No government ought to exist for the purpose of checking the prosperity of its people or to allow such a principle in its policy.
Burke’s judgment—wise in my view—is assuredly at odds with most of the governments that have prevailed throughout history. What I wish to demonstrate is that those governments which “ought not to exist” spawn sub-governments which also should not exist. They are a bane to justice and human welfare!
To set the stage for this thesis, let’s note from history certain exceptional eruptions of truth—moves toward freedom. While none might be described as a state of perfection, each was attended by a prosperity previously unknown.
The first—about 5,000 years ago—was achieved by the Sumerians in the land that is now Iraq. Wrote Samuel Noah Kramer:
Its climate is extremely dry, and its soil, left to itself, is arid, wind-swept and unproductive . . . it had no trees for timber. Here, then, was a region with “the hand of God against it,” an unpromising land seemingly doomed to poverty and desolation. But the people who inhabited it . . . were endowed with an unusually creative intellect and a venturesome spirit. . . they turned Sumer into a veritable Garden of Eden and developed what was probably the first civilization in the history of man.1
Sumerian civilization passed from memory and was unknown until modern times. About a century ago some archeologists began excavating in the Middle East seeking more knowledge of Assyria and Babylonia. They had no inkling of an earlier civilization, Sumer. Excavating deeper than originally intended, they came upon fantastic surprises: beautiful buildings, artistic sculptures, and other works of art and, above all, clay tablets, prisms, cylinders, cones by the thousands, all done in cuneiform signs, setting forth their freedom philosophy, religion, and so on.
The chapter headings of another of Kramer’s books affords a list of the blessings of freedom that bloomed in this first civilization in Sumer:2
The First Schools
The First Bicameral Congress
The First Historian
The First Case of Tax Reduction
The First “Moses”
The First Legal Precedent
The First Pharmacopoeia
The First “Farmer’s Almanac”
The First Moral Ideals
The First Proverbs and Sayings
The First Biblical Parallels
The First “Noah”
The First Tale of Resurrection
The First Love Story
The First Literary Catalogue
Man’s First Golden Age
Why dwell on this ancient civilization at such length? Because it was freedom-oriented. Kramer was a leader in transcribing these cuneiforms into English; and it was his conclusion that:
The Sumerian was deeply conscious of his personal rights and resented any encroachment on them, whether by his king, his superior, or his equal. No wonder that the Sumerians were the first to compile law codes, to put everything down in “black and white” in order to avoid misunderstanding, misrepresentation, and arbitrariness [limited government].
Today, some of the world’s best museums have rooms filled with these cones, cylinders and the like—particularly the Louvre in Paris. While inspecting these years ago, I came upon “The Cones of Urukagina”—two of them—and among the inscriptions were these cuneiforms:
Meaning? “Freedom from Taxes.” Four centuries after this first civilization got under way, the city-state of Lagash had become a total bureaucracy—all parasites and no hosts. Urukagina succeeded in becoming King and he restored freedom, but in ten years he was overthrown—Lagash back into the same old mess! However, for a spell, we have one of the historical exceptions.
A second exception occurred in Athens, described by Edith Hamilton:
. . . the shadow of “effortless barbarism” was dark upon the face of the earth. In that black and fierce world a little centre of white-hot spiritual energy was at work. A new civilization had arisen in Athens, unlike all that had gone before.
Admittedly, it was not like ancient Sumer, but Athens was featured by an unparalleled freedom for that day and age. And Athens flourished for a time.
Move on to medieval times: Venice in the heyday of Marco Polo (1250-1325). Here was freedom to produce and to exchange with others thousands of miles away. Visit Venice today and have a look at St. Mark’s Church, aglitter with the wealth accumulated during Marco Polo’s time. Exceptional? Observe Venice and all of Italy today. In the same old mess again!
Take note of the French Physiocrats. These people were free traders; their motto was laissez-fare, that is, a fair field and no favoritism. In 1774 the new king, Louis XVI, appointed one of the leaders from this group—Turgot—as controller-general and minister of finance. What a scholar and opponent of runaway government! Most of the ideas and reforms he courageously advocated were consistent with the private ownership, free market, limited government way of life. A ramrod-straight Frenchman!
True, prosperity did not attend the efforts of the Physiocrats and for the simple reason that their freedom ideas were not put into effect. Why the failure? The opposition became so bitter and strong that the king, a political weakling, dismissed Turgot after two years in office.
Why, then, bring the Physiocrats into focus? One of the most remarkable events in all history flowered from their ideas and political exemplarity. Adam Smith had spent much time with these freedom thinkers, who thus contributed to the inspiration underlying The Wealth of Nations. This, in turn, led to the overthrow of mercantilism and brought in its stead the wonderful industrial revolution: the repeal of restrictive laws, the redirection of production to serve the masses of consumers, and an observance of that absolute principle: freedom in transactions. England, the freest nation on earth, enjoyed a prosperity never before experienced. Again, an exceptional instance of freedom in practice. Have a look at England today: the welfare state and the planned economy on the rampage—the people driven back into poverty!
And, finally, for the greatest exception of all time: the U.S.A.—for a time! And do not overlook the role of the Physiocrats and Smith as related to the American miracle. It was the simultaneous appearance of The Wealth of Nations and the Declaration of Independence, along with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights that put government in its proper place and left Americans free to act creatively as they pleased. The result: by far the greatest flourishing of creative energy ever known, and a prosperity beyond the dreams of all who had gone before.
The U.S.A. another exception? Yes, for we are witnessing the same kind of fall that England has experienced, except our fall is from a higher level. Another reason why we are still so prosperous is an enormous momentum from the past. The ways of freedom are still in our blood; they continue to serve even when not understood. Thank heaven, we still have time to bring about a reversal.
“Government” has been used since time immemorial and is plastered to the vocabularies of this and other countries. Talk about the tyranny of words!
We’re stuck with this notion of government in this sense: “to exercise authority over; direct; control; rule; manage.”
What is the thoughtful procedure for such a reversal? It is merely to think of our governmental agencies—tens of thousands—as they ought to be thought of: not “for the purpose of checking prosperity,” but rather to invoke a common justice and to keep the peace. Let them protect all creative actions against infringements by anyone. No life should be arbitrarily directed, controlled, ruled, managed; for no one—nor any combination of persons—has a moral right to exercise authority over any honest and peaceful action. Briefly, use the government to protect and defend, rather than plunder, peaceful persons.
Finally, to sub-governments. When governments exist as now—when we allow them to dictate our way of life—sub-governments are a natural and destructive consequence. A primitive political darkness besets mankind whenever and wherever the light of liberty is not seen.
Labor unions in today’s U.S.A. definitely qualify as sub-governments. Their power to control the positions of most officeholders—Federal, state and local—is obvious. Further, they have an enormous say as to whether this or that legislation shall be approved or rejected, and who shall or shall not hold political office.
Observe, also, the extent to which these sub-governments go beyond the political realm. They have a monopoly of millions of jobs in various industries. For instance, they coercively control wages—minimum and maximum—the hours their millions of members may work. So great is their power that many owners of businesses agree to their demands rather than face failure. Sub-governments, indeed!
True, the owners of countless business firms are the victims of a sub-government. Yet, many of them and their organizations are no less sub-governments than labor unions. Recall how the National Association of Manufacturers and the Chamber of Commerce of the United States, in the early days of the New Deal, sponsored the so-called National Industrial Recovery Act, a system of strangling controls. I was on the staff of the National Chamber at that time, and I remember it well.
Take note of the many chambers of commerce and trade associations that have the power to exact special privileges for their members. Those who indulge in this kind of action—“gains” at the expense of others—are sub-governments. Logically, they cannot censure labor unions. Nor can those who engage in collusion—with much success—to obtain tariffs, embargoes, quotas and numerous other restraints to free pricing and open competition.
The group that obtains a Gateway Arch for its city, or the thousands upon thousands of other groups which acquire “pyramids” for themselves at the expense of others, are sub-governments.
Again, here’s a man of such influence that he can, by a mere phone call to Washington, the state capital, the county seat, or the town hall, twist some political action to suit his whim and fancy. His number is legion—more than anyone will ever know. Each is a sub-government.
Perhaps the above is sufficient to suggest the fact that sub-governments multiply rapidly, with only an infinitesimal minority of the victims sensing anything wrong in this utterly destructive type of action.
The reasons are at least two-fold:
1. The victims have taken no note—are completely unaware—of the exceptional instances during the past 5,000 years of how freedom works its wonders—its blessings bestowed on everyone.
2. They’re stuck with “government” in its tyrannical meaning, believing that its function is “to govern, direct, manage.” Not the slightest idea of what is meant by limited government.
My respects, then, to our teachers: the Sumerians, the citizens of Athens in bygone days, the Venetians of Marco Polo’s time, the Physiocrats, Adam Smith and, above all, our Founding Fathers. Why not share their wonderful lessons with those who care to listen!