The Myth of "Limited Government"
December 20, 2001

by Joe Sobran

     We are taught that the change from monarchy to 
democracy is progress; that is, a change from servitude 
to liberty. Yet no monarchy in Western history ever taxed 
its subjects as heavily as *every* modern democracy taxes 
its citizens.

     But we are taught that this condition is liberty, 
because "we" are -- freely -- taxing "ourselves." The 
individual, as a member of a democracy, is presumed to 
consent to being taxed and otherwise forced to do 
countless things he hasn't chosen to do (or forbidden to 
do things he would prefer not to do).

     Whence arises the right of a ruler to compel? This 
is a tough one, but modern rulers have discovered that a 
plausible answer can be found in the idea of majority 
rule. If the people rule themselves by collective 
decision, they can't complain that the government is 
oppressing them. This notion is summed up in the magic 
word "democracy."

     It's nonsense. "We" are not doing it to "ourselves." 
Some people are still ruling other people. "Democracy" is 
merely the pretext for authorizing this process and 
legitimizing it in the minds of the ruled. Since outright 
slavery has been discredited, "democracy" is the only 
remaining rationale for state compulsion that most people 
will accept.

     Now comes Hans-Hermann Hoppe, of the University of 
Nevada Las Vegas, to explode the whole idea that there 
can ever be a just state. And he thinks democracy is 
worse than many other forms of government. He makes his 
case in his new book DEMOCRACY -- THE GOD THAT FAILED: 
NATURAL ORDER (Transaction Publishers).

     Hoppe is often described as a libertarian, but it 
might be more accurate to call him a conservative 
anarchist. He thinks the state -- "a territorial monopoly 
of compulsion" -- is inherently subversive of social 
health and order, which can thrive only when men are 

     As soon as you grant the state anything, Hoppe 
argues, you have given it everything. There can be no 
such thing as "limited government," because there is no 
way to control an entity that in principle enjoys a 
monopoly of power (and can simply expand its own power).

     We've tried. We adopted a Constitution that 
authorized the Federal Government to exercise only a few 
specific powers, reserving all other powers to the states 
and the people. It didn't work. Over time the government 
claimed the sole authority to interpret the Constitution, 
then proceeded to broaden its own powers ad infinitum and 
to strip the states of their original powers -- while 
claiming that its self-aggrandizement was the fulfillment 
of the "living" Constitution. So the Constitution has 
become an instrument of the very power it was intended to 

     The growth of the Federal Government might have been 
slowed if the states had retained the power to withdraw 
from the confederation. But the Civil War established the 
fatal principle that no state could withdraw, for any 
reason. So the states and the people lost their ultimate 
defense against Federal tyranny. (And if they hadn't, 
there would still have been the problem of the tyranny of 
individual states.) But today Americans have learned to 
view the victory of the Union over the states, which 
meant an enormous increase in the centralization of 
power, as a triumph of "democracy."

     Hoppe goes so far as to say that democracy is 
positively "immoral," because "it allows for A and B to 
band together to rip off C." He argues that monarchy is 
actually preferable, because a king has a personal 
interest in leaving his kingdom in good condition for his 
heirs; whereas democratic rulers, holding power only 
briefly, have an incentive to rob the public while they 
can, caring little for what comes afterward. (The name 
"Clinton" may ring a bell here.)

     And historically, kings showed no desire to invade 
family life; but modern democracies want to "protect" 
children from their parents. By comparison with the rule 
of our alleged equals, most kings displayed remarkably 
little ambition for power. And compared with modern war, 
the wars of kings were mere scuffles.

     Democracy has proved only that the best way to gain 
power over people is to assure the people that they are 
ruling themselves. Once they believe that, they make 
wonderfully submissive slaves.


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