This old essay by columnist Joe Sobran is remarkably close to my own view of government, as is the process by which he arrived at his conclusions (I added the bold below).
…I became a philosophical conservative, with a strong libertarian streak. I believed in government, but it had to be “limited” government — confined to a few legitimate purposes, such as defense abroad and policing at home. These functions, and hardly any others, I accepted, under the influence of writers like Ayn Rand and Henry Hazlitt, whose books I read in my college years.
During the Reagan years, which I expected to find exciting, I found myself bored to death by supply-side economics, enterprise zones, “privatizing” welfare programs, and similar principle-dodging gimmickry. I failed to see that “movement” conservatives were less interested in principles than in Republican victories….
Now I began to be critical of the U.S. Government, though not very. I saw that the welfare state, chiefly the legacy of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, violated the principles of limited government and would eventually have to go. But I agreed with other conservatives that in the meantime the urgent global threat of Communism had to be stopped. Since I viewed “defense” as one of the proper tasks of government, I thought of the Cold War as a necessity, the overhead, so to speak, of freedom. If the Soviet threat ever ceased (the prospect seemed remote), we could afford to slash the military budget and get back to the job of dismantling the welfare state….
Gradually I came to see that the conservative challenge to liberalism’s jurisprudence of “loose construction” was far too narrow. Nearly everything liberals wanted the Federal Government to do was unconstitutional. The key to it all, I thought, was the Tenth Amendment, which forbids the Federal Government to exercise any powers not specifically assigned to it in the Constitution. But the Tenth Amendment had been comatose since the New Deal, when Roosevelt’s Court virtually excised it….
In a way I had transferred my patriotism from America as it then was to America as it had been when it still honored the Constitution. And when had it crossed the line? At first I thought the great corruption had occurred when Franklin Roosevelt subverted the Federal judiciary; later I came to see that the decisive event had been the Civil War, which had effectively destroyed the right of the states to secede from the Union. But this was very much a minority view among conservatives, particularly at National Review, where I was the only one who held it….
In the late 1980s I began mixing with Rothbardian libertarians — they called themselves by the unprepossessing label “anarcho-capitalists” — and even met Rothbard himself. They were a brilliant, combative lot, full of challenging ideas and surprising arguments. Rothbard himself combined a profound theoretical intelligence with a deep knowledge of history. His magnum opus, Man, Economy, and State, had received the most unqualified praise of the usually reserved Henry Hazlitt — in National Review!
Murray’s view of politics was shockingly blunt: the state was nothing but a criminal gang writ large. Much as I agreed with him in general, and fascinating though I found his arguments, I resisted this conclusion. I still wanted to believe in constitutional government.
Murray would have none of this. He insisted that the Philadelphia convention at which the Constitution had been drafted was nothing but a “coup d’etat,” centralizing power and destroying the far more tolerable arrangements of the Articles of Confederation. This was a direct denial of everything I’d been taught. I’d never heard anyone suggest that the Articles had been preferable to the Constitution! But Murray didn’t care what anyone thought — or what everyone thought. (He’d been too radical for Ayn Rand.)
Murray died a few years ago without quite having made an anarchist of me. It was left to his brilliant disciple, Hans-Hermann Hoppe, to finish my conversion. Hans argued that no constitution could restrain the state. Once its monopoly of force was granted legitimacy, constitutional limits became mere fictions it could disregard; nobody could have the legal standing to enforce those limits. The state itself would decide, by force, what the constitution “meant,” steadily ruling in its own favor and increasing its own power. This was true a priori, and American history bore it out.
What if the Federal Government grossly violated the Constitution? Could states withdraw from the Union? Lincoln said no…. The United States, plural, were really a single enormous state, as witness the new habit of speaking of “it” rather than “them.”
So the people are bound to obey the government even when the rulers betray their oath to uphold the Constitution. The door to escape is barred. Lincoln in effect claimed that it is not our rights but the state that is “unalienable.” And he made it stick by force of arms. No transgression of the Constitution can impair the Union’s inherited legitimacy. Once established on specific and limited terms, the U.S. Government is forever, even if it refuses to abide by those terms.
As Hoppe argues, this is the flaw in thinking the state can be controlled by a constitution. Once granted, state power naturally becomes absolute. Obedience is a one-way street. Notionally, “We the People” create a government and specify the powers it is allowed to exercise over us; our rulers swear before God that they will respect the limits we impose on them; but when they trample down those limits, our duty to obey them remains.
We may challenge the government in the courts… its courts.
…Franklin Roosevelt and his Supreme Court interpreted the Commerce Clause so broadly as to authorize virtually any Federal claim, and the Tenth Amendment so narrowly as to deprive it of any inhibiting force. Today these heresies are so firmly entrenched that Congress rarely even asks itself whether a proposed law is authorized or forbidden by the Constitution.
In short, the U.S. Constitution is a dead letter. It was mortally wounded in 1865. The corpse can’t be revived…
Other things have helped change my mind. R.J. Rummel of the University of Hawaii calculates that in the twentieth century alone, states murdered about 162,000,000 million of their own subjects. This figure doesn’t include the tens of millions of foreigners they killed in war. How, then, can we speak of states “protecting” their people? …As for warfare, Paul Fussell’s book Wartime portrays battle with such horrifying vividness that, although this wasn’t its intention, I came to doubt whether any war could be justified….
…For most people, anarchy is a disturbing word, suggesting chaos, violence, antinomianism — things they hope the state can control or prevent. The term state, despite its bloody history, doesn’t disturb them. Yet it’s the state that is truly chaotic, because it means the rule of the strong and cunning. They imagine that anarchy would naturally terminate in the rule of thugs. But mere thugs can’t assert a plausible right to rule. Only the state, with its propaganda apparatus, can do that. This is what legitimacy means. Anarchists obviously need a more seductive label.
“But what would you replace the state with?” The question reveals an inability to imagine human society without the state. Yet it would seem that an institution that can take 200,000,000 lives within a century hardly needs to be “replaced.”
Anarchy naturally gives rise to capitalism, as people save and invest the fruits of their labor. Unfortunately, and without much lag, it also seems to give rise to states. Cunning individuals, as well as lazy, short-sighted or naive ones all desire to formalize the use of force to control capital.
To read some of Rothbard’s work, click here.
For Hoppe, here.