The founding fathers took a dim view of claims of the unlimited beneficence of government. George Washington declared, “Government is not reason, it is not eloquence — it is force.” John Adams wrote in 1772: “There is danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty.”
Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1799,
Free government is founded in jealousy, not confidence. It is jealousy and not confidence which prescribes limited constitutions, to bind those we are obliged to trust with power…. In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in men, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitutions.
James Madison bluntly warned: “The nation which reposes on the pillow of political confidence will sooner or later end its political existence in a deadly lethargy.”
The Founding Fathers’ views on government power were shaped by the fact that that power was held by an increasingly hostile government; thus, they had few incentives to delude themselves about the inherent goodness of government. Besides, they had seen government operate in Rhode Island — and that was all they needed to know about the potential degeneration of political institutions. (Madison wrote of Rhode Island: “Nothing can exceed the wickedness and folly which continue to reign there. All sense of Character as well as of Right is obliterated.”)
However, a different intellectual tide was rising in continental Europe. As political scientist Carl Friedrich observed in 1939,
In a slow process that lasted several generations, the modern concept of the State was … forged by political theorists as a tool of propaganda for absolute monarchs. They wished to give the king’s government a corporate halo roughly equivalent to that of the Church.
Thomas Hobbes, writing in 1651, labeled the state Leviathan “our mortal God.”
Jean Jacques Rousseau, with his 1762 book, The Social Contract, effectively made self-delusion about the nature of government into the highest political virtue. British political philosopher Harold Laski later noted, “Rousseau’s theory of the general will makes him … the modern founder of the idealist school of politics.” Rousseau’s “idealistic” method was rarely more clearly stated than in the opening of his book, Discourse on Inequality:“Let us begin by laying facts aside, as they do not affect the question.” Rousseau propagated faith in absolute power at the same time he appeared to be preaching democracy:
The sovereign, being formed wholly of the individuals who compose it, neither has nor can have any interest contrary to theirs; and consequently the sovereign power need give no guarantee to its subjects, because it is impossible for the body to wish to hurt all its members…. The sovereign, merely by virtue of what it is, is always what it should be.
Rousseau’s doctrine of the “general will” also created the perfect pretext to pretend that government is not coercive: the people were willing, whatever government did to them. Rousseau recommended that a lawgiver “ought to feel himself capable … of changing human nature, of transforming each individual … into part of a greater whole from which he in a manner receives his life and being.”
While Rousseau’s romantic glorification of democracy is well-known, his passion for unlimited government power is less recognized. In a short essay entitled “On Public Happiness,” Rousseau declared in 1767, “Give man entirely to the State or leave him entirely to himself.” And Rousseau clearly believed that men could not be left to themselves.
Rousseau also foresaw the need for the government to nullify private property. In an essay on a proposed constitution for Corsica, he declared,
In a word, I want the property of the state to be as great and powerful, and that of the citizens as small and weak, as possible. With private property being so weak and so dependent, the Government will need to use very little force, and will lead the people, so to speak, with a movement of the finger.
In The Social Contract,he declared,
The citizen is no longer the judge of the dangers to which the law desires him to expose himself; and when the prince says to him: “It is expedient for the State that you should die,” he ought to die, because it is only on that condition that he has been living in security up to the present, and because his life is no longer a mere bounty of nature, but a gift made conditionally by the State.
Rousseau implied that people should be grateful that the government had not yet killed them. Thus, he vested in the state more power over the lives of the citizens than many Southern states in the United States vested in slaveowners. (It was a crime for a slaveowner to wrongfully kill one of his slaves, though such killings were not often punished.) He based his political philosophy on his own peculiar version of the “social contract”:
The State, in relation to its members, is master of all their goods by the social contract, which, within the State, is the basis of all rights.
But Rousseau never explained why people would voluntarily put their heads on a political chopping block.
Rousseau’s consecration of government power had vast influence on subsequent philosophers. German philosophers zeroed in on some of his more absurd ideas and refined them into sufficiently obscure language that they commanded respect among academics for generations to follow.
Johann Gottlieb Fichte declared in 1809 in his “Addresses to the German Nation”: “The State is the superior power, ultimate and beyond appeal, absolutely independent.” Fichte had earlier advocated sharply limiting government power. But as German humiliation grew over Napoleon’s conquest and occupation of the German states, Fichte deified the state in order to give it the power to drive the French out of the German lands — and to purify the German people so that they would never again be conquered. He wrote, “The end of the State is none other than that of the human species itself: namely that all its [humanity’s] relations should be ordered according to the laws of Reason.”
And since the government alone was able to know what reason dictated, that meant that it must have unlimited power to “rationalize” the citizenry. Fichte lifted the State above traditional moral standards:
It is the necessary tendency of every civilized State to expand in every direction…. Always, without exception, the most civilized State is the most aggressive.
Thus, the fact that a state successfully attacked its neighbors proved its moral superiority over its victims.
G.W.F. Hegel, renowned as the “Royal Prussian Court Philosopher” at the University of Berlin, matched Fichte and raised the ante of glorified servitude. According to Hegel, “The State is the Divine Idea as it exists on earth.” He praised the state as the “realization of the ethical idea” and asserted that “all the worth which the human being possesses — all spiritual reality, he possesses only through the State.” He revealed that the state is “the shape which the perfect embodiment of Spirit assumes.” He opposed any limits on government power: “The State is the self-certain absolute mind which recognizes no authority but its own, which acknowledges no abstract rules of good and bad, shameful and mean, cunning and deceit.”
Hegel also declared that “the State is … the ultimate end which has the highest right against the individual, whose highest duty is to be a member of the State.” He stressed the benefits of war, and stated that “sacrificing oneself for the individuality of the State is … a general duty.” He was also an early advocate of positive thinking: “In considering the idea of the State, one must not think of particular states, nor of particular institutions, but one must contemplate the idea, this actual God, by itself.”
Hegel was followed at the University of Berlin by Friar J. Stahl, who revealed that the state is “a moral and intellectual domain … a moral authority and power exalted and majestic, to which the subjects must submit.” Historian Heinrich von Treitschke, who became famous for his advocacy of Realpolitik, wrote that “if the State may not enclose and repress like an egg-shell, neither can it protect” and stressed that “the moral benefits for which we are indebted to the State are above all price.” Historian F.S.C. Northrup noted in his book The Meeting of East and West, “The development of German thought and culture following Kant clearly shows the individual person becomes swallowed up in the Absolute.”
Hegel’s work increasingly dominated 19th-century and early 20th-century thinking about the state. German philosopher Ernst Cassirer observed in 1945, “No other philosophical system has exerted such a strong and enduring influence upon political life as the metaphysics of Hegel…. There has hardly been a single great political system that has resisted its influence.” Cassirer noted that Hegel’s system “is an entirely new type of absolutism.”