When Bullies Take Power

Limited Government Helps to Thwart Aspiring Dictators

Life is Beautiful, winner of Academy Awards for best foreign language film and best actor (Roberto Benigni), is a remarkable movie. This story about a Jewish father’s attempt to shield his son from a Nazi concentration camp is perhaps the most powerful movie ever made about the Holocaust. The movie makes a stunning impression precisely because it focuses on one family’s ordeal and juxtaposes horror and humor.

I’d like to know what audiences are thinking when they leave the theater. I suspect the standard reactions are along these lines: The Nazis sure were bad. Or, hate and intolerance are terrible. That’s fine, as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go nearly far enough.

I wonder how many people came away thinking: Government certainly is dangerous. How can we limit its power so it will never engage in systematic mass murder again? Too few, I fear.

Murderous hatred was certainly a necessary condition for the Holocaust. But it was hardly a sufficient condition. How many Jews could Hitler and his thugs have killed had Germany had a strong classical liberal tradition undergirding a constitutionally limited government. The question answers itself.

Murder on the scale perpetrated by Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, et al. requires a state; that is, a legitimized machinery of force. Only a state can concentrate the resources (thanks to taxation) necessary for such a monstrous feat. More important, only a state has the mystique (thanks to its schools, among other things) to command the sort of allegiance required to induce large numbers of people to cooperate or at least to stand by and let it happen. A dictator is just a bully with a state at his disposal.

Hate and intolerance are likely to be features of the social landscape for quite some time to come. Trying to avert future systematic mass murders by abolishing hate and intolerance is naive and futile—especially if government accumulates new powers in the process. A more efficacious and feasible course (albeit still extremely difficult) is to institutionalize strict limits on government power. When that’s achieved, aspiring dictators will have difficulty achieving office higher than neighborhood bully.

* * *

Thanks to a passel of government programs, Americans are increasingly getting the message that parenthood can’t be left to amateurs any longer. A century and a half after responsibility for schooling was lifted from parents’ shoulders, is the state ready to relieve them—starting with low-income people—of the rest of the job of rearing children? Susan Orr doesn’t like what she sees.

Programs such as Head Start are often defended as “investments” in children that promise to avoid later social problems like crime and dependency. John Hood looks at the data and isn’t impressed.

No matter how the advocates of gun control try to evade it, America’s founding generation was avidly pro-gun and not just for sporting purposes. Joseph Stromberg explores the relationship between firearms and the philosophy on which the United States was established.

The federal government did many things to turn what might have been a short recession into the Great Depression. In his series finale, Richard Timberlake explains that one of those things was the manipulation of the banking system’s reserve requirements.

One of Franklin Roosevelt’s first acts was to outlaw the possession and monetary use of gold. It was an assertion of executive power that would have far-reaching consequences, writes James Bovard.

The Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission get upset when a company achieves a dominant share of a market. Are consumers at risk from a dominant firm? Christopher Mayer ponders the question, showing that “market share” is not the simple concept that regulators think it is.

Is the market order compatible with authoritarianism? Even some champions of capitalism reluctantly believe so. John Marangos disagrees, arguing that economic freedom holds the seeds of political freedom.

Francis Hirst is virtually unknown today. But in his time, he was a prominent advocate of individual liberty and opponent of state power, both the welfare and warfare variety. Mark Brady introduces us to this forgotten English champion of freedom.

A government-controlled education system that only sought to teach children to read would have been bad enough. But what about a school system designed to recast society in a collectivist mold? Daniel Hager profiles an old proponent of such a system, George Counts.

Our columnists once again find provocative topics to chew on. FEE President Donald Boudreaux reminds us government isn’t a god, then looks at a claim that workers are being forced to work without pay and responds, “It just ain’t so!” Lawrence Reed sees differences between taxes and user fees. Doug Bandow explores President Clinton’s Balkans folly. Dwight Lee illustrates that even gifts entail opportunity costs. Mark Skousen thinks economic growth could double and go on indefinitely. Russell Roberts warns that nothing is free.

Our reviewers render verdicts on books about money, the welfare state, Mugwumps, the classics, secession, and the work of a major public choice economist.

—Sheldon Richman

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