OPINION — The past few weeks, I’ve spent a fair amount of time in a courtroom as an observer and commentator on the ongoing federal trial of rancher Cliven Bundy and others involved in a 2014 standoff with authorities in Bunkerville, Nevada. It’s been a remarkable learning experience.
The courthouse itself is a towering and palatial monument to our national government. The taxpayers have funded a magnificent edifice that is both opulent and imposing.
Strict reverence for the power of the state is enforced both inside and outside the building with ever-present surveillance and armed enforcers as a visible and not-so-subtle reminder of who’s in charge there.
It’s the perfect setting to ask the question “Was man made for the government, or the government made for man?”
This is the essential principle that underlies the legitimacy of all government, and how we answer this question reveals whether we see ourselves as citizens or subjects.
If “we the people” are the legitimate source of political power, as the preamble of our country’s Constitution states, then we are the masters of those on whom we confer that authority. If we are their masters, then whatever authority we delegate to our servants must be given voluntarily and can be withdrawn from them as necessary.
If this were not so, those who attain a little bit of government power might be tempted beyond their ability to resist to use that authority in ways that serve their own interests while harming the citizenry. Shocking, right?
Of course, such abuses are far more difficult to excuse when they’re happening to us than when they are being inflicted on someone we don’t know personally.
So what are we to do when those acting in the name of the state begin to act in ways that injure us or deny us the inalienable rights they are supposed to be safeguarding? Are we morally bound to play along with their immorality when we are being abused?
In his book “Social Statics,” Herbert Spencer explains why the state cannot be regarded as a paragon of righteousness:
Not only does magisterial power exist because of evil but it exists by evil. Violence is employed to maintain it and all violence involves criminality. Soldiers, policemen, jailers, swords, batons and fetters are instruments for inflicting pain and all infliction of pain is, in the abstract, wrong. The state employs evil weapons to subjugate evil, and is alike contaminated by the objects with which it deals and the means by which it works.
This means state power must be structured and wielded in such a way as to limit its ability to act in immoral ways.
When authoritarian legislators, judges or bureaucrats become too used to getting their own way without regard to the morality of their actions, they can transform from guardians into self-serving brigands. Anytime this occurs, we have an absolute right to withdraw our consent and to ignore the state.
Naturally, standing up for our rights goes over like a lead balloon with the hubristic political class and the bureaucracies that sometimes behave as if they are our gods. Political superstition and power worship have led a shocking number of the citizenry to behave as if the state is their master.
In reality, it is simply an institution that is serving a temporary purpose, and state power, when it’s not being usurped, is merely borrowed from the people. This is why legitimate government power must be constantly checked and balanced in how it is exercised to prevent it from becoming an institutional wrong.
In his timeless essay “The Law,” Bastiat points out that when state power is turned from a means of securing justice into an instrument of plunder, we lose the distinction between justice and injustice.
When the state behaves in a lawless manner, society eventually tends to lose its respect for the laws.
According to Bastiat:
The safest way to make laws respected is to make them respectable. When law and morality contradict each other, the citizen has the cruel alternative of either losing his moral sense or losing his respect for the law. These two evils are of equal consequence, and it would be difficult for a person to choose between them.
Perverted laws tend to create conflict rather than resolve it. A person who stands against such policies in defense of his or her inalienable rights is not acting as an aggressor. But it’s a certainty that those in authority will do everything in their power to portray them as such.
Those who would use their authority to deny us those inalienable rights guaranteed under the First and Second amendments will never give us permission to disobey them.
It’s up to us, individually, to know our rights well enough so that we will actively claim, utilize and defend them without apology. This may also include exercising our natural right to choose to ignore the state.
Bryan Hyde is an opinion columnist specializing in current events viewed through what he calls the lens of common sense. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
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