Patriotism at the expense of another nation is as wicked as racism at the expense of another race...Let us resolve to be patriots always, nationalists never.
Rev. William Sloane Coffin
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February 27, 2006

The Fantasy of State Protection

by Stefan Molyneux

A few days ago, I was at lunch with a colleague, an ex-military man, and the talk got to politics. I mentioned that the government was never going to voluntarily shrink in size; it would only collapse in on itself through bankruptcy. He said that he had a lot of respect for Paul Martin, Canada's ex-prime minister, because Martin made some progress tackling the budget deficit in the 1990s. "I was very relieved," he said grimly, "because all our training in those days centered on containing civil revolt."

Despite my two-decades-long investigation into the nature of the State, I was shocked. I asked him what he meant. "Oh," he shrugged, "the government was expecting a revolt, so we were all being trained to contain that. They really thought they were going to run out of money, so they wanted us ready to deploy just in case Canadians got real pissed off at them."

I found that fascinating. And revealing, of course. As the Canadian government was trying to rein in its debt, it was also training its soldiers to turn their guns on Canadians, just in case that didn't work. Or in case it did work, but the Canadian people didn't like the effects. No welfare checks. No old-age pensions. That would be a recipe for revolution.

It is entirely to be expected, of course. Governments protect their own interests, not those of their citizens. However, it does illuminate an interesting point, which is that – despite the evidence of the entire 20th century – people still believe that governments exist to protect their citizens. It is an interesting – and eminently testable – theory. To put it to the test, let's look at some of these State "protections" throughout history. If State power exists to protect citizens, then State power should rise and fall relative to the threats those citizens face. If I say that my dentist drills my teeth because they have cavities, then obviously he should drill less – or not at all – if they don't have cavities.

The first and gravest danger to a citizen is war. It is governments, of course, that always start wars, but those governments always say that they are protecting citizens from the aggression of other governments. In other words, other governments are bad, therefore war cannot be avoided – and so we must be partially enslaved by our own government to protect us from these inevitable wars.

This premise is easily testable. If governments exist to protect their citizens from other governments, then as a particular country becomes more secure, its military should shrink proportionally. So, for instance, after the fall of the Soviet Union, U.S. and NATO military budgets should have been massively reduced. Furthermore, a country like Switzerland, buried deep in the middle of fractious Europe, should spend far more per capita on its military than does America, which has oceans to either side and friendly neighbors to the north and south. Japan, for instance, should have been a peaceful country throughout its history, since it is largely immune from invasion. The same goes for England.

If you were able to run a magic survey throughout history, which government do you think people would be most frightened of? Would it be (a) their local State or lord, or (b) some State or lord in some other country? What about in ancient Rome – would it be (a) the local rulers, who forced young Romans into brutal military service for 20 years or more, or (b) the Carthaginians? What about England in the Middle Ages? Were the peasants more alarmed by the crushing taxation and strangling mobility restrictions imposed by their local lord, or was the king of France their primary concern? Let's stop in Russia during the 18th century, and ask the serfs: "Are you more frightened of the czar's soldiers or of the German Kaiser?" What about German soldiers on the Eastern Front in 1942? Were they more afraid of the Kremlin or of their own officers, who would shoot them if they faltered? Let's go to a U.S. citizen today and ask: "Are you more frightened of foreign invaders or of the fact that if you don't pay half your income in taxes, your own government will throw you in jail?"

Of course, we also have to stop at the Second World War, which has had more propaganda thrown at it than any other single conflict. Didn't the British government save its citizens from German domination? That's an interesting question. The British government got the country into World War I, helped impose the brutal Treaty of Versailles on Germany, then contributed to the boom-and-bust cycle of the 1920s, which destroyed the German middle class and aided Hitler's rise to power. During the 1930s, the British government supported the growing aggression of Hitler through subsidies, loans, and mealy-mouthed appeasement. And then, when everything had failed, it threw the bodies of thousands of young men at the German air force in the Battle of Britain. Finally, it caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands more British citizens by defending Africa and invading France, rather than letting Nazism collapse on its own accord – as it was bound to do, just as every tyranny has done throughout history. (The German army was doomed the moment Hitler decided to invade Russia.) Can it really be said, then, that the British government protected its citizens throughout the first half of the 20th century? Millions killed, families shattered, the economy destroyed, half of Europe lost to Stalin… and after spending more than half a decade fighting National Socialism in Germany, the British state then imposed massive socialism in England after the war! Can we consider that a great success? I think not. Only States win wars. Never citizens.

Another way of reviewing the claim that governments exist to protect citizens from external violence is to simply measure the degree of freedom that citizens experience both before and after an external threat manifests itself (or at least is claimed to). For instance, if a doctor claims that he is treating you in order to make you better, then the best way to verify that claim is to figure out if you are either better off or worse off after he has treated you. If you find out that after every "treatment" your health deteriorates significantly – but that your doctor's income has increased significantly – then you may be forgiven for being skeptical about his claims of expertise and benevolence. Similarly, governments that claim to be protecting your freedom should not, as a direct result of that protection, diminish that freedom thereby. Yet no war in history has resulted in even equal – let alone greater – freedoms after the war than before. In every case where false protestations of State virtue can be subjected to any kind of empirical test, those claims are always found to be false.

The truth of the matter is that we do not face threats to our lives and property from foreign governments, but rather from our own. The State will tell us that it must exist, at the very least, to protect us from foreign governments, but that is morally equivalent to the local Mafia don telling us that we have to pay him 50 percent of our income so that he can protect us from the Mafia in Paraguay. Are we given the choice to buy a gun and take our own chances? Can we hire private security guards to protect our property? Of course not. Who endangers us more – the local Mafia thug, or some guy in Paraguay we've never met that our local Mafia guys says just might want a piece of us? I know which chance I'd take.

Even the most cursory examination of history shows that no correlation can be made between a country's security and its military spending. Since there is no relationship between military budgets and external threats, there can be no causality between the two. Thus, governments do not have militaries in order to protect their citizens from external enemies. Militaries must exist for some other reason.

Ah, perhaps you say, the Soviet Union has fallen, but what about the threat from Muslim countries? Well, that is also interesting. If our government exists to protect us from other governments, then our government should never sell arms to those governments, right? If policemen say that they exist to protect us from criminals, then policemen should refrain from arming those criminals, right? A doctor cannot make people sick and then justify his income based on the fact that people are sick. Our leaders cannot use our money to arm other governments while simultaneously claiming that they must take our money because other governments are dangerous! Thus, if the U.S. government gave our tax money or tax-funded weaponry to, say, Iraq or Saudi Arabia, then it cannot logically demand that we cough up more money by claiming that we're threatened by either of those countries. I'm sure I don't need to say more on this topic.

This argument is usually countered by stating that only certain other governments are a threat. In other words, our leaders know how dangerous other governments are – both now and into the distant future – and only arm those who will never harm their own citizens. This rebuttal fails, since our leaders regularly arm those whom it later declares enemies. Saddam Hussein – enough said.

There is one other argument that needs to be examined in relation to State defense of citizens, which is whether leaders value their citizens' safety more than the citizens value their own safety.

None of us wants to die or be enslaved. Therefore, we will take all the steps necessary to protect our lives and property. If a man demands that we give up this responsibility to him, it would only be a rational course of action if that man cares more for our lives and property than we do ourselves.

Let's call the leader of our country Bob. If Bob cares more for our lives than we do – a position many parents hold with their children – then obviously he would be the first to sacrifice himself for us in times of war, just as parents often sacrifice their own interests for the sake of their children. In the realm of politics and war, this is obviously never the case, since leaders are never the first to die on the battlefield.

If Bob cares more for our protection than we do, then he will also be no less likely to wage war if he himself is threatened. Thus, the proliferation of nuclear weapons should not have slowed down the rate of war between nations that possess them. Throughout history, certain countries have declared war on each other with depressing regularity. However, since the rise of nuclear weapons, not one single nuclear power has ever declared war on any other nuclear power. What has changed? The number of dead? Of course not – the First and Second World Wars killed tens of millions of people, and more people died in the conventional bombing of Tokyo in 1945 than in the atomic attack on Hiroshima. It is not the scale of the suffering that has increased. Then is it the long-term effects of nuclear weapons? That seems hard to fathom, since conventional weapons leave in their wake firestorms, plagues, lack of water and sanitation, land mines, poisons, and other long-term effects detrimental to human life.

No, the only significant difference between conventional weapons and nuclear weapons is that nuclear weapons threaten the direct and personal interests of political leaders. They (and their families, relatives, and friends) can be killed. In other words, the only difference between nuclear and conventional weapons is that the ruling class is threatened by nuclear weapons. (Of course, what applies to nuclear weapons also applies to other weapons of mass destruction, which is why rulers speak about them with such horror.)

Whenever Bob's own life, family, and interests would be threatened by war, he is miraculously able to refrain from declaring it. The rebuttal that Bob is afraid of nuclear weapons not because of his own life, but because he wants to protect the citizens, is nonsense. If that were the case, then rulers would never declare war against other countries that did not possess nuclear weapons, which they tend to do with fair regularity.

To sum up, the idea that governments exist to protect their citizens is pure nonsense – and as long as we continue to believe it, we are in grave danger. Governments will grab at any justification for using violence against us, and "national defense" is the most dangerous justification of all. The predation, robbery, and despair of the welfare state is one thing; the murder, destruction, and corruption of the military state is quite another. As long as we surrender our freedoms to governments for the sake of protection, those governments will continue to drum up threats against us in order to further enslave us by "protecting" us from the violence they provoke in the first place.


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Stefan Molyneux has been an actor, gold-panner, graduate student, and software entrepreneur. His first novel, Revolutions, was published in 2004. Listen to his top-rated podcast by clicking here – or, if you prefer iTunes, you can click here. Visit his blog or his new Web site.

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