Political election years are viewed in democracies as momentous events in the country’s history. Through ballots rather than bullets are chosen those who will hold political office, and through them the implementation and enforcement of the laws of the land and a variety of government policies considered to be to the “common good” or the “general welfare.” In other words, it is a time when those running for political office promise to citizens and voters a seemingly unending stream of government “goodies” either for what appears to be “for free” or at someone else’s expense, with implied little or no negative effect on the well-being of the society as a whole.
The Democrats and the Republicans place their political wares before the people of the country at their respective national conventions as the kickoffs of the electoral campaign leading up to the presidential voting in November. This year is different than most times in the past, though, due to the coronavirus. Normally, huge convention halls are filled with enthusiastic and cheering party members exuding their euphoria for one or more party candidates, each of whom pledges to lead the country to a new or renewed “promised land” with a panoply of “good things” that they will give to “the people.”
If they are elected to that presidential high office with its four-year lease to the White House, the land will flow with a plentifulness of milk and an especially tasty honey, compared to the devastating plagues and destructive locusts that will ruin the nation if the candidate of the other party were to win. Square Deals, New Deals and Fair Deals; New Frontiers and a Great Society; Hope and Change, and Making America Great Again. A bright and beautiful new America is waiting just around the corner, if only the right person with the right paternalistic policies is placed in political power. Pull the lever, punch the card, or mail in the ballot. Heaven on Earth is just your one vote away.
When Paternalism Was Viewed with Suspicion
Of course, this is not the way it has always been in America. There was a time when most Americans distrusted those who offered them politically provided heavens on Earth. Government was viewed as coercive, corrupt, and generally incompetent in its attempts to improve the material and other conditions of man through regulation and redistribution.
For instance, in the 1880s and 1890s a good number of American graduate students had gone off to and were returning from studying at universities in Imperial Germany, where they sat at the feet of German academics known as the “Socialists of the Chair,” who advocated a “new economics” of government intervention and the welfare state. When these American students were back in the United States, they became the “progressive” proselytizers for political paternalism. (See my article, “American Progressives are Bismarck’s Grandchildren”.)
However, for a long time, they ran up against a noticeable resistance and opposition by those Americans who appreciated that it was individual freedom and economic liberty that have made the United States a free and increasingly prosperous land of self-governing and self-responsible citizens. They warned that the new German-inspired paternalism was merely the old political pursuit of power wrapped in different ideological clothing.
For instance, the prominent (classical) liberal American journalist and founder of The Nation magazine, Edwin L. Godkin (1831-1902), pointed out in Problems of Modern Democracy (1896),
“It seems to be forgotten that the paternal system of government, in which what is called ‘the state’ plays the part of the earthly parent to the individual, has been tried on an extensive scale in various communities and at various periods of the world’s history, and with very poor success. I grant that it has not been tried under conditions as favorable as those which now exist. . . .
“But, on the other hand, the state has lost completely, in the eyes of the multitudes, the moral and intellectual authority it once possessed. It does not any longer represent God on earth. In democratic countries it represents the party which secured the most votes at the last election, and is, in many cases, administered by men whom no one would make guardians of his children or trustees of his property, . . .
“When I read the accounts given by the young lions of the [German] historical school of the glorious future which awaits us as soon as we get the proper amount of state interference with our private concerns for the benefit of the masses . . . I ask myself, How can anybody who attacks the old school [of laissez-faire liberalism] . . . be so oblivious of that most patent fact, that the capacity of the state for interfering with people profitably, has not grown in anything like the same ratio as the popular intelligence . . .?” (pp. 173-174)
However, in those closing years of the 19th century, Godkin also explained why this new paternalism was gaining ground by promising to get the interventions and regulations “right” this time for the good of the “working masses,” by assuring voters that “the politicians were the true fathers of their country, and would, on application, put an end to unjust distribution.” But he concluded by warning, “What they are asking us to do is simply to try a hazardous experiment in popular government” (p. 176).
Free and Responsible Citizens vs. Political Paternalism
Godkin was not the only one at that time in the waning years of the 19th century who was concerned about the drift of politics and policy in the United States. One other was J. Laurence Laughlin (1850-1933), the founder of the department of economics at the University of Chicago. In his widely used Elements of Political Economy (1896), Laughlin highlighted the dangers from the migration of the ideas of state paternalism to the United States, then in progress:
“Socialism, or the reliance on the State for help, stands in antagonism to self-help, or the activity of the individual. That body of people certainly is the strongest and the happiest in which each person is thinking for himself, is independent, self-respecting, self-confident, self-controlled, self-mastered. Whenever a man does a thing for himself, he values it infinitely more than if it is done for him, and he is a better man for having done it. . . .
“If on the other hand, men constantly hear it said that they are oppressed and down-trodden, deprived of their own, ground down by the rich, and that the State will set all things right for them in due time, what other effect can that teaching have on the character and energy of the ignorant than to the complete destruction of all self-help? They begin to think that they can have commodities which they have not helped to produce. They begin to believe that two and two make five. . . .
“Self-help leads to activity in production and healthy exertion; State-help tends to make all individual energy weak and flabby, because it teaches one to rely on an outside power. . . . The danger of enervating results flowing from dependence on the State for help should cause us to restrict the interference of legislation as far as possible; it should be permitted only when there is an absolute necessity, and even then, it should be undertaken with hesitation. . . .
“The right policy is a matter of supreme importance, and we should not like to see in our country the system of interference as exhibited in the paternal theory of government existing in France and Germany” (pp. 265 & 268).
Biden’s ‘Passion and Purpose’ Paternalism
Godkin and Laughlin’s concerns and fears have been the reality for more than a century now, with the essence of modern democratic politics being a contest between candidates all promising that bright and beautiful future through political paternalism. Democratic hopeful Joe Biden sounded that now -tiring song in his speech on August 20, 2020, accepting his party’s nomination as candidate for the presidency of the United States:
“For make no mistake. United we can, and will, overcome this season of darkness in America. We will choose hope over fear, facts over fiction, fairness over privilege. . . . It’s a moment that calls for hope and light and love. Hope for our futures, light to see our way forward, and love for one another. . . . It’s about winning the heart, and yes, the soul of America, . . .
“We can choose the path of becoming angrier, less hopeful, and more divided. A path of shadow and suspicion. Or we can choose a different path, and together, take this chance to heal, to be reborn, to unite. A path of hope and light. This is a life-changing election that will determine America’s future for a very long time. Character is on the ballot. Compassion is on the ballot. Decency, science, democracy. They are all on the ballot. . . .
“I see a different America [from President Donald Trump’s]. One that is generous and strong. Selfless and humble. . . . May history be able to say that the end of this chapter of American darkness began here tonight as love and hope and light joined in the battle for the soul of the nation.”
Compassion and Love Through Command and Control
All the usual elements are here. The country is in a “season of darkness” due to the current person in the White House. It is necessary to do away with the “fear,” “fiction,” and “privilege” that prevail across the land because “he” is the president. Vote for me and my party, and there will be “hope,” “facts,” and “fairness,” because my election will give the country a chance “to heal,” to be “reborn,” and to “unite.” It is a “life-changing election.” Such things as “compassion,” “decency,” “science,” and “democracy,” as well as “love” and “light,” are all in our reach, if you just vote for me.
But how will Joe Biden provide such things as compassion, decency, love, and light on the basis of science and democracy? By centrally planning a “fight” against the coronavirus with the federal government “protecting” the production of needed medical and related equipment being made in the United State, and out of the hands of “China and other foreign countries.” And what is produced in America will be directed and allocated by the Biden administration in Washington, D.C.
He will “rebuild” the economy with government-guaranteed or -supported jobs—all based on “dignity, respect, and community”—for massive infrastructure projects; a government-funded and -provided health care system; with more federal money for education, subsidized college, along with government paid for babysitting for the young and the elderly so others can go to work; with “empowered labor unions” made sure to have “rising wages,” based, obviously, on government mandates. Biden also promises to secure the “sacred obligation” of guaranteed Social Security for all. And let’s not forget a government-planned and -directed project for fighting climate change; Joe’s version, clearly, of a Green New Deal. (See my articles, “The Green New Dealers and the New Socialism,” “The Case for a Coercive Green New Deal?” and “Socialism and the Green New Deal Are Economically Impossible”.)
And don’t worry, the usual bunch of undeserving “wealthiest 1 percent and the biggest, most profitable corporations” will cover the bulk of the cost for the trillions that will be required to make it all possible so “real” people do not have to pay for all the manna from political heaven that “Uncle Joe”—the best friend of every current and future government-dependent person in America—will paternalistically provide.
And thrown into the mix to show that he is one with the latest and more radical “progressive” political left, he will work to promise his young supporters a world without racial injustice, less private gun ownership, more political props for entry level jobs, and a reversed climate change. All it takes, and clearly this may serve as the Biden catchphrase from his speech, is “passion and purpose” to set the world straight.
For Uncle Joe, ‘Community’ Means Bigger Government
At several places in his acceptance speech, Biden refers to “we” uniting to solve these complex social and economic problems, coming together to escape from the darkness of racism, sexism, and other forms of ignorance and bigotry. A government led and manned by people like Joe Biden will see to it that everyone has medical care, comfortable retirement, abd pleasant and well-paid jobs to work at, and basically will make everyone feel happy and confident with their lives since all the wants and worries of daily life will be lifted from everyone’s shoulders.
All we need is “love” and Joe Biden. But what does the use of “love” entail in the future Biden presidency? Uncle Joe told us very clearly: “We’ll have a national mandate to wear a mask [in the face of the coronavirus]—not as a burden, but to protect each other. It’s a patriotic duty.”
Here is the essence of Biden’s entire agenda and vision of “passion and purpose”: the use of governmental power, the imposing of coercive commands and compulsory prohibitions, to bring about the new promised land. How else can everyone be assured Social Security, health care for all, guaranteed “good paying” jobs, “affordable” higher education, and a racist-free society in which people’s thoughts, words, and actions will have to be surveilled and policed to bring about some litmus test of word and deed for race and gender “equality” in all facets of human interaction?
This is the Biden and Democratic Party meaning of “community.” Not the commonsense idea of people who live in relatively close proximity to each other forming voluntary associations and organizations to deal with local and related matters that they agree can be better dealt with through mutually agreed-to activities that seem not as easily handled through individual action or the narrower exchange relationships of the market.
No, instead, for Uncle Joe and company, community means political control and direction from a governmental center that will determine and dictate what each and every one of us is to do, as well as how and with whom. The real diversity of choices and options and ways of doing things that naturally emerge and take form out of the voluntary actions and interactions of people in the marketplace and the institutions of civil society are either restricted or superseded by government action, to which all must necessarily conform as decided by the “passions and purposes” of those in political power.
Many Don’t Know or Understand What Freedom Means
I must confess that as a classical liberal who values the autonomy of the individual to live, plan, and guide his own life as he peacefully and honestly thinks best, in voluntary and mutually agreed associations with others inside and outside the marketplace, I find pontifications and proposals such as those communicated by Joe Biden to the people of the United States to be so blatantly absurd and arrogant that it is astonishing that anyone would do anything other than laugh at them.
So why do so many of our fellow citizens buy into this, take this paternalistic messaging to be reasonable and rational and desirable? One reason is that far too many of our fellow citizens cannot, now, imagine a world in which these are not the promises to be expected from politicians running for office, because of the degree to which it is taken for granted that this is how “democracy” works.
That is, far too many people implicitly view government as a manna-from-Heaven machine that manages society and the economy to assure that “hurtful” and “harmful” things are either ameliorated or abolished through sundries of government programs and giveaways. If, as is inevitable, the “political means” fail to solve the “social ends” for which people have come to turn to government for answers, well, it was just because the wrong person or party was in power, or it’s a fixable mistake that can be avoided looking to the future if the same or different people are elected next time, to make sure it will not happen again.
The classical liberal essayist and author Albert Jay Nock (1870-1945) suggested that part of the reason for people constantly “falling for it” was because there are fewer and fewer people with any living memory, understanding, or appreciation for the fact that once there was a time when such extensive and pervasive political paternalism did not exist and that people found effective ways to deal with those problems of life through private and voluntary actions with others.
As Nock expressed it in a letter to a friend in 1944, with an obvious tone of despondency,
“If people grow up in adjustment to a system and are told that they have their liberties under it, the natural thing would be for them to think they have, for they would have nothing to true the statement up by, and it would not occur to them to test the statement by an exercise of imagination.
“What will a child think fifty years hence when he is told of a time when he would have been free to shine shoes or sell peanuts without the benefit of bureaucracy, or to sail to Europe with no passport and no questions asked? I doubt he will take it as all reflecting on his own condition, but only as a matter of vague antiquarian interest, like the fashions in bustles and bathing-suits” (Selected Letters of Albert Jay Nock [Caxton Printers, 1962] pp. 156-157).
We need to reawaken in our fellow citizens’ awareness that a good and free society can only come, as J. Laurence Laughlin said, through a people who practice a self-responsibility that comes with individual liberty, rather than living under and accepting political dependency. And that the lessons of history both in the past and present all have shown the failure of any and all systems of political paternalism, as Edwin L. Godkin already pointed out long ago. Is our political process any different today from when Godkin suggested in 1896 that those elected to political office are very often “men whom no one would make guardians of his children or trustees of his property?”
This is why, in times like our own, it is so essential for those who value and understand the classical liberal meaning of personal liberty, economic freedom, voluntary association, impartial rule of law, and the importance and role of a constitutionally limited government, to explain to and persuade our fellow citizens that what the Democrats and the Republicans are currently offering us is not the path to a promised “social justice” heaven on earth, or a way for people or a country to be “great.” But, rather, they lead to paternalistic tyrannies that once fully in place will be extremely difficult from which to extricate ourselves. (See my book For a New Liberalism.)
[Originally posted at the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER).]