Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on September 2, 2012

in Civil Society, Government Intervention, Hubris and humility, Seen and Unseen

… is from a 1945 campaign speech by Winston Churchill.  The audio of the speech is available here.  I found the quotation on page 173 of my colleague Larry White’s splendid 2012 book, The Clash of Economic Ideas:

No socialist government conducting the entire life and industry of the country could afford to allow free, sharp, or violently worded expressions of public discontent. They would have to fall back on some form of Gestapo, no doubt very humanely directed in the first instance. And this would nip opinion in the bud; it would stop criticism as it reared its head, and it would gather all the power to the supreme party and the party leaders, rising like stately pinnacles above their vast bureaucracies of Civil servants, no longer servants and no longer civil.

(Here, btw, is Mary Anastasia O’Grady’s review, in Barron’s, of Larry’s book.  [Unfortunately, to read the entire review requires a subscription to Barron's.])

Churchill’s remark suggests this question: At what point does a free society lose so much decentralization and so many non-state institutions that the forces of civil society and liberty that resist the collectivization of everything into one gigantic state-commanded mass disappear?

While the point at which such collapse into tyranny becomes inevitable surely is not reached when the state takes monopoly control, say, only of the building of roads and of administering the criminal law – and perhaps not reached even when the state becomes fairly described as a ‘welfare state’ – this point nevertheless surely is reached well before the government is “conducting the entire life and industry of the country.”

Put differently, just as those people are wrong who see the inevitability of totalitarianism in even the smallest extension of the state’s reach and grasp, also wrong are those people who dismiss as baseless any and all fears that, at some point, the state’s reach and grasp can become so huge that it will continue to grow until it wrings all freedom and civility out of society.

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