I’m plowing through Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations for the first time this quarter, and I recently came upon this sociological gem:
Fear is almost all cases a wretched instrument of government, and ought in particular never to be employed against any order of men who have the smallest pretensions to independency. To attempt to terrify them, serves only to irritate their bad humor, and to confirm in them an opposition which more gentle usage perhaps might easily induce them [...]
I count this as a sociological gem because of its insights into how people with strong libertarian streaks are apt to view their government. If there is one thing that a libertarian despises most, it may just be the pretension of governments everywhere to demonize and demagogue a foreign people with the use of fear.
In fact, our co-blogger Jacques Delacroix has continually used this disgusting tactic to justify the violent use of force overseas to attain what he sees as benevolent ends: that of implementing democratic regimes throughout the post-colonial world. Indeed, he writes:
“Petty tyrants” can easily become dangerous if they are allowed. Look at the fat-bellied little dwarf in North Korea. I am not willing to risk Seattle, or even Anchorage, or even Vancouver, B. C.
This display of fear, of unending, unyielding, constant fear of an imminent nuclear attack by petty tyrants, terrorist organizations, and trading partners betrays the façade that some “libertarians” (or even conservatives, or decent human beings) purport to uphold when it comes to the dignity of the individual.
The use of force overseas, of our military, for purposes that do not pertain directly to the defense of the republic, may sometimes be necessary or justified, but proponents of imperialism will never succeed in convincing libertarians – or anybody else who values human life over the mechanisms of the State – if they condescendingly try to play off of the fears of rational men.
I believe that the usage of fear that so many intellectuals depend upon to put forth an argument is done purposely. For as Smith so keenly noted, fear is not a good instrument to be used against independent-minded men. It is for the weak-minded – the vulgar mass – that fear is best employed by governments. One only has to take a quick glance at those in this society and in others to see that Smith’s observation in regards to the use of fear was correct.
Yet even when the intellectual class wins over the heart and weak mind of mass man, I do not believe he has done himself or his ideas a good service. Oftentimes this fear leads to war, which in turn leads to destruction, and to death, and to the overall detriment of the society for which the intellectual was first trying to help.
It is fitting, I think, to remind readers that the 20th century’s worst mass murderers – collectivists all – were experts at playing off of the unjustified fears of their weak-minded countrymen.
Remember, one does not have to be a Libertarian to be a libertarian (pay attention to my use of capitalization). When you read or hear or see a member of the intellectual class appeal to the use of violence (government) for attaining a specific end, be sure to remember the observations of Smith, and pay close heed to the use of fear to justify the probably unnecessary use of the State to accomplish the intellectual’s project.