justify the politicians’ use of police powers to dictate to doctors the standards of medical care and the maximum charges they can ask for their services.
Confusing the Issue
Why? Why does the physicist think he should have a vote to determine what price Texas gas owners can ask for their gas, whereas it is ludicrous for the Texan to vote on whether the physicist be allowed to investigate the atom? Because, says the physicist, the price of gas is a “political question” that affects us all, not a question of scientific fact. But our physicists have forgotten that there are few things in a world of interdependent markets that do not affect almost everything else in some way. What could be more important in determining the future—or lack of future—of all human beings than nuclear re search? By our physicist’s own standards, what, then, could be more “political,” and thus more subject to decision by mass vote, than nuclear physics?
And, if our sociologist can use his vote to dictate the asking price for gas in Texas, why cannot the gas owner use his vote to dictate the grading standards of the sociologist, or his hiring standards, or his subject of research?
And is it not totally logical for the same politician who dictates medical standards and prices of doctors to dictate for our Mr. and Mrs. Every person the standards of their work, the prices of their labor, and ultimately the standards of their most intimate acts and thoughts?
The logic of totalitarian collectivism is simple, brutal and entirely consistent. Once a people has decided, whether actively or more commonly, by default, to allow politicians to decide by legislation, and without severe constraints of custom or law, what is right and wrong in a basic realm of life like property rights, then there can be no logical constraint upon their exercise of power in other realms of life.
As John Locke saw, even in the vastly more simple and self-contained society of the seventeenth century, without property rights no other rights can long be sustained. The government that controls all of my property controls my right to the pursuit of happiness, my right to free speech and to the publication of that speech, my right to take a spouse or have children, my right to life itself for all things of life are totally dependent upon the material goods and the subjective controls of those goods we call property and property rights. The government that has the right to legislate gas prices in Texas, or income distribution nationwide, has every logical right to dictate research standards in physics, hiring standards in sociology, wage rates for black teenagers in New York, parental care standards for all parents, and—everything else in life.
When the American people used the power of their votes to give the politicians the power to legislate away our ancient economic rights they unknowingly gave them power to legislate away all our ancient rights. The American Imperial State Bureaucracy is now pursuing that relentless logic of totalitarian collectivism at an astounding rate. Once our people had accepted that totalitarian logic, there was nothing left to protect us but our isolated individual sense of outrage and our underground resistance movements. Each sector of the economy, each corporation, each besieged individual is now left alone to fight his rearguard resistance against the unconstrained might of the Common Welfare, the Welfare State.
The welfare state is built on the totalitarian logic: when the goal of the state becomes that of pursuing, without basic constraints of custom or law, the common welfare of all, then the welfare of any individual or sub-group becomes irrelevant. Thus we eventually arrive at the logical conclusion of the Egalitarian Welfare State, the conclusion Rousseau reached two centuries ago: the equal welfare of all demands that the individual welfares of everyone be totally sacrificed. And so the modern juggernaut of the Welfare State trundles onward, crushing beneath its bureaucratic powers the ancient freedoms of one group after another—to serve the Welfare of All, of course. Today the businessmen, the gas producers and the steel makers; tomorrow the doctors; then the parents; and someday the Whole World.
The opposite of the logic of totalitarian collectivism is, of course, the logic of individualist freedom. The logic of collectivism computes the individual welfare, if at all, in terms of the collective welfare, that is, in terms of “aggregates” like gross national welfare, income distributions, and distributive justice. The logic of individualist freedom does the opposite, that is, it computes the social welfare, if at all, in terms of the individuals’ welfares as defined and experienced by the individuals.
The American Constitution was built upon the logic of individualist freedom. The American government was founded to promote the common welfare, but to the eighteenth-century liberal minds of our constitutionalists that meant the exact opposite of what it means to the average American today.
Because they assumed that welfare could only be defined individually, the American constitutionalists intended the government to promote the common welfare by remaining as small and weak as it could while serving the one and only collective form of welfare, that of the common defense against foreign powers which wanted to impose Big and Powerful Government on Americans. Thus it is that they discovered that revolutionary American idea of individual freedom: minimizing the power of government will maximize the welfare of all. Thus it is that when Tocqueville visited America in the 1830s he found a remarkable “absence” of government and an equally remarkable high level of individual welfare—a land of freedom and of peace and plenty.
The government-dominated America of 1980 is a deeply unhappy nation, a nation torn by deep dissension as never before since the civil war. Each American today is fighting his own desperate guerrilla warfare against the relentless growth of government power. Worst of all, the massive use of government power to tax and control each of us “for the common welfare,” has logically turned each of us into the enemy of all the others.
Our collectivist Marxists tell us that the free market capitalism of Tocqueville’s era was evil because it turned each man against his neighbor in economic competition. But the truth is the exact opposite. America under the free market was a land of pervasive friendliness and cooperation, of neighborly feeling and public interest politics, of self- sacrificing parents and children and charitable citizens. Now that we are all fighting desperately against each other for our shrinking piece of the welfare-state pie, we have become a surly and terribly conflictive society, a society dominated by selfish pressure- group politics, a society of sniveling self-pity in which each person blames “the society” or, more appropriately, “the Government” for all of his problems and demands that the Government solve his problems for him, a society in which parents have little control over their children and parents are deserted to the cold treatment of the state-financed nursing home, a society in which charity has been taxed away, a society in which love itself is poisoned by the political conflict for a collectivist “Equality.”
Self-reliance was once the iron string to which all American hearts beat, but it was a self-reliance buttressed by all the strength of family love and cooperation, by neighborly cooperation, and by a spirit of public interest. The hearts of Welfare-state Americans beat to the totalitarian tunes of bureaucratic regulations and state-dependency. A free America was a land in which the average man and woman believed that their nation was like a shining city on a hill toward which all human beings could look longingly and hopefully. Welfare-state America is a land without pride, a nation in which the best have replaced a sense of public interest with a sense of public shame.