David Brat Is Right
...It is, it seems, decidedly easier idiotically to repeat that “government is the only thing we all belong to,” or that “government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together” than to acknowledge that, whether one is advocating a small government that takes care of the basics or a Leviathan that seeks to meddle in the smallest recesses of the human heart, one is invoking Thomas Hobbes. George Washington almost certainly never said that “government is not reason; it is not eloquence; it is force,” nor did he describe the state as “a dangerous servant and a fearful master.” But these maxims, attributed to him, gained wide currency because, imprimatur or none, they contain a valuable truth. Brat’s words are the heir to this recognition. In his supposedly “unusual” essay, he asks whether “we trust institutions of the government to ensure justice”; suggests that “history teaches us” to worry about the scope of the state; and, channeling a sentiment that would be extraordinarily familiar to the Founding Fathers and in accord with the philosophies and historical examples that inspired them, mocks the arrogant notion that we now “live in particularly lucky and fortunate times where the State can be trusted to do minimal justice.” He observed, too, that however secure the principle that Americans may defend themselves against violence if attacked, they will nonetheless eventually have to abide by a judgment from the state. When Brat argues that “when push comes to shove, the State will win in a battle of wills,” he is confirming that violence is only legitimate when the state says that it is. That’s a monopoly.
There is nothing incoherent or sinister about this. On the contrary: That a potential member of Congress is so elegantly aware of the remarkable strength of the body that he is seeking to join is little short of refreshing. Also bracing was that Brat’s contention was cast in bipartisan — or, rather, nonpartisan — terms. First, he asked whether his audience was happy to trust the extraordinary power of the government to the temporary custody of the Right or Left. Then he suggested that anybody who “answered ‘no’ to either question” could well find themselves with “a major problem in the future.” In doing so, he joined a long line of forward-looking Americans who have, in Edmund Burke’s felicitous phrase, tended not to “judge of an ill principle in government only by an actual grievance,” but have been disposed instead to “anticipate the evil, and judge of the pressure of the grievance by the badness of the principle.” The colonists, Burke espied, “augur misgovernment at a distance; and snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze.” So, too, the architects of the nation. It was evident in the late 18th century that despotism was a perennial prospect, and, as Brat hints, the horrors of the 20th century should have served only to amplify that trepidation. Where, pray, is the problem here?...
...If David Brat’s wholly inoffensive observations are enough to give a person the vapors, he might well look to reconsider the foundations of his philosophy. In certain cases — rape, murder, defense of the realm — the case for government force is an easy one to make. In others — the hosting of cowboy poetry festivals, the banning of smoking, the hyper-regulation of small businesses — it is downright farcical. Were I convinced that the state should be using its power to determine the optimum price of milk, I would probably recoil at the word “violence,” too. This, though, has no bearing on whether its use is pertinent. David Brat was correct: Governments of all sorts rely upon force and maintain a monopoly on fire, and thereby invite all of us to turn our skeptical eyes toward them. Let’s try not to crucify a man for looking on them without favor and telling all who would listen the acrid truth about what he has seen.