(Originally posted on Mises.org)
Three city blocks were systematically burned to the ground as hundreds of the local police stood by and viewed the violence. They were obeying orders not to harm the arsonists. The National Guard was called, adding more armed watchers. A passive gendarmerie consorting with open rebellion has rarely been seen in American history, until recently.
Except for variation in detail and numbers, this sort of thing is happening today.
Does the above sound as if it had been written recently? While it could easily have been written earlier this year, it was not. Leonard Read wrote it in “Social Reformers as Keepers of the Peace,” chapter 8 in his 1969 The Coming Aristocracy. But it offers keen insights into America’s recent turmoil and violence.
Most important for us today, however, is Read’s analysis of why it has happened. In particular, the relationship between what is being promised by political candidates and their ability to keep the peace seems just as descriptive of this year as when he wrote.
These increasing depredations … pose the question: Have we of the “free world” lost the art of keeping the peace and, if so, why? What really lies at the root of this rampaging violence?
A good part of the blame rests upon the electorate which has put social reformers into Federal, state, and local government office.
Keeping the peace is the highly specialized task of government, and social reformers are peculiarly unqualified to perform this function; they are agitators, not peacemakers. When it comes to keeping the peace, social reformers are misfits—deplorable failures!
We are electing reformers to city councils, state legislatures, the Congress, and to top administrative posts. This being the case, is it any wonder that the rioters go unrestrained? The mobsters are among the clients of these agitators for change … and all too often in a manner consistent with the avowed policies of the social reformers.
What did Read mean by “social reformers” that made them “peculiarly unqualified” to keep the peace?
How can we tell whether a candidate for public office is a social reformer? By simply listening to his platform, the things he intends to do if elected.
If a candidate so much as mentions what he is going to do for some group or class or minority or locality with other people’s money, that is, if he proposes to feather the nests of some at the expense of others, he must be classified as a social reformer, and an unprincipled one, at that. These reformers promise to do good things, not voluntarily with the fruits of their own labor, but through the use of coercion; they rely on the force of government to achieve their ends; they coercively expropriate the fruits of your labor and mine to do their “good.”
These politically-oriented reformers who would apply coercion … eloquently boast of what they intend to do … which of them can do the most for us with our money…. Naive voters, taken in by this nonsense, are the ones at fault. They are fascinated by the prospects of “social gains”—and greatly disappointed when those who promise such gains fail to keep the peace!
In response to the expanding promises of coercive violations of some people’s rights on behalf of hoped-for political clients, Read insisted, “America politically is off course!” Why?
There remains only a vestige of the idea that the role of government is to keep the peace; in its stead is the notion that the force implicit in government is to implement social reform. Thus, the political debates are less concerned with keeping the peace than disturbing it; the argument is over the best way to use coercion to redistribute earnings and savings acquired peacefully through production and exchange. So long as this redistributionist sentiment prevails, social reformers will vie with each other to accommodate the sentiment. We are not likely, under these conditions, to find individuals vying with each other to keep the peace.
How to get back on course?
Any change for the better must originate in the minds of voters as a more realistic appreciation of the essence of government. To know the nature of government is the first step in knowing what not to ask of it.
The essential characteristic of government is organized force…. Organized force can … inhibit, prohibit, penalize, restrain, suppress. Organized force cannot be an agency for creativity … discovery, invention, intuition, inquisitiveness, insight.
[Consequently,] we can logically deduce the proper role of government by merely asking: What in good conscience should be prohibited, penalized, suppressed? The answer has been given in the moral codes: the destructive actions of men such as violence, fraud, predation, misrepresentation…. Limit government to this policing function, for here is its principled role.
The balance of the message comes just as clearly: never use force to achieve a creative end, be it housing, power and light, education, medicine, welfare, security, prosperity, charity. Leave these desirable achievements to the creativity which can flourish among men only when they are free!
How would this realign the political compass?
Were government limited to its principled role, as opposed to the statist or social-reformer concept, officials at all levels would concern themselves with the codification of the thou-shalt-nots and their enforcement. Common justice—everyone equal before the law as before God—would be their hallmark. We, the voters, would judge candidates on their sense of justice, on their ability to maintain a fair field and no favor, on their competence at writing prohibitive law, and on their skills in keeping peace and order.
Speeches would bear little resemblance to what candidates are promising today.
Men with the potential statesmanship so sorely required … will be drawn from obscurity … when an audience exists, and not before … persons who understand the difference between a government of social reformers and a government to keep peace and order—with a strong preference for the latter…. We shall hear answers to our hopes and prayers when we know what to ask for.
What would such a major reorientation require of American citizens?
There is no place for social reformers in governmental posts, for these positions endow them with coercive power which they mistakenly use to achieve their “reforms.” Reform, to be meaningful, is a volitional turn for the better to which coercion is obviously antagonistic.
We need to bring from obscurity the potential statesmen who can keep the peace. To effect such change requires little more of us—the people—than a reasonable sense of justice and a knowledge of what government should and should not do.
Leonard Read’s proposal for political improvement would limit government to providing mutual benefits rather than unearned benefits for some at others’ undeserved and involuntary expense. In a sense, it would not require that much from Americans. However, we have stooped into our current political malfeasance as a result of vast numbers honoring Read’s advice in the breach and politicians trying to buy their votes.
Consequently, from where we are now, reestablishing “a reasonable sense of justice and a knowledge of what government should and should not do” is a very long step. Taking it also requires widespread willingness to act appropriately on that knowledge, even when it threatens someone’s place at the political pig trough of power and resources. Read spent much of his adult life advocating for the moral and practical case for doing exactly that. Yet we seem farther from that goal today, not nearer, and we have yet to see a groundswell of people open to both listening to the lesson and acting on it. That may be depressing for lovers of liberty, but for those who forego coercion, clear explanation and persuasion is the only possible means of achieving it.Author:
Gary M. Galles is a Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University and an adjunct scholar at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. His research focuses on public finance, public choice, economic education, organization of firms, antitrust, urban economics, liberty, and the problems that undermine effective public policy. In addition to his most recent book, Pathways to Policy Failures (2020), his books include Lines of Liberty (2016), Faulty Premises, Faulty Policies (2014), and Apostle of Peace (2013).