How bad is the U.S. government?
The following article was originally published in the May 1971 issue of The Abolitionist, written by R.A. Childs, Jr.

One of the many questions which separate “left-wing libertarians” from “right-wing libertarians” is that of just how bad the U.S. Government is. The fault lies partly on both sides. Among left-libertarians, practically no one has taken the time to detail just exactly what they mean, what is being spoken of, and what evidence they have for it. Among right-libertarians, practically no one knows any history beyond the few tomes recommended by the Foundation for Economic Education, YAF, the John Birch Society, and so forth. And no left-libertarian has taken the time to detail his case either.

In one short article, it is impossible to do all the detailing and arguing which will have to be done in order to resolve the debate. But what I want to do here is to point out just what the debate is over, and to suggest to both sides how to resolve it.

Right-libertarians basically, are patriotic in temperament. They maintain that despite all of its faults, the United States is “the freest country in the world,” that ours is still the best government; they react with abhorrence and screams of rage when a left-libertarian suggests that the U.S. Government is the most evil government on the face of the earth. This the left-libertarian unfortunately does often, without evidence or explanation, and without trying to calmly present his arguments.

First, let me make a differentiation: the government, or the State as I shall call it, is not the same as the country of the United States, nor the same as all the people who live under it, what they do, their homes, property, jobs, values or whatever. Right-libertarians are usually talking about the “virtues” of these latter, while left-libertarians are really talking about the State.

So let us focus for a minute on the State, and on its domestic activities. Is or is not the U.S. the freest country in the world? Well, to this question, right-libertarians answer a stout, “yes!” Alright, by what standard? And how many other countries are being compared? This the right-libertarians never take up in depth, and this is one reason why I object to them; they are often shallow and repeat the stories and myths about the United States without having “checked their premises” as the Randians put it. Let us divide up domestic violence into two aspects: scope and intensity. Scope is a word for how many people the actions of the U.S. Government affects domestically. Intensity is the extent to which the state exercises violence or the threat of it in regulating actions and confiscating property. Now with respect to scope the U.S. Government, domestically, must surely fall behind both the U.S.S.R. and China, and thus is not the worst government in that respect. But with regards to intensity, it is another story. The main reason for the problem is that there is really not much of a way to measure the extent of violence and intimidation of the U.S. Government. Certainly it is more subtle than the U.S.S.R., East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Spain, and so forth. While the U.S.S.R. is more blatant about attempting to regulate the opinions of those in the artistic fields, for example, the U.S. must surely be said to do the same thing by means of licenses, subsidies, and the like. But let us at this point grant the contention of the right-libertarians, that the U.S. is at least marginally better than a few other countries, whether communistic or fascistic in the realm of domestic policy.

What about foreign policy? Since this is really what the left-libertarian is getting at, this is what should be focused on when we are considering the issue of how bad the U.S. Government is. When, for example, Colin Caxton attacks the left-libertarians in such publications as LIEF AND LIBERTY, for making such allegedly absurd claims as that the U.S. Government is the most tyrannical in the world, note that he only focuses on domestic policy, on the level of taxes and State regulation of property, etc. But foreign policy is certainly as much a concern as domestic policy – unless we are unwilling to grant that the libertarian ethic and social philosophy apply universally, and that foreigners, as well as Americans, have the right not to be aggressed against, and having been aggressed against, have the unalienable right to defend themselves.

The whole point of the left-libertarians is that in both scope and intensity, the actions of the U.S. Government is foreign countries exceeds in violence those of any other government. How is such a claim substantiated? Predominately by a massive reading in history. Conclusions which result include: The fact since the Spanish-American War, the U.S. Government has been pursuing a policy of foreign expansionism, which is the logical and easily understood extension of the earlier policy of “manifest destiny” under which the U.S. Government extended its boundaries from just a few hundred miles west of the east coast of the United States, to the Pacific Ocean. The reasons for this policy are many, but they include as a predominant feature the fact that the influential American businessmen accepted the idea that without such expansion, the U.S. was doomed to suffer from ever-increasing depressions and industrial crises. After the Civil War, in the midst of the government during and after the War, businessmen sought a way to use the government to stabilize the economy and guarantee them ever-expanding markets for their increased production. Domestically, they turned to government regulation of the economy on their behalf, under the anti-trust laws and others, such as the creation of the Federal Reserve System.

In foreign policy, big businessmen turned to using the U.S. military and its diplomatic channels to insure ever-expanding markets for their goods. This resulted in the Spanish-American war, in confrontations with Japan and China, and the like. It led, ultimately, to the American entry into World War I and II, and it is an important motive in the initiation of the Cold War.

The contention of the left-libertarian is that the U.S. Government is almost solely responsible for initiating and maintaining the Cold War, and for oppressing revolutionary movement all over the earth. For substantiation of this thesis, I recommend the following: The Free World Colossus, by David Horowitz (2nd edition, paper), The Cold War and Its Origins, by D.F. Fleming (2 vol.). The Roots of American Foreign Policy by Gabriel Kolko (paper), The Politics of War by Gabriel Kolko, The Hidden History of the Korean War by I.F. Stone, and The Futile Crusade by Sidney Lens. These all cover different aspects of the history and nature of U.S. foreign policy since the turn of the century, concentrating on the Cold War since 1945.

These books maintain that the revolutionary movements which have been sweeping the world since the turn of the century are not communist inspired, but are a continuation of the earlier libertarian revolutionary movements of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. These movements had as their aim the abolition of feudalism, and the old order of caste and privilege. It is this contention right-wing libertarians must face up to and refute, that is, if they want to maintain that this is the best government in the world.

These authors imply that the reason why communists have become the predominant ideologists backing these revolutions (completely consistent with libertarianism, of course) is because the older classical liberals, adopting a soft-shelled pragmatism, evolutionism, utilitarianism, gave up their position as the leaders of the great capitalist revolutions for the sake of cozying up to the American and British establishments. With these leaders gone (a few exceptions were William Lloyd Garrison, the anarchist natural-rights libertarian and the leader of the abolitionist movement, and Edward Atkinson of the Anti-Imperialist League, a laissez-faire businessman at the turn of the century), those still seeing the need for revolutions in Latin America, Europe, Africa and Asia, not being particularly good theoreticians, took what they could find. What they found was Marxism – at least in part. Their actions have still been a continuation of earlier libertarian revolutions and movements.

What about U.S. imperialism? A lot of right-libertarians make the mistake of thinking that imperialism is and must always be of the colonial variety, but this is not so. Imperialism today consists of an interrelationship between the U.S. Government, some major U.S. corporations of the statist-liberal bent, and foreign governments or ruling classes (such as that in South Vietnam), which result in the ruling classes in power, in exchange for economic-political-interventionist concessions. To do this, a major factor of U.S. Government and its liberal hacks have been the architects of the Cold War, and major corporations have also had a very large role in this. And it is from these that we get the myths of the cold war, as Murray Rothbard has called them: That these revolutionary movements which must always be “put down“, are somehow “communist inspired“.

It is furthermore the contention of the left-libertarians that war has been the fountainhead of much of american domestic statism since the inception of the American state, and that it is through the vehicle of involvement in the internal affairs of foreign countries that the U.S. has promoted and maintained statism on a grand level across the world, thus affecting far more people than any other state.

Granting this, they maintain, as I do that it is time for the right-libertarians to reexamine the course and nature of American history and American statism. And, having done this, that it is the responsibility of libertarians to once again pick up the banner of true radicalism, of the anti-draft, anti-militarist, anti-imperialist, and anti-feudal movements of the last few centuries which have only lately come under the domination of the socialist left.

It has been my purpose here to clarify the issue, and to show what each side should be talking about, and why. What we need from both the left and the right now is intensive and broad-based scholarship, focusing on the real culprits in the rise of American statism, and the inner workings of the American system. And there is no better place to begin than with the Cold War. Without such scholarship, neither left nor right can prove their case, or win the other over.

Translations for this article:

The Anatomy of Escape
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
Free Markets & Capitalism?
Organization Theory
Conscience of an Anarchist