“Society is produced by our wants, and government by wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher. Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil.”, Thomas Paine
During my morning commute the other day, I was stopped at a traffic light. While sitting there fiddling with the radio dial, my mind wandered. At that instant, how many cars were stopped on how many highways by how many red-lights all around the country? How many gallons of gasoline were being wasted while car engines sat idle? How many minutes were being lost? How much traffic congestion was being created as groups of cars were being forcibly compressed into tightly condensed clusters?
All of these must be huge numbers. Now multiply them by the number of instants in a day and the number of days in a year, this is surely a huge (and growing) waste, each and every year. Early in the morning or late at night in my area, it is not even unusual to be caught at a traffic light with no competing traffic moving in any direction through an intersection. We surrender our intelligence, our freedom, and our mobility to an automaton, thoughtlessly cycling through red, yellow, and green.
When you add it all up, this is an immeasurable evil perpetrated against the American people. The loss of freedom, the mindless submission, the loss of time, the loss of money as our gasoline is consumed…. Yet this evil saves lives. I am convinced that most of these traffic lights are worthless, merely moving accidents from one place to another, but at least a few of them actually do prevent accidents and traffic fatalities. As much as I am convinced that traffic lights are evil, I am also convinced that some percentage of them are necessary. The lesser of two evils, as it were.
During recent weeks, the postings in social media have really been ramping up. “Vote”. “Don’t Vote”. “Vote for this candidate”. “Don’t vote for that candidate”. “Anyone but this guy”. “Stop voting for the lesser of two evils”. At the Tenth Amendment Center, we do not endorse candidates, so I’m certainly not going to join most of that drama, but I do want to address the lesser of two evils claim. This claim is important because it displays a fundamental misunderstanding in the Liberty and Patriot community. If someone believes they can find a way to vote without voting for the lesser of two evils, that person reveals a fundamental confusion about the nature of government.
Put simply, the only way to avoid voting for the lesser of two evils is to avoid voting. If you are voting for someone to govern you, you are voting to restrict your own freedom on behalf of the community. You are voting for someone who will take money, the fruit of our labor, from you and your neighbors, against our will. Make no mistake. This is evil, even if that someone’s name is Ron Paul, Gary Johnson, or Virgil Goode — even if that someone wears a red jersey or a blue one. As exemplified by the simple traffic light, Paine nailed it when he wrote that government can only be a necessary evil. It is important for all of us to break free of the illusion that government can ever be a blessing. The blessing comes from society – from the people in our community – not from government.
The reason this misunderstanding is important is because it commonly reveals itself in a different form throughout the year, not just on election day. It reveals itself, even in the preamble to the Constitution itself:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Many of us were required to memorize that text in grammar school, so we may not look at it as skeptically as we probably should. It’s important to remember that the authors of the Constitution had an immediate goal in mind when they composed that document – ratification. The preamble is, in part, a sales pitch. Would it surprise any adult in today’s society to think that a group of men might have exaggerated expectations for a product they were trying to promote? To put it frankly, when it promises to “promote the general Welfare”, the preamble to the Constitution promises the impossible and claims, for government, an ability that is only achievable by society.
In On Violence, Government, and Self-Deception, I noted that government is always rooted on a foundation of violence. This is exactly why the general Welfare cannot be promoted by the federal government. Government only exists through the aggressive use of force against its citizens – presumably necessary, but evil nonetheless. When the 18th century Americans ratified the Constitution, they granted a limited authority to use aggressive force. Any suggestion that this grant of authority is anything better than a necessary evil can only be mistaken. Anything founded on violence and compulsion is evil. It may prevent a greater evil, but it cannot promote the common good.
“It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself.”, Thomas Jefferson
We need to beware of this distinction when debating the issues. The progressive desire to increase the power of government stems from this misunderstanding. On issue after issue, the progressives assure us that the government needs more power in order to promote the common good. This cannot possibly be true. If an action truly promotes the common good, then it can be achieved voluntarily, through the use of persuasion and education. If an action can only be accomplished through the use of force, then it is rooted in evil. Like the traffic light, this evil may prevent a greater evil, but it can never promote the common good. It is vital to be aware of that distinction and to avoid mistaking evil for good.
So vote. Don’t vote. Vote for this guy. Don’t vote for that guy. Whatever…. I don’t really care much about what happens on November 6. No matter who wins, we’ll be left with a government which is founded on the use of violence and coercion. It’s not what we do on November 6 that matters. What matters is what we do on 364 other days of the year. If we go back to sleep because we’re happy that the winner is wearing a red jersey or a blue one, we’re doomed to be exploited. If we stay vigilant and ensure that the use of force by government is limited to its Constitutionally legitimate role, then society will bring the blessings of prosperity to all of us.