Explore Freedom

Explore Freedom » Government Is Not “Us”

FFF Articles

Government Is Not “Us”


“America is not what’s wrong with the world. I read all this stuff — people hate us, people don’t like us. The fact of the matter is, people line up to come into this country every year because it’s better here than other places, and because they respect the fact that we respect human beings.”

So says Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

It could be that those who line up are making a distinction that Rumsfeld seems unable to make, namely, the distinction between the American people and the U.S. government. There’s a world of difference between them. Poll after poll in the Middle East indicates that the public there understands that difference. While Arabs generally express good feelings toward Americans and their society (or did until the Abu Ghraib revelations), they express disdain for U.S. government policy toward their region. This shows a discrimination that our so-called leaders need to learn.

When Rumsfeld talks about “us,” he blurs a crucial distinction, most likely intentionally. But a moment’s thought is all it takes to see that we, the American people, are not the government and vice versa. One example should suffice: when you rushed to finish your income tax return at the last minute on April 15, were you in fear of yourself and your fellow Americans or the IRS?

It won’t do to argue that, since we elect the president and members of Congress, we are the government. The truth is that once they are in office and until they are voted out, they are our masters. Don’t be fooled by the self-serving term “public servant.” Does anyone really believe they serve us? Sure, they do enough to curry favor with voters and get reelected. But the rest of the time they pass and enforce decrees telling us what we can and can’t do with our lives and our property. I wouldn’t call that service.

Rumsfeld is right: lots of people want to come to this country, including people from the Middle East. But I’m fairly sure it has nothing to do with the U.S. government’s sorry record in that part of the world. Although the Bush administration rhapsodizes about democracy in Iraq, the fact is, the U.S. government has for years sponsored authoritarian, even totalitarian, regimes, including Saddam Hussein’s, throughout the Middle East. Some of its clients maintain prisons that are little more than houses of torture. The one democracy it has supported, Israel, has not exactly displayed the democratic spirit to the Palestinians driven from their property or living under occupation.

No, people want to come here because, despite decades of government regulation, there is still something left of the private life in the United States. One can generally live where he wants, pursue the career of his choice (if he gets the right license), raise a family, and enjoy leisure. But the private life is not as secure as it once was. There was a time when one could eat and smoke without being hectored by government officials or uplifters with access to government power. There was a time when one did not worry that his house would be condemned and given to a real-estate developer because the planned shopping mall will raise more tax revenues for the local government. If you go back far enough (the early 20th century) you could even use opiates or cocaine without fear of arrest and imprisonment. And let’s not forget the threats to privacy in the name of the “war on terror.”

As for Rumsfeld’s boast that “we respect human beings,” again, it depends on who “we” are. The government’s record isn’t so good. Ruby Ridge and Waco are just the most extreme examples of how little the government respects us.

We sing the praises of freedom in the good old United States, but freedom doesn’t mean what it once meant. It used to mean personal autonomy, and self-ownership, but now it means little more than the vote. Don’t get me wrong: picking officeholders by voting is better than picking them by shooting. But if freedom is identified solely with casting one out of a hundred million votes for president, the Founding Fathers must be weeping.

  • Categories
  • This post was written by:

    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.