Fear and Romance

by Don Boudreaux on May 25, 2005

in Myths and Fallacies

Bob Higgs argues that governments grasp and maintain power chiefly by scaring the bejesus out of ordinary men and women – convincing people that all manner of hoodlums and hobgoblins will make life ceaselessly miserable, or perhaps even non-existent, for those unprotected by the beneficent care of the state.

Sounds cynical.

But Higgs’s thesis is on the mark. Indeed, the one small mark it misses is the very one responsible for the common, but mistaken, sense of cynicism that typical readers of Higgs’s essay will experience. This one small mark is misplaced romance.

People often feel romantic about collectives. And because the state claims to embody, or at least to represent, the collective, people feel romantic about the state. Why else do so many otherwise sensible people willingly, even proudly, wave good-bye to their sons and daughters marching off to fight in wars launched by strangers seated beneath marble domes in capitol buildings? Why else do people who count every cent of their change when buying cups of coffee so mindlessly slap their hands over their hearts and intone "Duty, Honor, Country" or "I pledge allegiance to…." as if these words are a magical incantation promising some sort of salvation? Why else do so many people take for granted that a piece of legislation entitled, say, "Fair Labor Standards Act" promotes fairness in labor markets?

Why do so many people romanticize the state? Is it because, as Higgs argues, they are duped into believing that without the state they would live lives of unending despair?  Methinks the answer is yes.

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