Despair and the State
Maybe a dark column is appropriate for tax day, but, I must tell you, it is not my usual way. Nonetheless, there are certain terrible realities in the world, preventable ones, that we must speak about if we expect to end them.
The sad and tragic story of Andrew Wordes — the chicken farmer who was driven to despair by government harassment and killed himself last month — continues to haunt me. And it turns out to be just one of millions of cases of similar psychological torment caused by government, directly and indirectly. These are wholly unnecessary events, inflicting terrible loss on the world.
For every one person these days who dies fighting in US wars around the world, 25 other soldiers kill themselves. Veterans are killing themselves at a rate of one every 80 minutes. There are more than 6,500 veteran suicides every year. That’s more than all the American soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq in the last 10 years, according to a New York Times analysis. Being a veteran apparently doubles your risk of suicide.
Economic conditions wrought by government policies around the world have contributed to the death toll. Europe is undergoing an epidemic of suicide in countries seriously hurt by the downturn. In Greece, the suicide rate among men increased more than 24% since the disaster hit. In Ireland, male suicides have shot up more than 16%. In Italy, economic-motivated suicides have increased 52%.
The big aggregates reported here do not convey the level of tragedy experienced in the lives of every single individual here. They leave behind shattered families and wrecked communities. There is an unbearably sad story behind every single statistic.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that the same is happening in the US and that the broad trend follows economic prospects. The difference between the rising prosperity of a free market and economic desperation caused by government is really a matter of life and death. The desperation and sadness wrought by war — an extension of domestic policy and carried out with much higher stakes — is a symptom of the same problem.
These represent both direct and indirect ways that government is spreading misery around the world. The direct way involves war and its psychological effects. Being harassed by regulators is another direct way: The person sees no way out and is thereby driven to desperate measures. The indirect way results from the economic stagnation caused by government policies.
Life is hard enough on its own. Government makes it harder. Its recession-causing policies; its policy responses that do not work; its regulations that makes people crazy; its poverty-inducing taxes and inflation; and, most of all, its wars have driven millions to despair.
Why the state in particular? It all comes down to the sense of having control over your life. The essence of statecraft is the absence of choice and the inability to escape. Many operations of the state try to disguise these features.
Once you develop a nose for this, you see it everywhere. The faces of people in line at the DMV, the sauntering mass in line to be screened by the TSA and even the blank stares you see in the post office lines. There is something about state policy that demoralizes us all. That takes a toll on our health and our outlook on life and even leads to tragedy.
I think back to the old Soviet days, which to me typify what it means for a society to be entirely under state control. The government put out a magazine called Soviet Life, and it was filled with pictures of happy, healthy people who were living fulfilling and active lives. The contrast with reality couldn’t have been more extreme. Emigrants told stories of a demoralized population turning to alcohol, drugs and suicide — anything to escape the toxic combination of sinking living standards and the absence of choice due to despotism.
Today we know that the propaganda was a lie. What we fail to realize is that this human tragedy is not unique to a fully socialized society. We can get there in small steps by growing the state and expanding its reach year by year until it envelops us in all our life activities. We have to turn to the state ever more. We are blocked by barriers. Everywhere we go, we encounter bureaucrats who demand our papers, riffle through our belongings, forbid what we want to do and mandate what we do not want to.
Of course, soldiers in war face this reality every day. They are not their own persons. They must obey orders whether they make sense or not. They see things that no one should have to see and they are ordered to do things that no one should have to be forced to do. It is hardly surprising that people who go through such an ordeal have confused perspectives on the value of human life.
To a lesser extent, citizens in every country with an interventionist state face an analogous situation. They may have a dream of starting or growing a business, but they are blocked — not because of their own lack of vision, but because of the thicket erected by public policy. The state acts as a dream killer. It becomes all the more maddening when there is nothing that the citizen can do about it. There is no real choice.
Oh they tell us that in a democratic system, we can vote and that this is our choice. We have nothing to complain about. If we don’t like the system, we can change it. But this is wholly illusory. The government completely owns the democratic system and administers it to generate the types of results that government wants. More and more people are catching on to this, which is why voter participation falls further in every election season.
The great thinkers of the libertarian tradition have always told us that freedom and the good life are absolutely inseparable. I think of Thomas Jefferson, Frederic Bastiat, Herbert Spencer, Albert Jay Nock, Ludwig von Mises, Murray Rothbard, F.A. Hayek and so many others. Even contemporary authors have addressed the theme. They had long warned that every step away from freedom would mean a diminution of the quality of life. We are seeing these prophecies come true.
Too often public policy debates take place on the wrong level. The core point is not to make the “system” work better or otherwise fine-tune the rules within a bureaucracy. We need to start talking about larger issues about the dignity of the human person, the moral status of freedom and the rights and liberties of the individual in society. The expansion of the state is not just wrong as a matter of “public policy”; it is wrong because it is dangerous to the good life and the quality of life.
To kill freedom is to kill the essence of what makes us human.