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The Regime of Fear

December 4, 2001

A new Andrews McKenna Research poll has asked an interesting question and gotten an interesting answer. It asked: “Which do you worry about more: receiving an audit notice from the IRS in the mail [or] receiving anthrax in the mail?” The IRS beat anthrax handily — 50 per cent to 32 per cent. And the IRS did it without benefit of hysterical publicity.

This little datum throws a blinding beam of light on the phrase “terrorist state.” The modern state is, in essence, a terrorist organization. At this point we can hardly imagine any other kind of state.

The prophet of the terrorist state was Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), author of Leviathan. Hobbes argued that men were driven by appetite and aversion, and would exist in a state of mutual war — “every man against every man” — without a common power, the state, to “keep them all in awe.” He conceived the ruler as strongman, and the subject as living in fear. It was a profoundly amoral view of law and governance. The subject obeyed the ruler out of fear for his life.

Hobbes’s doctrine shocked people who had grown up in the Christian tradition, which held that divine or natural law, not human will, must justify positive law. St. Thomas Aquinas and others had taught that any law contrary to divine or natural law was invalid; this is the basis of limited, constitutional government.

But Hobbes saw law as nothing more than the ruler’s will. There could be no moral limit on it. This doctrine leads logically to the modern totalitarian state, which must be obeyed no matter what it demands. People obey the Leviathan state because they are afraid of it, not because they regard its demands are morally right.

The modern state at its most hysterical is portrayed in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell realized that modern conditions had made possible, and very real, a Leviathan that went far, far beyond anything Hobbes could have imagined. No seventeenth-century ruler enjoyed the weaponry, financial power, bureaucracy, or instruments of propaganda and surveillance available to a Stalin or a Franklin Roosevelt. In Hobbes’s day, and long after, a residue of personal liberty could still be taken for granted. The complete abolition of privacy was inconceivable.

[Breaker quote: The democratic 
LeviathanThat has changed. We now accept the regime of fear as normal.

Not that today’s United States outwardly resembles Stalin’s Soviet Union. But the principle is the same. The state rules arbitrarily, amorally, threatening penalties for disobedience. You may get a bland, impersonal form letter from the IRS or any other agency informing you that you are “subject to” fine and imprisonment for “failure to comply.” That’s not a gun at your head, but it’s a threat all the same — from someone you have never met who has unspecified power over you. I once knew a woman in her nineties who received such a letter. It spoiled her whole day.

In the 1830s Alexis de Tocqueville, after visiting America, foresaw the emergence of a new and mild-seeming kind of “democratic” despotism — a centralized state, without overt terrors or tortures, ruling through “a network of petty, complicated rules,” which might be “combined, more easily than is generally supposed, with the external forms of freedom.” How right he was.

Under such a regime, the individual may feel little terror and may even feel free. He becomes like a cow in a pasture surrounded by an electric fence. The cow feels an unpleasant jolt the first time she brushes against the fence, but it doesn’t kill her; after a spasm or two of terror, she just gets in the habit of staying away from it, and ceases to think about it. The active feeling of fear soon goes away, but the habit of avoidance remains.

A state that threatens violence too openly may rouse the population to resistance and revolution. But a state that threatens lesser penalties with subtlety and apparent legality, gradually creating habits of timidity, may find little opposition. Its subjects will hardly recognize their own fear as fear. They may even believe the state when it assures them that they are free — and that it is “defending” their freedom! (Until they “fail to comply,” that is.)

Terror tempered by tact — that’s the secret of ruling most men. Leave them some freedoms until they’ve forgotten what liberty means. Then you can suavely pocket the rest.

Joseph Sobran

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Copyright © 2001 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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