The phrase “tilting at windmills” is often meant as a swipe at someone who incorrectly perceives a non-existent or idealized enemy and pursues a course of action based on that misunderstanding. The phrase was inspired by the the character Don Quixote, who battles make-believe giants taking the form of windmills dotting the countryside in Miguel de Cervantes’ novel.
For minarchists, constitutionalists, and so-called patriots, their primary path for reigning in the abuses of the federal and state governments has been through the conventional political process — electoral politics, lobbying, and petitioning. It’s been a long path too, since 1787, when the nation’s second constitution was formulated.
More precisely, limited-state supporters have tried to scale back the powers of the federal government since President George Washington marched conscripted troops on Pennsylvania whiskey tax resistors in 1794. Many look back at the early days of the federal government with starry-eyed vision of a glorious republic that was the hallmark of what a government ought to be. Never mind that, at the time of its inception, there was never a common interpretation of the what the constitution meant or how far the federal powers reached. What they forget was that while, yes, the government was relatively small and insignificant in most people’s lives, that was because it was a new government. It was paying off a tremendous war debt and was biding its time to gain legitimacy. As Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton noted, the purpose of the whiskey tax had less to do with paying down the debt than “to advance and secure the power of the new federal government.”
Long Odds, Losing Payoff
Despite over 200 years of trying to reform the system, government at all levels continues to grow at an ever-expanding pace. Since the likes of Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson, advocates of limited government have failed to restrain government to its self-imposed, self-enforced, and self-interpreted constitution. Today, over half of Americans “now receive significant income from government programs,” according to one study. (That estimate is understated because even those who work in the private sector and have nothing to do with government contracts can also ride on the government’s dime if they support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example. They get to shift the costs of those wars onto future generations through deficit financing.) The figure above has nearly doubled since the 1950s, when just over a quarter of Americans relied on government for significant support. With aging baby boomers set to retire in the coming decade, the number is only going to increase. Limited-state advocates were unsuccessful 50 years ago, when government had far less influence. Now, with a 100 percent fiat printing press at its fingertips and 12-year indoctrination camps under its control, the chances of rolling back government by using government are even bleaker.
With data like this, is there any reason to believe that Americans who directly or indirectly receive government handouts are going to support limiting those handouts? After all, Social Security and government heath care recipients, who represent the largest direct beneficiaries, “earned” their entitlements.
Anecdotally, I know someone who believes a clandestine band of government officials orchestrated the 9/11 attacks for the fortune of the military-congressional complex yet actively sought and attained a position at one of the largest military contractors in the world. When asked to reconcile this belief and taking a job with a believed co-conspirator in the 9/11 attacks, it was “for the benefits,” I was told.
The election process requires 50 percent of the vote plus one. The odds of electing small-government advocates en mass is even longer considering those who receive government support are more likely to participate in the electoral process than others. Also consider that those who receive government support have family and friends. Is it reasonable to expect people, no matter how principled, to vote to dump their loved ones off Social Security or deny their grandparents access to a Medicare doctor? In my heart, if I had to cast the deciding vote, I could not do it. Maybe I am a hypocrite (fair enough), but I don’t think I’m much different from traditional voters. The social and familial pressures I’d face would be unbearable.
When I talk to people about reducing or eliminating a government program, it’s always the same objection. “What about the poor and the elderly?” I have no doubt that they would be cared for since nearly everyone has the same objection and government actively creates poverty. (I would be a little concerned if no one expressed concern for their well being.) Those concerns are appeals to our decency and ethics. Yet, the most prominent case being made for smaller government is on teleology grounds, a utilitarian argument, in effect conceding the ethical high ground to violence and theft. How backward.
A possible reason most limited-government supporters do not make a deontological (or ethics-based) case for liberty is because it would reveal their logical contradiction. They cannot support liberty, peace and a limited state, which necessarily is based on aggressive violence by its very existence, as any non-consensual territorial monopoly would be. Limited-state supporters and maximum-state supporters, thus, have already agreed that aggressive violence is necessary to solve social problems. The only disagreement is over how much violence is necessary.
Ignoring Imaginary Giants
As I see it, electoral politics is our Quixotic imaginary giant. It’s a distraction. No matter how many laws are on the books, all that matters is government currently has the legitimacy and the power to enforce them. If we undermine its legitimacy, its power won’t matter. They will still hold the gun in the room, but we will all know they have no bullets. We don’t need to convince a majority of our ideas either. We need a determined minority who will withdraw their consent in spirit and in practice. Many already have. It’s easy to get started. They practice their trade outside the strictures of government regulation, enjoying the benefits of an unregulated open market. Others can do the same and in such a way as to build trusted, decentralized networks of traders and entrepreneurs who directly and immediately benefit from these ideas.
I don’t propose abandoning the electoral process entirely. So long as a majority of people give the concept of democracy some weight, it provides a free soap box to spread our ideas. I wouldn’t look to electoral progress as a sign of our influence either, as the conventional political process is a lagging indicator of intellectual progress. Part of the reason that conventional politics can only be practiced marginally is because it demands “compliance with, acceptance of, and payment to its institutions,” as Samuel Edward Konkin III said.
Government enjoys the tacit approval of Americans to belligerently harass them and confiscate their wealth so the military and government-founded corporations can belligerently attack and confiscate the wealth of poorer peasants in other countries. There is nothing redeeming about it. It is extortion. But people put up with it because the devil they know is better than the devil they don’t know. We can cast a light on the possibilities of what freedom looks like by practicing it ourselves and leading by example. What could be more libertarian?
If we want to win, we’ve got to stop playing by the government’s approved rules. “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal,” as Emma Goldman quipped.
Instead of trying to free an entire country, we begin somewhere we have control — ourselves — making steady pragmatic progress individual by individual, and eventually social institutions will reflect these values we hold.