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The Reactionary Utopian
August 13, 2010

Idealism versus Freedom
A classic by Joseph Sobran
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DUNN LORING, VA — Of all the apocryphal sayings ascribed to our Founding Fathers, my favorite is one attributed to George Washington: "Government is not reason. It is not persuasion. It is force." If he never said it, he should have.

Everyone who believes in a moral order should ponder those eleven words. Government is indeed force, force claiming justification, and its exercise at least requires some serious reason.

This is a truth that Americans have almost entirely forgotten. I often argue with a dear old liberal friend of mine, a man too personally decent and modest to impose his will on any human being, but who assumes implicitly that the government has the authority to enact, say, "civil rights" legislation curtailing freedom of association and property rights.

My friend is no fool. He is intelligent and eloquent, and I always learn something from his side of our endless arguments. But one thought — a self-evident truth that I'd hope would occur to every rational person — has apparently never crossed his mind: that government is force. Like so many people, he assumes, without reflection, that if some imagined social condition seems desirable, government should try to bring it about. He admits some practical difficulties, but for him government seems to embody aspirations which he further assumes reasonable people share and only unreasonable people resist, as in the case of "gay marriage."

This is why I shudder at the word "idealist" Ideals are fantasies, most of which can never be brought into being. If government tries to realize them, it can do so only by applying force and curtailing freedom. And many people see this enterprise as noble, even if it fails; the cost to freedom seldom enters their calculations.

In Michael Oakeshott's famous observation, to some people government appears as "a vast reservoir of power" which inspires them to dream of the uses that might be made of it, often in the service of what they take to be benign purposes, for the good of "mankind." Yet such people typically gloss over the element of power, which, after all, is not a mere property of government but its
very essence. Their sense of power, like my friend's, is rather mystical, as if the actual doings of government were nothing more than the expression of (in his phrase) an "emerging consensus." But if the desired goals were a matter of consensus, why should they have to be realized by force, fiat, even war?

It isn't just liberals who think this way. Some conservatives do too, as when they pine for government to enforce what they call "values." I generally prefer conservative "values" to liberal "ideals," since they are closer to what I really believe in: the proven norms of human nature. A society with property rights, for example, is normal; we know it can exist. A society in which wealth is equally distributed by the state is merely fantastic; it can never exist, and the attempt to give it existence entails violence to no purpose.

My friend hates violence. But he can't see, and nothing I say can make him see, that when he calls for government he is calling for force, which is violence or the threat of violence. His ideals depend on an evil, and on obedience based on the degrading fear of that evil.

Idealism? I'd call it slavery.

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A version of this column appeared in the September 2004 edition of Sobran's: The Real News of the Month.

Copyright © 2010 by Joe Sobran and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved.

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