It’s my second year of college, around 1987. I find my seat for the first day of an American Government class. The teacher opens the session by posing a question to the students: Why is America the greatest country in the world?
I offered an answer: Because we do more to help the rest of the world than any other country.
There is mixed laughter throughout the auditorium. The teacher smiles and gives a patronizing reply that I don’t recall. But I do remember the laughter. I was taken aback.
The sociologist Morris Massey described moments like these as “Significant Emotional Events,” or SEE’s. It’s one of those moments that something strikes you as profound, or shocking, or unusual. You know at the time that it happens that you’ll remember it for a long time. This one has never left me.
I’m not sure how much I really believed what I was saying, but I was surprised to be in the company of so many people who obviously believed otherwise. I did not react with anger or a stoic defense of my position. In fact, I’d say that this moment probably made me realize that I was not saying something that I truly believed, but instead parroting something I’d heard many times over. I saw an opportunity to learn. It was a teachable moment.
Of course, I spent the next 12 weeks learning about government from the liberal point of view. That class did succeed in moving my views more to the liberal side of the statist spectrum. As I continued to think politically, I described myself as a “moderate.”
It would take another 20 years for me to discover anarcho-capitalism, to truly begin to address the discomforting questions I felt at that moment.
It saddens me to think that had I been in a classroom with Murray Rothbard, Robert LeFevre, or even a junior college instructor with any understanding of libertarian philosophy, I could have avoided two decades of philosophical contradiction.
Perhaps you find yourself uncomfortable in defending some of your statements about government from time to time. Something in your conscience tells you that you’re holding a conflicting idea. Instead of pacifying yourself with the same old statist answers, look at it as a learning opportunity. Challenge your assumptions.
A good teacher would distinguish between the concepts of “America” and “the United States government.” These two things are so conflated in our education system that most people do not distinguish between them at all. “America” is a mass of land and large collection of individuals, from which we observe the emergent properties we call society and culture. The United States government is an institution that draws imaginary lines around “America” and claims a monopoly on the use of force within those borders.
With that observation as a starting point, one can take a more objective look at government. “We” are not the government. You are not the government. The government is not America. Conflating the two is nationalism.
Nationalism leads one to identify themselves with the government, and the end result is that any criticism of the institution of government is met with resistance, as if it were an attack on the individuals identity.
Sure, we criticize the government. But only to the extent that we believe it should be “fixed” to work more like we think it should work. Questioning the legitimacy of the government itself is considered to be out of bounds, usually resulting in a defensive clinging to that tired old platitude: “Anarchy is chaos!”
There is a deep and rich intellectual history in anarchism. The ideas the “founding fathers” built this government upon are part of that intellectual history, as they were greatly influenced by the work of John Locke. Locke was no anarchist, but his work in property rights is a foundation of anarcho-capitalist philosophy. Quite simply, the ideas of liberty have advanced, and statism was left behind. The idea of government is in the philosophical dustbin, it is antithetical to liberty.
The Internet is your window to the world of ideas. Back when I had that window of learning opportunity, no one pointed me to anything really fresh and different. State-run institutions don’t favor the ideas of liberty, they perpetuate the mythology of statism. So when you have one of those moments, and you want to challenge your ideas…it’s all out there. Most of it is free.
I recommend starting with Murray N. Rothbard’s For a New Liberty. It’s available at the Mises Institute here. On that page you can read the book in your browser, download it as a PDF, or even download an audio version – all for free. Mises.org is a vast treasure trove of knowledge about liberty.
Perhaps you’ll remember this next time you have a “teachable moment.”