… But Who Wants to Live in an Institution?

by L. Neil Smith
[email protected]

Special to L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise

People tend to characterize certain periods of time with colorful expressions. The “Gay Nineties” comes to mind (and they were, for Oscar Wilde, anyway) as does the “Roaring Twenties”. We’ve had a Progressive Era, a Gilded Age, and Ages, in turn, of Innocence, Enlightenment and Illegitimacy.


I’ve called the time we’ve just passed through the “War Century”, filled with the biggest, most powerful governments humanity has ever suffered, and, as a direct result, the greatest amount of slaughter, some of it in this century’s massive wars, some of it simply because governments had more power — almost — than they knew what to do with.

If I were to characterize my lifetime (so far), from 1946 to the present, I’d call it the Age of Collapsing Authority. When I was born, people held a favorable opinion of western governments in general, of the American government in particular, of institutions within that government like the Senate and Supreme Court, and of banks and large corporations.

There were always exceptions, of course. I recall my shock and puzzlement, sometime in the middle 50s, when my parents were watching some kind of quiz show one night on the Canadian Broadcasting Company (because there was only one channel in St. John’s, Newfoundland at the time) and a contestant who’d obviously planned months in advance broke into a tirade against collectivism in general and Abraham Lincoln in particular.

Naturally, network security guards hauled him off, still yelling, and as far as I know, he was never heard of again. Folks were inclined in those days to call somebody like that a commie, but I think he may have been an early Bircher. Whoever he was, and whatever happened to him afterward, he’d be happy to know that he achieved his goal as far as one young listener was concerned. I was in bed, supposedly asleep, but I’ll never forget the shattering embarrassment he caused the suits and dresses on that quiz show, Canadian nationals who weren’t even supposed to give an expired grocery store coupon about America’s Lenin.

He made me curious. And that was enough.

Parenthetically, that should tell us something when we’re feeling discouraged about the direction the country is taking and our apparent lack of success diverting it. You never know — there isn’t any way of knowing — what success you’re having reaching people. I once took it on myself (not without plenty of worry) to argue with a 15-year-old that his Highway Patrolman father was an ignoramus and an asshole for stances he took on individual liberty and the real law of the land. I didn’t hear back from the kid and forgot him. A decade later, now on his own and in the military, he wrote to thank me for helping him to break free, to learn something of the truth, and to demand and win his independence.

You just never know.

A while after we got back from Canada, something on the order of 80 Denver cops were arrested for burglarizing homes or businesses (I forget which; it doesn’t matter) on their beats. That was the first such scandal I recall in my lifetime, but it wouldn’t be the last. It predated the coverups of the Kennedy and King assassinations and a million Vietnam lies and it showed every member of the public that he was living in a dreamworld if he thought American institutions worked perfectly (or at all) or that their interests ran parallel to his. To a certain degree, the relatively new mass medium of television, and the experiences of World War II veterans with institutions at their largest, helped (or exacerbated — it depends on your viewpoint) the situation.

In the decades that have followed, hardly a single once-respected American institution has failed to disappoint those who once relied on and looked up to it. The public school system, as we all know now, is a base inflictor of injustice, a breeding ground for violent crime, a statist propaganda mill, and can’t compete on any basis — except for the money it consumes — with parochial or private schools, or home schooling.

America would be vastly better off, almost overnight, if public schools were shut down, their buildings razed to the ground so that not one stone was left standing on another, and salt was sown on the ruins.

American justice, from the place you pay traffic fines, right up to the Supreme Court, is a putrescent mess in which judges, who don’t know as much about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights as the average reader of this column, imagine themselves to be kings, ruling by absolute whim. The remark P.J. O’Rourke once made about the first 600 names from the phone book making better Congressman than what we’ve got now applies, squared and cubed, to the American judiciary system.

Intelligent individuals gave up on the Democratic Party a long, long time ago. But, with a GOP Attorney General salivating to build concentration gulags for anybody who happens to disagree with the current administration, and a President who’s failed to have his AG taken out into the countryside and quietly put down, who can imagine any longer that the Republican Party hasn’t been lying through its teeth for at least the last half century (many would say since before the War Between the States) about the value it places on individual liberty?

One by one all of the giants fall. Corporations stand revealed (as Shepard Meade warned us 40 years ago) as tall, expensive buildings full of stumbling morons who have no more idea what they’re doing than the average TV business commentator (and a hell of a lot less than the stockholders from whom they seized power decades ago), and who make up for it by imitating the government in the lies and larceny department while thoughtfully providing themselves obscene salaries and golden parachutes.

In perhaps the most painful blow to many, everybody now knows that the Church (Catholic, Protestant, or Whatever, your choice) is full of shapeshifters, child-molesters, and, as Woodie Guthrie and his pals put it way back when, just plain dodgers. In the backs of our minds we’ve always known that, but we forgot somehow. Think I’ll stick with materialism.

It isn’t any better in our own neighborhood, I’m afraid. The low, shameful, and cowardly performance of the National Rifle Association comes to mind at once. It seems to combine all of the failings of the Republican Party (of which, as I have pointed out over the years, it is nothing more than a repulsive appendage), government, and corporate America. Our gun rights are not in good — or particularly clean — hands.

Finally, there’s the Libertarian Party. Although I hear stories that it is cleaning itself up, and I am enthusiastically open to that possibility, it has been a viper-infested pit and will be a long time recovering.

Name any important public institution you care to — the FBI, the military, the airlines, maybe even Martha Stewart — they have all betrayed us and are collapsing as a result. The hell of it is that this is good news. It means renewal, and a reconsideration, rivaling that of the late 18th century, of the underlying structure of our civilization.

People never have played very well in groups (which is why we have profit sharing and firing squads). A genuinely new world order that starts with that fact uppermost in mind will help us avoid all the old mistakes and (this is important) insure that those we make are new, instead.


Reprinted from The Libertarian Enterprise for September 9, 2002

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