An old saw among opponents of ever more powerful government is the tale of the boiling frog. As the story goes, a frog can be placed in a pot of cool water and, if the heat is turned up slowly enough, find itself boiled alive without ever thinking to jump out.
Having never myself attempted the experiment, I can’t say with any confidence whether or not the tale is literally true. As metaphor, however, it goes right to the heart of the nature of the state.
We, the frogs of 2009, permit ourselves to be subjected to horrors at the hands of government which our forebears of 1976 would have rejected out of hand, which our ancestors of 1876 would have treated as revolutionary casus belli, and which the generation of 1776 would have simply found itself unable to envision.
Thirty years ago, we’d have laughed at the suggestion that government-issued ID and entry in a government database might one day be required to purchase “over-the-counter medicines” like pseudoephedrine.
Only a little more than a hundred years ago, morphine was an “over-the-counter” medicine.
Two hundred years ago, the idea of requiring doctors to be licensed by the state was unheard of and would have been rejected as alien to basic American principles of government.
It’s not the nature of the state which has changed over the centuries. Rather, what has changed are the technologies available to the state’s factotums for the purpose of turning up the heat beneath us frogs — and, apparently, our willingness to tolerate the slow but steady increase in temperature. If you don’t believe me, ask Pierre-Joseph Prodhoun:
To be governed is to be kept in sight, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, estimated, valued, censured, commanded, by creatures who have neither the right, nor the wisdom, nor the virtue to do so…. To be governed is to be at every operation, at every transaction, noted, registered, enrolled, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized, admonished, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished. It is, under the pretext of public utility, and in the name of the general interest, to be placed under contribution, trained, ransomed, exploited, monopolized, extorted, squeezed, mystified, robbed; then, at the slightest resistance, the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, despised, harassed, tracked, abused, clubbed, disarmed, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed; and, to crown all, mocked, ridiculed, outraged, dishonored. That is government; that is its justice; that is its morality.
Proudhon wrote that in 1851, only a year after Allan Pinkerton formed the detective agency which would pioneer the science of state surveillance, at a time when the computer power the state uses for “data-mining” today was little more than a fanciful idea — the “analytical engine” — in the mind of Charles Babbage, and at a time when new forces, labor and capital, were at the beginning of their organized struggles to seize control of the state in their own interests as the old feudal interests drew their last crackling breaths.
Even so early in the arc of Leviathan’s rise, Proudhon understood that those who rely on the state to secure and protect their interests won’t — can’t — tolerate any true limits on their power, either theoretically or in practice.
As the bodies pile up — millions, nay, hundreds of millions or even billions of frogs cooked on the state’s battlefields, boiled in the state’s prisons, fried by the state’s regulations, poached by the state’s taxes — most of our fellow frogs wallow insensate in an ever hotter hot tub, while some few vie incessantly through politics for access to the knob which controls the burner.
If past history is any indication of future trends, it seems likely that that knob turns in only one direction — “up.” And if that’s the case, politics can never save us. Sooner or later, we’re going to have to screw up the courage to jump.