Dr. Thomas Rustici has served on the faculty of The Fund for American Studies since 2001, teaching economics and public policy for the Institute on Political Journalism and Capital Semester.
He has taught economics at George Mason University since 1995. For several years in a row, the George Mason faculty has nominated Rustici for the Excellence in Teaching Award. In 2000, George Mason students named him Professor of the Year, an honor Rustici calls “the most important accomplishment in my life.”
Rustici wrote the student guide that accompanies John Stossel’s Greed, Freeloaders and Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death videos. His Stossel in the Classroom guides are in almost 600 classrooms and have been read by more than 173,000 students.
Rustici earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics and his doctorate in public policy at George Mason University.
Dr. Thomas Rustici: The Origin of the State
What follows is the text of Dr. Thomas Rustici’s opening lecture on political philosophy. Here, he lays out the history of the state as an institution shattering romantic notions that the state is designed uniquely to serve the people and also showing that a constitutional republic is the best protection from tyranny.
What do we mean by freedom? It is important to define the term. In general, there are two different philosophies. “Positive freedom” or “positive liberty” versus “negative freedom” or “negative liberty.” What do we mean by these terms? What is the difference between them?
Positive freedom is an entitlement, like a “right” to healthcare, education, housing, etc. But where do these things come from? They do not fall down from the sky. Someone is obligated to give them to you.
Negative freedom is freedom from coercion, freedom from violence, freedom from duties, freedom from arbitrary power, etc. In other words, negative freedom is the right to be left alone.
We can summarize negative freedom very easily. Think about Robinson Crusoe. When he’s on the island, isn’t he at maximum negative liberty, negative freedom? Is there any social authority Crusoe has to obey? Because there’s no one else there he has to get approval from, right? He does whatever he chooses to do, given the constraints of reality.
Now, this notion of negative freedom is the definition of freedom that has generally been used throughout most of western civilization. When you study western civilization from the Greeks and Romans on – the overwhelming concept of freedom meant negative freedom, to live your life as those who have autonomy. Positive freedom, a notion of entitlements to other people’s goods, etc. is something completely different and a creation of the modern era.
Where do “entitlements” come from? They usually come from the state, right? People say their government is responsible for providing health care, education, housing and more. But before we debate whether or not that idea is morally just, we have to ask about the genesis of the state itself. So let’s look at the history of the state. Where did this institution come from? What organizes its functional logic?
First off, you don’t want to start with a romantic fiction, hoping in some lost past that it was a beautiful picture because the reality is an ugly picture.
Secondly, there is a moral question and a practical question. Typically we think about the practical question. We say to ourselves, “Without government there is chaos. Anarchy is a disaster.” I agree with that. I don’t doubt that for a minute. Your professor’s not an anarchist, far from it. But you also have to be honest with history.
Just because it is practical or has been around for a long time, it is morally correct? There are people who thought they needed slaves, but was that morally correct? Women’s oppression has been around for thousands of years, it does not make it a just way to treat women.
I’m going to take you for about 15 minutes on a detour through anthropology – not that I’m concerned you know ancient history and anthropology, but this is where you go to find this answer. And it has major implications for economics, ethics and so forth.
We’re going to look back at the actual origins of government. Let’s start by going back to our primitive past – maybe forty or fifty thousand years before government – people were early hunter/gatherers. They were nomadic, they wandered in clans and tribes, and they foraged for food. When they ran out of food, they had to go forage for more. If they couldn’t find more, they died. And that’s what most people did. Life expectancy for surviving in the ancient world (according to the best records we have) was somewhere around 20 years of age. In other words, most of you would be dead by now, assuming you survived birth. In the words of Thomas Hobbes, life in pre-state history was “nasty, brutish and short.” It was just hell. And there’s every reason to believe that was probably true.Think about this: humans start from literally nothing; scarcity, the first rule of economics, has decimated humanity. Humans slept in caves, on wet dirt floors, their diet was erratic, they often froze to death in the winter, disease devoured their bodies, the elements consumed them. This was nasty, brutish and very short.
The fate of the human species, of course, lies in our ability to acquire knowledge. And about ten thousand years ago we see the first big shift in human history: the agricultural revolution. During this period, nomads and wanderers became farmers.
Think about this, you are a nomadic hunter, gatherer, wanderer, and you go to pick whatever nature has to offer. You get yourself a handful of seeds. You eat these seeds. Once you eat them, you have to go forage for more. Along the way, someone figured out that if he planted these seeds in the ground, he would have a more steady supply of food. Sure, he’d have to forage while the plants took root, but he could eventually return at a future date and have more seeds.
We get the first farming in the fertile crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. This was also the world’s first savings and investment, the agricultural revolution.
I always say: when humans plant roots they create human roots. Why? If you make your investment, can you wander far from your investments? This is like a principle of economics and finance. What happens if you are too detached from your investments? You will lose them, won’t you? So this is the same that’s true with plants, even more so. They are immobile.
So imagine that you come back to your harvest to reap what you have sewn, and someone’s there eating your plants. A big bully is eating your good seeds! You show him how you surrounded your plants with rocks in order to show others that this is your crop. “That’s all mine,” you say. “You’re in my field here.” He replies to you, “No, no, no, those are my plants. Move aside. I found these plants.” You try and try to explain that you planted those seeds months ago so that you would have food when the harvest was ready. You tell him, “We’ve got to work our way out of this.” But he is much bigger and stronger than you, so instead of working it out, he kills you. Then he steals your tools and your clothes and everything you have and eats all your plants.
Now, you see, this big bully, this violent thug, took everything you had. But really, it is only a one-shot victory for him. Now he has to go forage for more because the sustainable crop that you had planted is now ruined. Along that route, the bully got smart. The next time he comes to another farmer, he says, “How about this. I am going to take these plants. I won’t kill you. I’m just going to put some chains on you. You will grow plants for me. I’ll let you have some so that you can eat and stay healthy enough to harvest for me.” So these farmers would grow the plants and the bully would take about two-thirds or three-quarters of the harvest under threat of compulsion. If the farmers didn’t work his fields, he’d kill them. The routine became the first taxation, under the threat of violence. This process is, in essence, both the birth of government and the beginnings of slavery.
Now, as I said, this bully finally got smart. He figured out how to make others work, expropriate their goods and throw crumbs to them to keep them alive. Eventually, there are problems with that because there is more than one bully, and they are all relatively close together. What happens if some other bully wants to annex my slaves and have them work his fields? What do I have to do as the bully? I have to protect my slaves from other bullies who want to annex them. And that is called national defense. Today it is just more sophisticated and modern. National defense is to protect you from other governments.
As a slave (or a citizen) you get a little security. You don’t have to worry about that other bully coming in and killing you. But slaves may have problems among themselves. Maybe some of the slaves are killing and stealing from other slaves. And if slaves are killing and stealing, then they are not creating value for me. So, as a bully, I create police. I create law and order to make sure slaves don’t kill each other. That’s why all governments have police power as well as military power.
And last, maybe my slaves have legitimate arguments, and no one really knows who is right or wrong. They could take it to vendettas, feuds on the street, vigilantism. If they’re doing that, they sure aren’t growing food for me. So I need an impartial third party, an arbiter, somebody who has no dog in the fight. This is the court system.
These are the three classic functions of government: national defense, police and a court system. All three of these emerged ten thousand years ago with the advent of farming.
Notice these three have become what we think of as the “necessary” functions of government, but don’t forget how the beast arose. It arose out of what? Thugs and gangs, extortion rackets. The state started as an extortion racket. You might be upset that this is the truth. But it doesn’t mean you don’t need that institution. It doesn’t mean you can’t try and rationalize it on some other margin. But if you ought to be honest about history, you cannot create romantic fictions. It isn’t as if one day people sat around and held hands and said, ooh, let’s have government. It started in a very violent and ugly way.
We have no records of any government that doesn’t have some traceable links to war, conquest, violence, domination, exploitation or slavery somewhere in history. So where government comes from is repugnant, is morally evil, at least by most people’s standards.
But notice the new dilemma: you have this practical necessity that falls out of these three functions (national defense, police, courts). You need the government so you don’t have anarchy, lawlessness, chaos, but yet this government is based on coercion, violence and oppression. So now you’ve got to reconcile an evil institution at its core with the practical necessity to survive this civilization.
This is the birth of political philosophy. Thomas Paine, one of our Founding Fathers said “Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.”
How have we tried to legitimize the state? We know it’s necessary, but how do we take the “evil” out of the “necessary” part? The oldest doctrine in world history, the most prevalent, is divine right. I call this the Pharaonic principle. With the rise of organized violence (meaning government) slaves were indoctrinated with a belief system.
In ancient Egypt, the Pharaoh ruled by divine authority. Pharaohs said it was their destiny to own slaves, warriors and everyone else. In fact, everyone lived and died for the Pharaoh because, quite simply, the Pharaoh was a god.
Whatever negative rights you had as a human being – freedom to have autonomy, to make your own decisions, to choose what you do with your life, whatever element of that you had – were seen as sort of gifts of generosity on the part of the Pharaoh. He didn’t have to let you live, but he did. In fact, everything is the Pharaoh’s, including your very existence. Whatever rights you had were granted by Pharaoh, gifts of generosity.
If Pharaoh’s whim determines whether you have rights or not, are they really rights, or are they temporary privileges on loan? Pharaoh is only throwing you crumbs because he is the source of all the rights – which really means they are not rights at all. He can just as easily kill you as give you those “rights.”
This principle doesn’t begin and end with ancient Egypt. The more modern extension of it is the idea of the sovereign right of kings. Now monarchs were not so bold as to say they were gods, but they did say “I am the agent of God. God has chosen my ancestor to be the leader of the violence, and I have descended from that ancestor.” This sort of theocracy dominated most of the world governments from the ancient Egyptians all the way up until the 19th century.
Between these two periods, not much changed. The only shift is that the legitimization of state violence went from “I’m a god, so I have moral authority to use violence against you” to “I’m not God, but God chose my grandfather and therefore I have moral authority to use violence against you.” Society was divided into those who are special, and everyone else – we’ll call them humanity – got to be pushed around by that one because that one was “chosen.” This was the dominant form of government throughout the world until about 150 years ago. Which brings us to democracy.
About 2,500 years ago in the Mediterranean, Greek culture offered a radical political technology. The Greek world had many isolated city-states carved out by mountains and sea. In one of those city-states, Athens, we see the birth of democracy in western civilization.
Around 430 B.C. came Pericles, who said: “Although only a few may originate a policy, we are all able to judge it.” This is like dropping nuclear bombs on the Pharaonic principle. Only a few people make the rules, but every human being has a mind, a conscious and a heart. Every human being can judge right and wrong. Which means everyone has power no matter where you stand in the ranks of society. There are no longer the special people on one hand and humanity on the other.
Few shall rule, all shall judge. This both solves many of the moral problems with government and opens up new ones.
Democracy tacitly assumes pre-existing human rights, placing it in opposition to the system of rights granted by the Pharaoh or king. But if you look at the functional operation of a majoritarian democracy, what is the rule? Fifty percent plus one makes the majority. Isn’t this simply another name for mob rule? Democracy says, okay, it isn’t this one king who is special. We have a right to judge. But the “we” turns into 50 percent plus one, which is essentially the “might makes right” principle. But does might make right? Haven’t majorities sanctioned slavery? Haven’t majorities been oppressive? Human history’s littered with this.
Is the 50 percent plus one always morally right? Can’t groups of people make mistakes? After all, humans are fallible. Anybody can make mistakes. So why is it that they have this right? It is because I, as a member of the majority, outnumber you in the minority. I have more thugs on my side than you have on yours. In other words: we can beat you up, but you can’t do the same to us.
So what are the origins of the rights for those not in the mob? Well, they come from the benevolence of the majority, right? So are they rights? Can’t 50 percent plus one eliminate all the rights from the minority if they choose to do so in a pure democracy? If the rights of the minority are purely gifts given by the majority, then they still aren’t rights. They are temporary privileges on loan from that coalitional majority. To call them “rights” is a grotesque abuse of language. We need to go further.
Clearly, democracy solves some moral problems, specifically the lone agent claim to divinity, but it opens up other problems between the citizens themselves regarding where the boundary of morality gets placed and how you limit that majority rule. Winston Churchill once said, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” Democracy may not be perfect, but Churchill held it to be our best reasonable alternative.
To overcome “might makes right,” people invented another political technology: representation. We begin to see the beginnings of representation in the Roman Empire. Once groups of people start getting in large numbers, it becomes logistically impractical to get everyone together to make decisions for everything. What’s fascinating, is now we have what’s called the principle-agent problem.
It works like this: principles are citizens, the agents are the elected officials. The citizens have elections in which they choose who will represent them. So the representatives are agents of the citizens. Can’t agents, once chosen, act opportunistically against the principles? Of course. Simply having elections does not ensure that the agents will act in the interests of the principles/citizens. We still must push further in the evolution of government.
In America, the key to all of this is the Constitution. The Constitution places limits on what representatives of the people cannot do, in essence granting negative freedoms. Note the language of each Amendment to the Bill of Rights beginning, “Congress shall not…” It is the rules for the government. The Constitution says to hired agents — congressman, presidents, judges — here is how you must proceed. There are limits to your powers. You cannot just do anything you choose to do. You have to behave in a just manner and this Constitution outlines those rules.
George Washington, my favorite of the Founders, said “Government is not reason. Government is not eloquence. It is force. And, like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.”
Now, here’s some honesty! The first president of the United States understood that government is not some romantic, eloquent poetry that so many often imagine. It isn’t even reasonable. It’s force. Police power. Tanks could roll over you. It is force! Every law is backed up by violence.
Like fire, this power could be a useful servant. If you use it properly, you have civilization. Or this power can be dangerous. Fire is useful. But fire can get out of control and destroy. History has proven that governments do exactly that. The state becomes the biggest bully, the biggest oppressor, the biggest mass murderer.
If you want to see what unlimited fire looks like with no checks, no balances, no bill of rights, no accountability, go to the Holocaust museum. Go down there and tell me how much beauty, poetry, eloquence and reason you see. Tell me how much violence you see, how much evil you see. There were no constraints on Adolph Hitler. There were no laws he had to obey, no Constitution. He was the law.
R.J. Rummel, professor of political science at the University of Hawaii, wrote a phenomenal book called Death by Governments. It was published in 1994. He calculates the deaths caused by governments. In this text, he looks at demographics, statistics, casualties in wars and so forth.
During the first 92 years of the 20th century, the so-called enlightened century, Rummel estimated all the deaths by governments through war: World War I, World War II, civil wars. He said all the direct casualties of all these wars comes to 37 million people.
But what is shocking is the other statistic. During that same 92 years, when 37 million people were slaughtered on the battlefields, those governments killed another 170 million of their own civilians. Four times more than all the worst civil wars, conflicts, everywhere in the world. Innocent civilians were smashed into the ground. You start seeing Holocaust, genocide, Stalin’s Soviet Union, Germany and Cambodia, killing two, three million people in a few years. Mao’s China killed another 40 to 50 million. Unlimited fire – unlimited government – looks like unlimited evil.
And so I always tell my students who call themselves real peace activists – if you want peace, you need to limit the state. Governments are very good at killing their own innocent people, much better than they are at killing strangers than are armed on the battlefield! That’s a bloody, ugly reality.
I guarantee your other public policy teachers won’t talk about it. They will talk about the pretty governments that solve problems and give people “rights” to healthcare, education, housing and more. But let’s talk about reality here! What we have is an evil institution that stems from slavery and violence. In the 20th century we got past divine right, mob rule, we went to totalitarianism and stacked up 207 million dead bodies. We cannot get romantic about government. We cannot call something a “right” if it can just as easily be taken away by government unconstrained by a Constitution like we have in the U.S. Remember, like fire, government is only a useful servant.