Friday, October 24, 2014

How Governments Use Fear

Updated February 2015

An interesting research article on the Independent Institute's website looks at the role of fear in the government's arsenal of ways that they control the masses.  This is particularly pertinent in this time of the seemingly endless global war against terror which continues, despite governments' assurances that they have the situation under control. 

In case you weren't aware of it, The Independent Institute is a non-profit, non-partisan scholarly research and educational organization that sponsors in-depth studies of critical social and economic issues.  The organization seeks to advance peaceful, prosperous and free societies that are not grounded in partisan interests.  Dr. Robert Higgs, the author of "Fear: The Foundation of Every Government's Power", has a degree in economics from John Hopkins University and has been a visiting scholar at Oxford University and Stanford University and a fellow for the Hoover Institution and the National Science Foundation.

Dr. Higgs begins by noting that all animals experience fear and that some level of fear is essential to survival.  Fear alerts us to dangers.  That said, governments understand this basic instinct of humans and both exploit and cultivate it to secure submission, compliance and co-operation with the government and its dictates.  Without fear, governments would not survive.

There is a long history of fear and government.  The earliest governments used warfare and conquest to advance their empires, what we might call the warrior element.  The losers in a battle were destined to live their lives as subjects of the dominant group, fearing for their lives.  Often the losing side was forced to hand over their material wealth to preserve their lives.  This handing over of one's material possessions evolved into taxation.  Conquered people naturally resent the imposition of government and taxation and, throughout history, there are many examples of a subjugated populace overthrowing their masters.  Even if outright rebellion doesn't take place, the masses take action to avoid the laws imposed by their political masters or do what they can to sabotage their ruler's government.

In both the past and present, rulers have augmented their powers with religion using what we might call the religious element; in an ancient example, Egyptian Pharaohs were thought to be gods and in a modern times, the Emperor of Japan was deemed to be descended from the gods and the current Supreme Leader of North Korea is third in his family's line of god-like figures who are believed capable of controlling the weather and who have no need to urinate or defecate.  In the evangelical Christian world, one verse in the New Testament is often quoted as found in Romans 13:1 "Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God."  That verse has long been used by the church to force Christians to subject themselves to the whims of government, no matter how bad or unfair that government may be.

Through the use of both the warrior and religious elements, people are in fear for both their lives and for their eternal souls.  It is this combined fear that has propped up governments around the world for the past few thousand years.

Governments have refined their use of fear, fostering an ideology that emphasizes our vulnerability to both external and internal dangers and that only the government can provide us with protection from these threats.  Government leads us to believe that only it can protect us from both internal dissent and external threats.  Sometimes bad governments actually do protect their people for a time; the Nationalist Socialist Party (NSDAP) of 1930's Germany is an example.  The NSDAP helped the German people by returning Germany to a place of prominence in the world after the humiliating defeat of World War I and brought the German economy back to its feet after a period of crippling hyperinflation.  Much of this "Thousand Year Empire" was built on the fear of both insiders and outsiders, including Jews and the Slavic population.   On the other hand, when defeat at the hands of the Allies looked to be certain in early 1945, the Nazis thought nothing of sacrificing hundreds of thousands of its own people in a desperate attempt to win what was clearly a lost cause.  The author notes that when governments fail to protect their own people, they often blame scapegoats, a current example would be unpredictable Muslim terrorists whose actions cannot be discovered in advance.

Modern-day governments, particularly in the developed world, have convinced us that only government can protect us from all sorts of fear-inducing threats including unemployment, hunger, illness, lack of income in old age, toxins in food, contaminated water among others.  This has led to the formation of the "welfare" or "nanny" state.  It is the fear of all of these and other "threats" that has allowed government to control us.

While fear is a popular motivator, governments have often learned the hard way that fear has a shelf life.  Successive doses of fear-mongering propagated by governments result in lowered levels levels of actual fear.  Like the boy who cried "wolf", the populace grows weary of constantly being on guard for their lives.  We need look no further that the United States Department of Homeland Security and its multi-stage, colour-coded threat level assessment that looked like this:

It has now evolved to the National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS), a sample of which looks like this:

The Department of Homeland Security is even so kind as to supply a Terror Alert widget that looks like this:

How many of us now even pay any attention to these "terror alerts"?  Even Tom Ridge, former Homeland Security czar admitted that fear is a depreciating asset as shown in this article:

"The Bush administration periodically put the USA on high alert for terrorist attacks even though then-Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge argued there was only flimsy evidence to justify raising the threat level, Ridge now says.

Ridge, who resigned Feb. 1, said Tuesday that he often disagreed with administration officials who wanted to elevate the threat level to orange, or "high" risk of terrorist attack, but was overruled.

His comments at a Washington forum describe spirited debates over terrorist intelligence and provide rare insight into the inner workings of the nation's homeland security apparatus.

Ridge said he wanted to "debunk the myth" that his agency was responsible for repeatedly raising the alert under a color-coded system he unveiled in 2002.

"More often than not we were the least inclined to raise it," Ridge told reporters. "Sometimes we disagreed with the intelligence assessment. Sometimes we thought even if the intelligence was good, you don't necessarily put the country on (alert). There were times when some people were really aggressive about raising it, and we said, 'For that?'

"You have to use that tool of communication very sparingly," Ridge said at the forum, which was attended by seven other former department leaders.” (my bold)

War is the great friend of governments around the world.  Bureaucracy builds on itself as the war apparatus takes shape.  Governments know that they can get away with raising the tax burden, rationing goods, borrowing huge amounts of money (think of the trillions spent on the War on Terror since 2001), enacting the draft and other measures that they would never be able to undertake under peaceful conditions.  Few people would dare to complain publicly during wartime  for fear of being branded "traitorous".  During war, people are willing to surrender their wealth, privacy and liberty to governments far more readily than they might otherwise be inclined.  We see prime examples of this since 2001; the revelations of Edward Snowden have made us realize that, in this time of the War on Terror, our privacy means absolutely nothing to governments around the world.  Since September 11th, 2001, there has been a marked resurgence in the "Warfare State".  We have been pulled into two wars and now possibly a third that is a direct offspring of the mishandling of the war in Iraq because of the fear mongering about a remote possibility of a domestic attack by an ISIS-related terrorist.

Here is the closing paragraph of Dr. Higgs' commentary:

"Were we ever to stop being afraid of the government itself and to cast off the phoney fears it has fostered, the government would shrivel and die, and the host would disappear for the tens of millions of parasites in the United States—not to speak of the vast number of others in the rest of the world—who now feed directly and indirectly off the public’s wealth and energies. On that glorious day, everyone who had been living at public expense would have to get an honest job, and the rest of us, recognizing government as the false god it has always been, could set about assuaging our remaining fears in more productive and morally defensible ways."  

We have to be certain that when we listen to what governments tell us that they aren't using their version of the "truth" to further their agenda, particularly their war agenda.


  1. I'm skeptical that the origins of taxation are in conquest. I think instead that it arose from fees charged for keeping grain safe in a warehouse after a harvest. We have some ancient records of owners' marks to identify their stored grain and some warehouse tallies of which individuals owned what -- the Linear B tablets from Mycenae, for instance.

    More generally, why do you divide up a modern democracy into naive citizens who are led or misled by a cynical and evil conspiratorial group of politicians and corporations? If we sometimes do dumb things, why not hold voters responsible? And what is the point, anyhow, of this exercise in dividing us up into good guys and bad guys?

  2. I usually enjoy your blog posts, but this one has me scratching my head. Much of what governments do is actually really good for the population. Your paranoia is showing.