Neither Liberty nor Safety: Fear, Ideology, and the Growth of Government

Neither Liberty nor Safety: Fear, Ideology, and the Growth of Government

by Robert Higgs

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The history of the United States, from the 19th century to present day, is included in this examination of the very foundations of unwarranted government intrusiveness that illuminates the two essential elements that have led to the expansion of the state's authority—the ideology that the government should serve as a savior whenever people face threats to their well-being and the public fear that follows the perception of a large-scale threat to peace or prosperity. When these two factors operate simultaneously, people demand that the government take protective measures on their behalf. Hence, in an outburst of opportunism, the growth of government accelerates during the crisis, at the expense of liberty. Dr. Higgs's conclusion is undeniable: placing confidence in the government to function as savior or problem solver does not lead to the peace, prosperity, and safety that people crave. On the contrary, that misplaced confidence ultimately leads to tyranny and diminished security—in Benjamin Franklin's words, "Neither liberty nor safety."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781598130980
Publisher: Independent Institute, The
Publication date: 04/01/2007
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 224
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Robert Higgs is a senior fellow in political economy for The Independent Institute and serves as editor of the Institute's quarterly journal, The Independent Review. He is the author of Against Leviathan; Crisis and Leviathan; Depression, War, and Cold War; and Resurgence of the Warfare State; and the editor of The Challenge of LibertyEmergence of the Modern Political Economy; and Hazardous to Our Health? He lives in Covington, Louisiana.

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Neither Liberty Nor Safety

Fear, Ideology, and the Growth of Government

By Robert Higgs

The Independent Institute

Copyright © 2007 The Independent Institute
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59813-098-0


Fear: The Foundation of Every Government's Power

Neither a man nor a crowd nor a nation can be trusted to act humanely or to think sanely under the influence of a great fear.

— Bertrand Russell, "An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish" (1943)

[F]ear can debilitate us, making us susceptible to the importunities of those who promise to alleviate our fears if only we will give the direction of our lives over to them. In this manner are institutions born, with the state demanding the greatest authority over us, and promising release from our uncertainties.

— Butler Shaffer, "A World Too Complex to Be Managed" (2006)

All animals experience fear — human beings, perhaps, most of all. Any animal incapable of fear would have been hard pressed to survive, regardless of its size, speed, or other attributes. Fear alerts us to dangers that threaten our well-being and sometimes our very lives. Sensing fear, we respond by running away, by hiding, or by preparing to ward off the danger. To disregard fear is to place ourselves in possibly mortal jeopardy. Telling people not to be afraid is giving them advice they cannot take (Bloom 2004, 82–84). Even the man who acts heroically on the battlefield, if he is honest, admits he is scared. "He would be a sort of madman or insensible person," Aristotle wrote, "if he feared nothing, neither earthquakes nor the waves" (1938, 249). Our evolved psychological and physiological makeup predisposes us to fear actual and potential threats, even those that exist only in our imagination.

And thy life shall hang in doubt before thee; and thou shalt fear day and night, and shalt have none assurance of thy life. (Deuteronomy 28:66)

The people who have the effrontery to rule us, who dare call themselves our government, understand this basic fact of human nature. They exploit it, and they cultivate it. Whether they compose a warfare state or a welfare state, they depend on fear to secure popular submission, compliance with official dictates, and, on some occasions, affirmative cooperation with the state's enterprises and adventures (Bloom 2004, 85–93). Without popular fear, no government would endure more than twenty-four hours.

David Hume argued that all government rests on public opinion, and many others have endorsed his argument (e.g., Mises [1927] 1985, 41, 45, 50–51, 180; Rothbard [1965] 2000, 61–62), but public opinion is not the bedrock of government. Public opinion itself rests on something deeper and more primordial: fear. Hume recognized that the opinions that support government receive their force from "other principles," among which he included fear, but he considered these other principles to be "the secondary, not the original principles of government." He argued: "No man would have any reason to fear the fury of a tyrant, if he [the tyrant] had no authority over any but from fear" ([1777] 1987, 34, emphasis in original). We may grant Hume's statement yet still maintain that, regardless of the nature of the bonds between the ruler and his palace guard, the government's authority over the great mass of its subjects rests fundamentally on fear.

Murray Rothbard considers fear briefly in his analysis of the anatomy of the state, classifying its instillment as "another successful device" by which the rulers secure from their subjects acceptance of or at least acquiescence in being dominated — "[t]he present rulers, it was maintained, supply to the citizens an essential service for which they should be most grateful: protection against sporadic criminals and marauders" ([1965] 2000, 65) — but Rothbard does not view fear as the fundamental basis on which the rulers rest their domination, as I do here. Of course, as many scholars have recognized, ideology is critical in the long-term maintenance of governmental power. Yet every ideology that endows government with legitimacy requires and is infused by some kind(s) of fear. Unlike Rothbard, who views the instillment of fear in the subjects as one "device" among several by which the government maintains its grip on the masses, I contend that public fear is a necessary (though perhaps not a sufficient) condition for the viability of government as we know it.

Jack Douglas comes closer to my own view when he observes that myths (a term he uses in roughly the same way that I use the term ideologies) "are predominantly the voice of our emotions, the images of our passionate hopes and fears, or our passionate longings and hatreds" (1989, 220, emphasis added; see also 313 on "the very powerful fear of death that reinforces all of the others" [that is, all of the other natural passions]). In his extended argument about the longstanding, overarching "myth of the welfare state," however, Douglas places more emphasis on the element of hopes (millennialism) than on the element of fears. Yet even ideological hopes, I maintain, often center on people's hopes for governmental deliverance from their fears. As David Altheide remarks, "People do want to be 'saved' and 'freed,' but they want to be saved and freed from fear, and this is what makes the [mass media's] messages of fear so compelling and important for public policy and the fabric of our social life" (2002, 15–16).

The fear need not be of the government itself and indeed may be of the danger from which the government purports to protect the people. Of course, some of the threats that induce subjects to submit to government in the hope of gaining its protection and thereby calming their fears may be real. I am not arguing that people who look to government for their salvation act entirely under the sway of illusory threats, although I do insist that nowadays, if not always, many public fears arise in large part if not entirely from stimulation by the government itself. If the people's fears may be (1) of the government itself, (2) of real threats from which the people look to the government for protection, and (3) of spurious threats from which the people look to the government for protection, we must admit that the relative importance of each type of fear varies with time and place. In every case, however, the government seeks to turn public fear to its own advantage. "Directing fear in a society is tantamount to controlling that society. Every age has its fears, every ruler has his/her enemies, every sovereign places blame, and every citizen learns about these as propaganda" (Altheide 2002, 17, see also 56, 91, 126–33, 196, and passim).


And my heart owns a doubt Whether 'tis in us to arise with day And save ourselves unaided.

— Robert Frost, "Storm Fear" (1913, reprinted in 1979, 10)

Thousands of years ago, when the first organized groups recognizable as governments were fastening themselves on people, they relied primarily on warfare and conquest. As Henry Hazlitt observes, "There may have been somewhere, as a few eighteenth-century philosophers dreamed, a group of peaceful men who got together one evening after work and drew up a Social Contract to form the state. But nobody has been able to find an actual record of it. Practically all the governments whose origins are historically established were the result of conquest — of one tribe by another, one city by another, one people by another. Of course there have been constitutional conventions, but they merely changed the working rules of governments already in being" ([1976] 1994, 471).

This view of the origin of the state has great antiquity. As long ago as the late eleventh century, Pope Gregory VII (1073–85), the leader of the momentous Papal Revolution that began during his papacy and ran its course over a span of nearly fifty years (even longer in England), wrote: "Who does not know that kings and princes derive their origin from men ignorant of God who raised themselves above their fellows by pride, plunder, treachery, murder — in short by every kind of crime — at the instigation of the Devil, the prince of this world, men blind with greed and intolerable in their audacity?" (qtd. in Berman 1983, 110).

Although certain analytical purposes may be served at times by likening government to a form of exchange between the ruler and the ruled, à la public-choice theory, or by supposing that government might "conceptually" reflect a unanimously accepted "social contract," à la constitutional economics, these characterizations fail to acknowledge government's "essentially coercive character" and bear little resemblance to the actual historical establishment of governments — or to their functioning today (Yeager 1985, 269–72 , 283–85, 291; see also Olson 2000, 2, 11). The subjugation theory, in stark contrast, rests upon a mountain of historical evidence. As Ludwig von Mises remarks, "For thousands of years the world had to submit to the yoke of military conquerors and feudal lords who simply took for granted that the products of the industry of other men existed for them to consume." Moreover, "[t]he supplanting of the militaristic ideal, which esteems only the warrior and despises honest labor, has not, by any means, even yet been completely achieved" ([1927] 1985, 151).

Fear For Your Life and Pay Tribute to the Rulers

Losers who were not slain in the conquest itself had to endure the subsequent rape and pillage and in the longer term had to acquiesce in the continuing payment of tribute to the insistent rulers — the stationary bandits, as Mancur Olson (2000, 6–9) aptly calls them. Subjugated people, for good reason, feared for their lives. Offered the choice of losing their wealth or losing their lives, they tended to choose the sacrifice of their wealth. Hence arose taxation, variously rendered in goods, services, or money (Nock [1935] 1973, 19–22). For example, in thirteenth-century Bavaria, perhaps the most advanced of all the German principalities at the time, "the entire population of the duchy was taxed, free and unfree, secular and ecclesiastical; and the taxes were administered by a corps of ducal officials" (Berman 1983, 510). Max Spindler remarks that this "tax obligation ... made the existence and the sovereignty of the state palpable to every single person" (from a 1937 work in German, qtd. in translation in Berman 1983, 510).

Subjugated people, however, naturally resent the imposed government and the taxation and other insults it foists on them. Such bitter people easily become restive; should a promising opportunity to throw off the oppressor's dominion present itself, they may seize it. A historical example demonstrates this point clearly. "In the early thirteenth century King Canute II [of Denmark] tried to issue taxes, collect fines, and, in general, assert royal authority, but he was overthrown and assassinated" (Berman 1983, 515). Even if the people mount no rebellion or overt resistance, however, they quietly strive to avoid their rulers' exactions and to undermine their rulers' apparatus of government. As Machiavelli observed, the conqueror "who does not manage this matter well, will soon lose whatever he has gained, and while he retains it will find in it endless troubles and annoyances" ([1513] 1992, 5). For the stationary bandits, therefore, force alone proves a very costly means of keeping people in the mood to disburse a steady, substantial stream of tribute. If the rulers are to sustain their predation at tolerable cost, they must gain legitimacy (Mises [1927] 1985, 41, 45, 50–51, 180).

Fear For Your Soul and Pay Tribute to the Rulers

Sooner or later every government augments the power of its sword with the power of its priesthood, forging an iron union of throne and altar. The priests were "the ones who fabricated the holy texts purporting to tell how the world was created, how God decreed the ruler's power, how the king was necessary for everyone's welfare, and on and on" (Douglas 1989, 129, see also 153, 325, and passim). In ancient times, it was not uncommon for rulers to be declared gods — the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt made that claim for centuries — or the descendants of the gods or the earthly representatives of the gods (63, 107, 129). When Charlemagne was crowned emperor in 800, he took the title "Charles, most serene Augustus, crowned by God, great and pacific emperor, governing the Roman empire" (Berman 1983, 603). Doctrines of the divine right of kings have deep historical roots in many parts of the world. In Western civilization, they received powerful support in the early fifth century from St. Augustine's City of God, reached their zenith in the seventeenth century in the writings of Jacques-Benigne Bossuet on behalf of Louis XIV in particular, and did not go down — with a thud, as it were — until the French Revolution (Hooker 1996). As late as World War I, Kaiser Wilhelm found it expedient to exhort his troops: "Remember that the German people are the chosen of God. On me, on me as German emperor, the Spirit of God has descended. I am His weapon, His sword and His visor" (qtd. in Skidelsky 2005). To the extent that the subjects can be brought to fear not only the ruler's superior force, but also his supernatural powers or authority — brought, in Harold Berman's words, to a "belief in his sacred character and thaumaturgic powers" (1983, 406), the ruler gains an enormous edge in overawing the people.

Moreover, if people believe in an afterlife, where the pains and sorrows of this life may be sloughed off, the priests hold a privileged position in prescribing the sort of behavior in the here and now that best serves one's interest in securing a blessed condition in the life to come. Referring to the Roman Catholic Church of his own day, Machiavelli noted "the spiritual power which of itself confers so mighty an authority" ([1513] 1992, 7), and he heaped praise on Ferdinand of Aragon, who, "always covering himself with the cloak of religion ... had recourse to what may be called pious cruelty" (59, emphasis in original). For Roman Catholics, "the church, and more specifically the pope, is considered to have jurisdiction over purgatory ... [and] the time to be spent in purgatory can be reduced by clerical decision" (Berman 1983, 171). This clerical power may be — and often has been — used to induce people to fall into line with projects that serve definite secular as well as spiritual interests. For example, "With the emergence of papal monarchy at the end of the eleventh century, the Council of Clermont under Pope Urban II granted the first 'plenary indulgence,' absolving all who would go on the First Crusade from liability for punishment in purgatory for sins committed prior to their joining the holy army of crusaders" (171). In our own time and place, a similar example pertains to the support that Protestant evangelicals have given to militarism in general and to the recent U.S. wars against Iraq in particular (Bacevich 2005a, 122–46), support that George W. Bush's administration has actively cultivated and exploited, counting the religious right a key part of the Republican Party's electoral and lobbying "base."

Naturally, the warriors and the priests, if not one and the same, almost invariably come to be cooperating parties in the apparatus of rule. In medieval western Europe, from the sixth through the eleventh centuries, secular rulers dominated the church and appointed the highest ecclesiastical officials. Even after the Papal Revolution, in which the church established its corporate independence and gained the power to choose the pope and appoint the bishops, however, churchmen and secular rulers continued to be intertwined in countless ways, not least by the often close kinship of their leading authorities. Although the clergy sometimes clashed with secular authorities, their relationship normally entailed cooperation and mutual support. This close relationship between throne and altar did not end with the Protestant Reformation. Indeed, in many ways it persists even in today's more secular societies.

Thus, the martial element of government puts people in fear for their lives, and the priestly element puts them in fear for their eternal souls. These two fears compose a powerful compound — sufficient to prop up governments everywhere on earth for several millennia.

Look To The Rulers For Protection and Pay Them Tribute

Over the ages, governments refined their appeals to popular fears, fostering an ideology that emphasizes the people's vulnerability to a variety of internal and external dangers from which their governors — of all people! — are represented to be their protectors (Higgs 2002). Government, it is claimed, protects the populace from external attackers and from internal disorder, both of which are portrayed as ever-present threats (Rothbard [1965] 2000, 65). Sometimes the government, as if seeking to nourish this mythology with grains of truth, does protect people in this fashion — even the shepherd protects his sheep, but he does so to serve his own interest, not theirs, and when the time comes, he will shear or slaughter them as his interest dictates.


Excerpted from Neither Liberty Nor Safety by Robert Higgs. Copyright © 2007 The Independent Institute. Excerpted by permission of The Independent Institute.
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Table of Contents


1 Fear: The Foundation of Every Government's Power,
2 Eighteen Problematic Propositions in the Analysis of the Growth of Government,
3 The Complex Course of Ideological Change,
4 Crisis and Leviathan: Review and Response,
5 What Got Us Into and Out of the Great Depression?,
6 The United States Won the World Wars, but Americans Lost,
7 Government and the Economy in the United States since World War II,
8 The Ongoing Growth of Government in the Economically Advanced Countries,
About the Author,
About the Independent Institute,
Independent Studies in Political Economy,

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