What do King Solomon, Pope Gregory I (Gregory the Great), Dante Alighieri, and Mohandas Gandhi have to do with modern governments? Nothing, really, except that their emphasis on seven deadly evils provides us with the perfect pattern to categorize the deadly sins of government.
“These six things doth the LORD hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto him,” said King Solomon in the Proverbs: “A proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, an heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief, a false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren” (Proverbs 6:16-19).
Pope Gregory I (540–604) took a list of eight sins from the writings of St. John Cassian (360–435) and condensed and arranged them into what has become known as the seven deadly sins: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth.
Dante Alighieri (1265–1321), in his great Italian literary work, the Divine Comedy, popularized the seven deadly sins in the second part of his work titled simply Purgatory. After his tour of Hell, Dante was taken to an island wherein was a mountain with seven terraces corresponding to the seven deadly sins.
Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948), the Indian advocate for nonviolence and resistance to British colonial rule, said that there were seven things that will destroy us: Wealth Without Work, Pleasure Without Conscience, Knowledge Without Character, Commerce Without Morality, Science Without Humanity, Religion Without Sacrifice, and Politics Without Principle.
Killing, stealing, coercing, violating personal liberty and property rights, and committing all manner of sins is bad enough when individuals do it, but with the resources and power that government has, the effects of those things are greatly magnified, to the detriment of those who don’t obey. Since I can’t improve on this statement of economist Richard Ebeling on government, I won’t even try: “There has been no greater threat to life, liberty, and property throughout the ages than government. Even the most violent and brutal private individuals have been able to inflict only a mere fraction of the harm and destruction that have been caused by the use of power by political authorities.”
What follows, then — with apologies to Solomon, Gregory, Dante, and Gandhi — are the seven deadly sins of government.
If there is one thing that governments do, it is wage war. This has been true throughout history: the Persian Wars, the Punic Wars, the Gallic Wars, the Hundred Years’ War, the Thirty Years’ War, the Seven Years’ War, the War of the Spanish Succession, the Napoleonic Wars, the French conquest of Algeria, the Crimean War, the Sino-Japanese War, the Balkan Wars, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the First Gulf War, the War in Iraq, the War in Afghanistan, and numerous civil wars, revolutions, rebellions, conflicts, insurgencies, and wars of independence.
Writing in 1968, the historian and philosopher Will Durant, (1885–1981), in his book The Lessons of History, remarked that “in the last 3,421 years of recorded history only 268 have seen no war.” But the bloodiest century was not somewhere in the distant past between groups of ignorant barbarians blindly following their kings engaged in territorial squabbles. The bloodiest century was the twentieth century. In the twentieth century, governments mastered the art of efficient mass killing. In World War I, during the Battle of the Somme, British casualties numbered more than 57,000 on the first day. During the Battle of Verdun throughout 1916, more than 430,000 Germans were killed or wounded and approximately 550,000 French. In World War II — the “good war” — more than 60 million people were killed, give or take a few million, and a majority of them were civilians.
The U.S. government is no different from any other government in history. The United States has never gone a decade without war, and the only time it went five years without war was during the Great Depression. Most of the military operations launched since World War II have been launched by the United States. American military spending dwarfs the rest of the world put together.
Although all taxation is government theft, the income tax is particularly onerous. As Old Right stalwart Frank Chodorov explained in his classic book, The Income Tax: Root of All Evil (1954), the income tax means that the state says to its citizens,
Your earnings are not exclusively your own; we have a claim on them, and our claim precedes yours; we will allow you to keep some of it, because we recognize your need, not your right; but whatever we grant you for yourself is for us to decide.
The amount of your earnings that you may retain for yourself is determined by the needs of government, and you have nothing to say about it.
And because of our Marxist progressive tax code, some Americans have an income tax rate as high as 37 percent.
But Americans are actually quadruple-taxed. In addition to paying income taxes, everyone who works pays a Social Security tax of 6.2 percent on the first $142,800 of income — the same income on which he already pays federal income tax. And if he makes too much money, 85 percent of his Social Security benefits can be taxed. Then there is the 1.45 percent Medicare tax that all workers pay on every dollar of income — the same income on which they already pay federal income tax and Social Security tax. And there is an additional Medicare tax of .9 percent that applies to income exceeding $200,000 ($250,000 for married filing jointly). And finally, there is a tax on earned income in all but eleven states — the same income on which is paid federal income tax, Social Security tax, and Medicare tax.
Tax Freedom Day is the day calculated by the Tax Foundation “when the nation as a whole has earned enough money to pay its total tax bill for the year.” That day does not generally come until 100 days into the year or later. In 2019, Americans paid “$3.4 trillion in federal taxes and $1.8 trillion in state and local taxes, for a total bill of over $5.2 trillion, or 29 percent of the nation’s income.” Americans collectively spent “more on taxes in 2019” than “on food, clothing, and housing combined.”
According to the late economist Walter Williams of George Mason University, “Tragically, two-thirds to three-quarters of the federal budget can be described as Congress taking the rightful earnings of one American to give to another American — using one American to serve another. Such acts include farm subsidies, business bailouts, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, welfare, and many other programs.”
Americans often refer to European countries as socialistic or welfare states — and they are — but the United States is not far behind. The U.S. government has about 80 means-tested welfare programs that provide cash, food, subsidies, and a variety of social services to poor, disabled, and lower-income Americans on the basis of the beneficiary’s income or assets.
The Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program pays cash directly to welfare recipients to spend as they please. States receive block grants from the federal government to design and operate TANF programs. The Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program gives cash assistance to people who are disabled, aged, or both, and who have low income and few assets. Refundable tax credits give some people refunds of money that they never paid in. The majority of American poor families with children receive some form of cash assistance from the government.
The most common welfare program is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which used to be known as food stamps. Recipients of food-stamp benefits receive a deposit on an EBT card each month that can be used only for prepackaged food items. About 13 percent of the population are on food stamps. Other means-tested welfare programs include the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP); the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP); Women, Infants, and Children (WIC); Head Start; Healthy Start; the National School Lunch Program (NSLP); the School Breakfast Program (SBP); subsidized low-income phone service; and federal rental assistance through the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program.
Some welfare programs aren’t means-tested at all, such as Unemployment Compensation, which provides benefits to those who become unemployed through no fault of their own who meet certain eligibility requirements. Other welfare programs are not generally recognized as such — such as Medicare and Social Security — because they are said to be funded by payroll taxes.
In his book The Problem with Socialism (2016), economist Thomas J. DiLorenzo begins his chapter on education thus:
Imagine that the grocery industry was organized in the following way: every residence is assigned by the government to the nearest neighborhood grocery store where it must purchase its groceries. There are heavy penalties for anyone caught shopping at an alternative grocery store. All groceries are paid for with an annual lump-sum tax collected by the local government. Anyone can then walk into her assigned grocery store and pick up whatever she wants, and local governments boast about their “free public groceries.”
He continues his analogy:
It is possible to shop elsewhere, but one must then pay twice — once with the grocery tax, and then a second time by paying cash for the alternative groceries.
All employees of the grocery store are paid the same according to whichever seniority group they belong to.
It is almost impossible to fire a grocery store employee for any reason except criminality.
Grocery store employees who are grossly incompetent and negligent are routinely promoted.
If the grocery stores are so badly run that food rots on the shelves and their spending exceeds their budgets, or if the grocery workers go on strike, the grocery tax is simply increased.
This is exactly the nature of the public school system in the United States (and most of the world) that is operated, controlled, and funded by government.
Compulsory-attendance laws ensure that students fill the classrooms to be indoctrinated with the latest government propaganda. School-district taxes ensure that only those with the financial means to pay for private education on top of public education are able to bypass the system. The ubiquity of public schools with their extracurricular activities ensures that parents take the easy way out and leave the responsibility of educating their children to the state — even though they take responsibility for their children’s medical care, clothing, food and drink, housing, religious training, transportation, and recreation. Federal grants, loans, and accreditation ensure that higher education is controlled by the federal government, even at private colleges and universities.
The 19th-century classical-liberal political philosopher Lysander Spooner, (1808–1887), in his classic essay, “Vices Are Not Crimes: A Vindication of Moral Liberty” (1875), eloquently contrasted vice and crime:
Vices are those acts by which a man harms himself or his property.
Crimes are those acts by which one man harms the person or property of another.
Vices are simply the errors which a man makes in his search after his own happiness. Unlike crimes, they imply no malice toward others, and no interference with their persons or property….
Unless this clear distinction between vices and crimes be made and recognized by the laws, there can be on earth no such thing as individual right, liberty, or property; no such things as the right of one man to the control of his own person and property, and the corresponding and coequal rights of another man to the control of his own person and property.
Yet governments throughout history and the world over have regularly punished people for engaging in entirely peaceful, private, voluntary, and consensual activities that do not harm nonparticipants or aggress against the person or property of others. Taking illegal drugs, prostituting one’s body, and gambling away one’s money are the top three things that come to mind, but it goes much deeper than that.
Governments have invented nebulous crimes against nature, decency, society, humanity, civilization, religion, the greater good, the public interest, and the state. Governments have criminalized having bad habits, performing immoral actions, exercising poor judgment, partaking of unhealthy substances, acting irresponsibly, engaging in risky behavior, participating in dangerous activities, committing sin, harming oneself, practicing addictive conduct, and doing something financially ruinous. And governments have arbitrarily decided which dangerous, unjust, immoral, and unethical actions should be made illegal.
Prices are independent of labor, expenses, cost, value, and risk. As economist Donald Boudreaux of George Mason University has explained, prices “(1) reflect underlying realities and, in doing so, (2) inform producers and consumers about how best to coordinate their actions with each other, and (3) give incentives to countless producers and consumers to adjust their actions to each other in coordinating ways.” Although philosophers and theologians in medieval times debated the concept of the just price, governments have always — in the name of serving the public interest, protecting consumers, fighting income inequality, “leveling the playing field,” defending the economically disadvantaged, helping the poor, trying to keep people out of poverty, and preventing people from being taken advantage of — forcibly intervened in the free market to prevent prices from being not just too high, excessive, unconscionable, exorbitant, or prohibitive, but too low, unfair, unjust, or unreasonable.
U.S. federal and state governments are no exception.
Sugar price floors are a sweet deal for U.S. sugar growers and processors, but they keep the price of sugar for food producers and consumers artificially high. Predatory-pricing laws make it illegal to set one’s prices too low in order to eliminate competition and monopolize the market — the goal of every business. The most prevalent form of price floors is minimum-wage laws.
Rent-control laws function as price ceilings. Even though they reduce the quality and quantity of rental units, governments either totally or partially freeze rents or regulate or limit rent increases. Other price ceilings set by government include price-gouging laws, ticket-scalping laws, and usury laws. Price-gouging laws are based on the idea that there is a just price for every good and service, and even more so during bad weather or some government-declared state of emergency. They criminalize merely charging market prices for goods that are in high demand and short supply. Ticket-scalping laws make it illegal to sell tickets on the secondary market for more than their face value. They prevent middlemen and entrepreneurs from performing a valuable service. Instead of allowing a willing lender and a willing borrower to freely agree on the interest rate of a loan, usury laws protect people who are credit risks from “predatory lenders” who charge what the government sees as too high an interest rate.
There is no area of American life that government does not regulate. The federal government reads our email, listens to our phone conversations, tracks our bank deposits and withdrawals, limits the size of toothpaste tubes on airplanes to 3.4 ounces, regulates the size of the holes in our Swiss cheese, and limits the amount of water that is allowed to flow through shower heads and that toilets are allowed to flush. As Charlotte Twight wrote almost twenty years ago in Dependent on D.C.: The Rise of Federal Control over the Lives of Ordinary Americans,
Growing federal power — driven by legislation, validated by Supreme Court decisions, and accelerated by presidential ambition — has eroded the rule of law in our nation, leaving almost no activity that the central government cannot at its discretion, regulate, manipulate, or prohibit. A constitutional counterrevolution has occurred in America — one so profound that few today can imagine Americans free of dependence on government.
And this was all before the “pandemic.”
Americans in many states are still burdened with draconian regulations regarding mask wearing, “social distancing,” and capacity limitations stemming from the “pandemic” from governments at all levels. But what most Americans don’t realize is that a myriad of draconian regulations have existed for many years in “the land of the free.”
Because of occupational licensing, some Americans must get permission from the government to open a business, engage in commerce, work in certain occupations, have a particular vocation, or provide a service to willing customers. Manufacturers must comply with labeling laws on everything from mattresses to stuffed animals. Most employers with at least 15 employees must comply with anti-discrimination laws enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) that forbid employers from discriminating in hiring, firing, or giving promotions on the basis of race, religion, age, sex, national origin, disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
Public-accommodations laws, even though they infringe on property rights, freedom of association, and freedom of contract, mandate that businesses serve anyone and everyone.
Businesses must also comply with environmental regulations, safety regulations, antitrust regulations, advertising regulations, licensing, and permits. The Obama-care employer mandate dictates that all employers with 50 full-time or full-time-equivalent employees or more must offer them “affordable” health insurance that provides “minimum value” or pay an annual tax penalty of $2,000 per employee.
So then, if government shouldn’t wage war, confiscate wealth, redistribute income, monopolize education, criminalize vice, control prices, and regulate everything, then what should it do? The answer is: as little as possible.
In a free society, the functions of government — in whatever form it might exist — would be strictly limited to prosecuting those who initiate violence against, commit fraud against, or violate the personal or property rights of others and exacting restitution from them. As libertarian theorist Doug Casey has explained,
Since government is institutionalized coercion — a very dangerous thing — it should do nothing but protect people in its bailiwick from physical coercion. What does that imply? It implies a police force to protect you from coercion within its boundaries, an army to protect you from coercion from outsiders, and a court system to allow you to adjudicate disputes without resorting to coercion.
In a free society, the government simply leaves those alone who don’t threaten force or initiate violence against the person or property of others.
This article was originally published in the June 2021 edition of Future of Freedom.