State of Nature or Nanny State

It looks like the oversight-resistant CIA went a little rogue. What’s new? The agency has repeatedly been found to have exceeded its legally permitted bounds, in part becausesecret agents are good at keeping their actions secret. Hoover’s FBI, the NSA.

But this is a law of nature. Small children, teenagers, spooks and hedge funds will try anything, push the limits to the limit — especially if there aren’t any limits in the first place. Obviously parents have to lay down the law because without any rules “chaos is come again.”

It isn’t just the young of the species and secret agencies that tend to run off the rails. All human nature aspires to total freedom, no restraints, let ‘er rip. Americans may be especially resistant to restraint because of the myths of our pioneer history. We habitually deemphasize how cooperative an endeavor building this country was. Instead we have been brought up with a fictionalized, exaggerated, forgetful version of that history in which rugged individualists made their way alone and unafraid. In this vision, a lack of restraints is an unambiguously good thing. But it isn’t. Lawless, predatory ranchers crushing their sodbuster neighbors weren’t a myth, but they weren’t restrained by the lone, noble man of nature with a gun, the Shane or The Man with No Name, but by the rule of law.

The robber barons of yesteryear and today’s contemporary version want all power in their hands and no cop on the beat — except to protect their rights at the expense of everyone else’s. But after enough strikers were shot down and shirtwaist factories burned, the Progressive Era was ushered in to redress the balance, a development libertarians still regard as the beginning of the end of Eden, but the rest of us have reason to be grateful for.

Similarly, those who mock the nanny state and want to live free and die seem to forget what the world looks like without any rules of the road, though there are plenty of examples historically or around the globe at present. Consider what a child looks like without a nanny or a mother or father. It looks and acts feral.

Government haters are right, of course, that government too must have limits or you get Mao, Pol Pot, Putin, or a theocracy of the Ayatollahs and Taliban. The trick is enough regulation to keep the strong from preying on the weak and not so much that rights are stifled. But those are two sides of the same coin. Some person, faction, religion, class, regulator is always trying to get the upper hand and make all others dance to its tune.

Conservative propaganda notwithstanding, the risk in American history as more often been a Hobbesian state of nature, a war of all against all, than 1984. Those who reflexively oppose any attempt to make people color within the lines or live within legal plimits ought to recall what liberty unrestrained looks like. It looks like liberty for the powerful and oppression for the rest. A slave economy, the killing fields, the Inquisition, the Cultural Revolution, Social Darwinism, barons and serfs.

Law and restraint are the real conservative doctrine, and not law only for those who can afford to buy it. As Madison said: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” But they aren’t. Men are really smart, really selfish, really vicious animals who may not need to be caged but sure can’t be allowed to roam around without a leash.

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