One of the most alarming trends in American politics is the lack of pretense being displayed by authority. Like a ravening beast that loses its fear of humans, government becomes more dangerous when it loses the need to pose as a public servant that performs legitimate tasks. In short, government becomes more dangerous when it doesn’t care what you think of it. The sentence-long version of the argument for pretense is this: The need to pretend is a restraint upon authority.
Libertarian icon Murray Rothbard used to chuckle gleefully over the statements and antics of the notoriously corrupt politician Boss Tweed (1823-1878) of Tammany Hall. Murray loved the blatant quality of the man’s corruption. “Those were the days before politicians had PR agents, and a crook was a crook,” Murray would declare. He found the transparent corruption to be charming because it was non-hypocritical and it publicly revealed the ugly face of politics.
The government is a band of organized thugs who steal wealth and impose social control. Every “legitimate” function government provides — such as the construction of roads — would be better provided by a free market that does not steal and does not control behavior. But if there must be a government, then I want it filled with pretense.
Modern politics is the art of PR or smoke and mirrors. Politicians steal a fortune in salaries, hidden perks, pensions and benefits. This is on top of the ego-bulging power they enjoy. But politicians also want the populace to believe they are public servants who are humbled by power. They deny praxeology. This Misesean theory states that human beings act to achieve goals that benefit them. “Not so!” claim politicians. “Our actions are for the greater good, from pure altruism, for the children, an expression of public service, to stave off climate warming, for global peace, to advance women’s rights.”
The mask is falling. America is returning to the Boss Tweed approach in which blatantly self-serving motives are hardly concealed.
I remember vividly a news item from December 2012. It was the moment at which I realized the police in the United States no longer feel any need to pretend. They have become blatant thugs who will brutalize or kill anyone who defies or annoys them.
The news item? A Texas high school student was arrested; the arrest was allegedly to prevent the boy from harming himself due to depression. He was searched, his hands were cuffed behind his back, and he was placed into a police vehicle. The official version of what happened next: He shot himself to death with a hidden gun. Police claimed the T-shirted teen must have hidden the gun “really well,” and investigators backed up their account. No explanation of how the handcuffed teen retrieved a weapon was offered. The underlying message is that the police no longer need to pretend that they protect rather than victimize people.
Imagine an associate who has the goal of victimizing you at every turn while, at the same time, he deceives you into calling him a friend. As long as the pretense is in place, he cannot commit acts that are glaringly antithetical to friendship. If he beats you up in an alley, you will compare his actions to his words and conclude he is an enemy. The need to float an illusion of friendship is a restraint upon his actions. He needs to maintain the illusion because it is your belief in the friendship that gives him access to your life. He wants you to cooperate in your own victimization.
Government is that associate. The American government has pretended to be a friend and partner of “the people” since its inception. “Government of the people, by the people, and for the people” were words spoken by President Abraham Lincoln at a time when he presided over the greatest slaughter of Americans in history: the Civil War. The President uttered noble words and young men died in fields filled with corpses rather than grain. Such is the way of government “for the people.”
Nevertheless, the need for pretense generally restrains government in much the same manner as it used to restrain the police. Before the militarization of the police in the wake of 9-11, officers perpetuated the lie of “to serve and protect” by presenting a comparatively benign face to the public. This required some level of good behavior. Brutality occurred behind closed doors and it was largely inflicted on those who had no voice in society. Today, the police no longer close the door. They police use SWAT teams to raid organic farms, holding residents at gun point while they destroy okra plants. They kill harmless family pets as a routine part of intimidating harmless people. The mask has fallen.
The war against Syria that wasn’t is instructive. When Syria allegedly crossed an arbitrary “red line” that had been defined by Barack Obama, the President was unilaterally ready to attack, without diplomatic foreplay, without Congressional approval, without U.N. support, with nothing but his signature on a piece of paper. It would have been a war for one man’s credibility. The legacy of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning President required the murder of Syrians.
Then a series of PR setbacks occurred: The British parliament prevented the U.K. from joining in, the American public rebelled, international opinion backfired and Congress demanded a voice. Suddenly, Obama began to pretend. “I honor the opinion of the American people,” he claimed. “I will ask Congress,” he vowed. “I will consult with international powers,” he announced. And so war with Syria was prevented by the need for pretense.
When a government no longer cares how people view it, what results is the Soviet Union of the 1980s. A government that does not seek your consent to being victimized is a transparently totalitarian one that uses brutality as a default policy. People in the Soviet Union did not have the illusion of “we are the government” or “the police are there to help you.” They knew government was the enemy and the police were its agents.
The American government is abandoning pretense. Murray would applaud. I see it as a final sign to either get out or prepare to seriously shelter in place. A government that is indifferent to public good will is openly hostile to human survival. A government that does not pretend is terrifying.
Wendy McElroy is a renowned individualist anarchist and individualist feminist. She was a co-founder along with Carl Watner and George H. Smith of The Voluntaryist in 1982, and is the author/editor of 12 books, the latest of which is “The Art of Being Free”. Follow her work at www.wendymcelroy.com.