The curse of the Total State is something of a package deal. Samuel’s warnings in 1 Samuel 8 were meant to deter the people from breaking God’s laws revealed in Deuteronomy 17—lusting for a “king like other nations.” Just like the king forbidden in those laws—the king who has a standing army, a large treasury, international entanglements, and enslaves his own people—the picture Samuel painted was one of a mixed Warfare-Welfare State. As God told Samuel to “solemnly warn them,”
So Samuel told all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking for a king from him. He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the LORD will not answer you in that day” (1 Sam. 8:7–18).
I expound upon this verse further in my expositions of 1 Samuel, In the Midst of Your Enemies. For now, suffice it to note the Total nature of this package of tyranny. The people’s desire for national greatness and, for some, just plain justice as they see it drives them to demand greater executive power for the State. But greater executive power always takes on a life of its own. Almost simultaneously, a powerful military State grows into a Total State in which the State dominates every area of life. It’s nothing short of enslavement, whether the people who called for it admit it or not.
Perennially, the greatest centralizing power toward the Total State has been war. This was noted in recent times by the noted military historian, Martin van Creveld:
Had it not been for the need to wage war, then almost certainly the centralization of power in the hands of the great monarchs would have been much harder to bring about. Had it not been for the need to wage war, then the development of bureaucracy, taxation, even welfare services such as education, health, etc. would probably have been much slower. As the record shows, in one way or another all of them were bound up with the desire to make people more willing to fight on behalf of their respective states.
To focus on the field of economics alone, the Bank of England as the first institution of its kind originated in the wars which Britain fought against Louis XIV. Early in the nineteenth century the first modern income taxes were likewise the product of war, as were both legal tender and its most important specimen, the greenback. Later, to cite but three examples, neither some of the early attempts to provide social security, nor the abandonment of the gold standard in 1914, nor the Bolshevik Revolution (representing the attempt to institute total state control over an economy) would have come about in the form they did, had it not been for the need of the state to mobilize its resources and wage war against its neighbors.1
These are bold assertions, but the facts bear them out. Van Creveld’s last few examples refer to the early Twentieth Century, the era leading up to World War I. Consider the changes in America under Woodrow Wilson during this War.
Wilson’s War State
The Overman Act of 1918 gave President Wilson expansive powers over every aspect of American life during the War. His centralizing efforts decked the government with countless new bureaus: the War Labor Policies Board, Shipping, Food Administration, the War Industries Board (WIB), and many more, all with absolute power over their sphere.
The WIB was one of the most egregious as it established a genuine military-industrial complex that would rescind only in name after the War. It created national moral hazard due to the nationalization of unions, mines, railroads, and other industries. This created a monopolistic system that many businesses and groups did not want to give up once the war was over. They began to use their influence to pass new laws to restore their positions. As a result, despite the fact that Wilson disbanded the WIB immediately after the War, there was “no returning to prewar conditions.”2 Wilson’s move was only a political shift for the complex which resulted in Congress being in charge instead of the executive. This meant that now, all the special interests of Congress were involved in trying to control and get a share of the military-industrial booty. The structure created by the emergency control was still in place, it just had new masters.
If national moral hazard were not enough, the Wilson War State also created it internationally. America became the conscious model for Germany itself (which copied Wilson in a final attempt to reorganize and win the war), Lenin’s “War Communism,” and Mussolini’s early version of Fascism. All were modeled on Wilson’s accomplishment, and all of had devastating effects for decades thereafter and helped bring about World War II.
Wilson’s War State also imposed a national mind control campaign. This is, van Creveled states, a standard aspect of war: it creates an “emotionally unifying effect” which both feeds the State power and then requires further State control of be fed itself in return. Thus Wilson created a propaganda and idea police called the Committee on Public Information (CPI). It was responsible for a campaign against German-Americans and other immigrants: so-called “hyphenated Americans” were automatically suspect for failure to be as dedicated to the war as they should be. Teddy Roosevelt famously accused them (really “us”) of “treason,” saying they “terrorize” America.
These immigrant families needed to be watched closely, and so came about the creation of the neighborhood watch—not your modern neighborhood watch on the lookout for burglars, etc., but hundreds of thousands of volunteer, pro-war enthusiasts spying on each other in order to report anything from their own neighbor they considered suspicious. This, of course, destroys neighborliness and bonds in local communities—a perennial desire of the nationalists and centralizers.
The CPI authorized the “four-minute men.” These were at their height 70,000 volunteers empowered to interrupt any free assembly of people (churches included), invited or not, to give a four-minute speech in support of the war. The speeches were ostensibly about facts and progress—basic info about the war—but really were used to praise the war and the government’s conduct. It was a national propaganda campaign empowered to commandeer every audience in the nation by government force.
Education was not immune from the CPI. Textbooks were scoured to remove all mention of things German. While social pressures forced the renaming of hamburgers (a German name) to “liberty steak,” and sauerkraut was relabeled “liberty cabbage,” school children were spared the ghastly introduction to Bach and Beethoven due to their German origin—and this phenomenon lasted well into the 20s. The German language was no longer taught in schools, and many German-language newspapers were shut down across the country.
Censorship soon got real political muscle. The 1917 Espionage Act was aimed as much at discouraging disloyalty as direct espionage: it gave broad powers to the Feds to prosecute anyone suspected of saying anything that may interfere with the U.S. military or which could even be seen as promoting the success of the enemies, as well as anything hindering military recruitment. This essentially ended all public criticism of the war effort and encouraged those not sufficiently patriotic to remain silent.
If this were not enough, the 1918 Sedition Act expanded it by forbidding “any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States . . . or the flag of the United States, or the uniform of the Army or Navy.” This made it easy to indict even casual comments made in public, and nearly 200,000 American were accused, indicted, many found guilty and fined heavily or imprisoned for things they said and were overheard. Fines reached as much as $10,000—$200,000 in today’s money—and imprisonment was up to 20 years.
The conservative sociologist Robert A. Nisbet relates how Americans came to accept the centralized power despite the social damage, loss of freedom, and destruction of the love of neighbor:
And yet despite the atmosphere of outright terror in the lives of a considerable minority of Americans, despite the food shortages for civilians, despite the presence throughout the country of superpatriots serving the government as neighborhood watchers for the purpose of reporting any act or word that seemed suspicious, despite the virtual militarization of the local schools and their textbooks, despite the maleficent custom of white feathers being pinned by women volunteers on the lapels of some men seen rightly or wrongly as slackers—despite all this, many Americans seemed to become fond of the War State. Lost neighborhood, local, and other liberties didn’t seem too high a price to pay for the economic benefits in the form of high wages, props to unionism, quick and generally favorable arbitration agreements for workers, and the novel availability of spendable money, cash in hand. And how exhilarating to see the speed with which the national government could move in matters where local governments stalled and stalled.3
In other words, the war created a powerful voting block of people dependent for their lifestyle upon government coercion and who could use national government to override opposition from their neighbors and other locals—and all of this took the form of being the most American of patriotic Americans.
Out of all this the centralizers leveraged two valuable lessons: first, there is the power of collective self-interests. It is far easier to promote the State’s power when you create a large voting block dependent upon government benefits. (This can be maximized, by the way, by creating many types of benefits and thus hooks and bait for every potential dependency out there.) The point is to get as many people as possible self-interested in a centralized welfare state. Second, is power of crisis. Crisis—most often war or threat of war—is invaluable as a means of herding the populace toward one common goal, one set of beliefs, values, priorities, ethics, tasks, etc., and thus of getting a diverse group of free individuals to sacrifice their will to a central planning agency. With these two tools of power we get first, the War State, and then the Welfare State. And the Welfare State—composed of self-interested dependents with no ethical conscience—remains in place, and society is never returned to the freedom it had before the war.
Neither, really, is the War State. Even thought Wilson shut down the boards, the Army remained in peak-peacetime power. After the War, the National Defense Act of 1916—which had prepared for the War—was amended in 1920, but the size of the standing army remained the same at 298,000, along with 400,000 reserves in the National Guard. The historical comparisons are startling. The standing army, pre-Civil War, never reached beyond 16,000 national regulars. Even after the Civil War, as we say, the army was gradually downsized to around 25,000 to the chagrin of Sherman’s personal crusades.4 After the 1916 Act, that number vaulted and remained in the hundreds of thousands. And of course this takes money as well. Just between the 1903 Dick Act and the 1916 Act, the army spent more than it had in the entire previous century combined. And that does not even count the costs of the War itself. Today, “defense” spending accounts for 20 percent of the Federal budget—over a third of which is deficit spending.
The effect of the Welfare and Warfare State—together the Total State—is effectively to replace freedom with central planning across the board. After WWI in the U.S., there was a steady effort on the part of leftists and social Darwinists of all stripes to leverage the lingering centralized structures of the War State. The War had created a ripe opportunity for more elitist control. A slogan arose during the 1920s: George Soule, editor of New Republic magazine at the time, popularized the slogan in his book, The Planned Society, in 1932. “We planned in war, why not in peace?” It was cry for central planning at the national level, and the outright replacement of local community and local sovereignty with national community.
To do this requires the government to replace local community—genuine community—with the appearance of a “community” at the national level. FDR did this explicitly in his first inaugural address, March 4, 1933, in which he mixes the language of a military mission with that of a national community:
If I read the temper of our people correctly, we now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other; that we can not merely take but we must give as well; that if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress is made, no leadership becomes effective. We are, I know, ready and willing to submit our lives and property to such discipline, because it makes possible a leadership which aims at a larger good. This I propose to offer, pledging that the larger purposes will bind upon us all as a sacred obligation with a unity of duty hitherto evoked only in time of armed strife.
This confuses local community with national community, personal morals with national ethics, religious language with political coercion, wartime with peacetime. But it was right about one thing: it would “bind upon us all” an obligation to the State previously only experienced under duress of war. Not only was the old freedom gone, but even what relaxation occurred in the War State after the War was now reestablished and extended. Wilson’s temporary War State became FDR’s Welfare State, and every expansion of it since. Every political battle fought since has been fought in light of that new reality, and only in terms of the Welfare State. Since the New Deal era, the question is never Welfare State or no Welfare State, but what kind of a Welfare State and how big?
Nisbet expresses how war creates “community,” but it is a different kind of community. It is
the kind of community that is brought into existence by emergency and then reinforced by shared values and emotions which reach to the depths of human nature. Any veteran knows well the closeness, the intimacy, the sense of bond and attachment that can spring up in a newly formed outfit almost overnight.5
Recall in the recent popular title Band of Brothers which has been used more than once for books, movies, and a mini-series. It comes from Shakespeare’s Henry V (IV, iii), where King Henry appeals to this very sentiment of brotherhood in the midst of war:
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered—
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile
This new community alienates its members from normal life, from real community, and almost permanently alters the perspectives of the “brothers”:
when the war ended, millions of men and women found return to civil life—for all the fact that this return had been passionately dreamed of—unsettling, disquieting, not seldom disorienting to neurotic degree.6
Allegiances are no longer neighbor-to-neighbor, town-to-town, but rather to the central institution—the central State—first. People no longer relate to each other directly in terms of local customs, faith, and shared values. They no longer relate to each other horizontally, person-to-person. Now they relate to each other through the filter of the central State first. Our eyes focus there first, our ears hear it first, our hearts flutter first with the wave of the central State’s war-torn flag, rather than burning with passion and pride for the principles taught by faith and family first. We hold our neighbor under suspicion first before we dare speak ill of our Nation; we’ll spy, spit, tattle, and perhaps even torture that neighbor before we’d call Washington a tyrant and the latest War a deadly ruse—let alone refuse a government contract or check on principle.
Yet for all of his talk of willingness and sacrifice among the people, FDR couldn’t have cared less about their willingness: he planned to solve the nation’s problems through pure central planning and control if he thought he so needed:
I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis—broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.
For the trust reposed in me I will return the courage and the devotion that befit the time. I can do no less.
We face the arduous days that lie before us in the warm courage of the national unity; with the clear consciousness of seeking old and precious moral values; with the clean satisfaction that comes from the stern performance of duty by old and young alike. We aim at the assurance of a rounded and permanent national life.
The British historian A. J. P. Taylor describes the same transformation in his own country after World War I:
Until August 1914 a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state beyond the post office and the policeman. . . . He could travel abroad or leave his country forever without a passport or any sort of official permission. He could exchange his money without restriction or limit. He could buy goods from any country in the world on the same terms as he bought goods at home. For that matter a foreigner could spend his life in the country without permit and without informing the police. . . .
All this was changed by the impact of the Great War. . . . The state established a hold over its citizens which though relaxed in peace time, was never to be removed and which the Second World War was again to increase. The history of the English people and the English State merged for the first time.7
The Warfare State and the Welfare State
It is vitally important to understand and internalize this truth: this Welfare State is not primarily a result of political activism, per se, but the direct result of War and of the lasting social effects of War. War is the great centralizing agent empowering totalitarian States throughout human history. Modern history is no different, and the United States has not been immune. Nisbet opens his review of the phenomenon with this observation:
Any returned Framers of the Constitution would be quite as shocked by the extent and depth of the power of the national state in American lives today as they would be by war and the gargantuan military. The most cursory reading of the Constitution itself tells us that behind the labors which produced this document lay an abiding fear, distrust, hatred of the kinds of political power identified with the government of George III and with the centralized despotisms, such as France, Prussia, and Russia, on the Continent. Add to reading of the Constitution even a scanning of the Federalist Papers followed perhaps by a brief dipping into the annals of the Convention, and there can be no doubt of what the Framers most definitely did not want: a highly centralized, unitary political Leviathan.8
He is largely correct: not only did the Framers warn against this over and over, even foreigners did so. The famous visitor Alexis de Tocqueville clearly saw the destructive power and a military State, and the link between military power and a Total State. He wrote in 1840:
All men of military genius are fond of centralization, which increases their strength; and all men of centralizing genius are fond of war, which compels nations to combine all their powers in the hands of the government. Thus the democratic tendency that leads men unceasingly to multiply the privileges of the state and to circumscribe the rights of private persons is much more rapid and constant among those democratic nations that are exposed by their position to great and frequent wars than among all others.”9
Nisbet—a conservative, mind you, respected by Ronald Reagan—argues, “The history of the United States is ample illustration of the general soundness of Tocqueville’s principle. This includes a look at presidents Jackson, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson, FDR, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, “and, very much in the procession, Ronald Reagan.”10 I say he is “largely” correct because, as I have shown, the war lust began much earlier than Jackson. It includes the Framers themselves as well. Nevertheless, “In each of these,” Nisbet writes, “there is a conspicuous readiness to turn to political centralization, bureaucracy, and the heaping up of powers, so far as possible, in the central government even at the expense of a strictly read Constitution.”11
You see the Welfare-Warfare State growing in tandem almost as early as Tocqueville wrote. The first major federal welfare measures in the U.S. resulted directly from war—war with the Indians. Ever since the great relocations of Indians that began in the 1830s, much of them under Jackson, there was constant argument between Congress (easterners) and the army in the field (with westerners) over how to treat the Indians. Both sides referred to “pacification” by which they meant using whatever means necessary to make the Indians passive. Congress and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) wanted to keep sending handouts, food and supplies, to the reservations. This had been the practice for many years and had developed quite a reputation for corruption along the trail as supplies changed hands and were delivered by multiple government-contracted parties along the way. Retired for the Civil War days, Sherman led the appeal for the army, as we saw. He wanted to apply the same tactics of total devastation warfare against the Indians as he had used to defeat the South—slash and burn Atlanta. Many westerners were calling for all-out genocide as the only solution. In the 1870s, Sherman argued to have the BIA placed back under the Department of War (from which it had been removed in 1849), but lost the argument. In the end, the whole debate was over whether the Welfare or Warfare State would have the preeminence in dealing with the Indians. Either way, it was a situation bred directly out of war.
A clearer and more important case arose from Civil War Veterans, which we mentioned earlier under the topic of Welfare. War veterans received pensions from very early on, but the nature of these changed during the Civil War. As a recruitment measure, the Union promised pensions to all soldiers actually wounded in battle. Then, of course, it was cold to leave out widows and orphans of veterans, so these were included, too. Years later when debilitated veterans approached the administration with “old war wounds,” it was impossible to tell which ones were being truthful. So they extended pensions to all Union veterans. The widows and orphans weren’t enough, they had to include their siblings and in-laws. Soon, unemployed laborers saw the potential for government handouts, and farmers clamored as well. In 1904, Teddy Roosevelt changed the definition of disability to include old age, which essentially made the program a true pension system. The Warfare State had created the Welfare State, and it has done nothing but grow ever since.12
From day one, the Warfare and Welfare States have been evil twins, constantly feeding and empowering the other; and war itself is the vampire which sucks the free blood out of their prey. War is waste, war is plunder, war is loot, war is destruction of wealth, morals, fidelity, and social bonds. Government-run welfare is all of those things, too. The two things are one and the same, fueled by the same lusts, toward the same ends, by the same spirit.
War is Hell
After his Indian-slaughtering days were all but over, General Sherman spent the his final military days touring and lecturing students. During one speech he gave the line that has since been paraphrased as, “War is hell.” There is little indication at all that Sherman was a religious man, and in fact he seems critical of religion for most of his life. The “war is hell” sentiment for Sherman was more about scorched earth strategy than religious teaching. But he had no idea how religious indeed it was.
God’s covenantal promises to His people concluded with a list of blessings that would come upon them if they obeyed, but also a list of curses they would suffer for rebelling against Him. The curses for national disobedience are found in Deuteronomy 28:15 and following. Verses 15–19 and 25–33 are particularly relevant:
But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you. Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the field. Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Cursed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock. Cursed shall you be when you come in, and cursed shall you be when you go out. . . .
The Lord will cause you to be defeated before your enemies. You shall go out one way against them and flee seven ways before them. And you shall be a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth. And your dead body shall be food for all birds of the air and for the beasts of the earth, and there shall be no one to frighten them away. The Lord will strike you with the boils of Egypt, and with tumors and scabs and itch, of which you cannot be healed. The Lord will strike you with madness and blindness and confusion of mind, and you shall grope at noonday, as the blind grope in darkness, and you shall not prosper in your ways. And you shall be only oppressed and robbed continually, and there shall be no one to help you. You shall betroth a wife, but another man shall ravish her. You shall build a house, but you shall not dwell in it. You shall plant a vineyard, but you shall not enjoy its fruit. Your ox shall be slaughtered before your eyes, but you shall not eat any of it. Your donkey shall be seized before your face, but shall not be restored to you. Your sheep shall be given to your enemies, but there shall be no one to help you. Your sons and your daughters shall be given to another people, while your eyes look on and fail with longing for them all day long, but you shall be helpless. A nation that you have not known shall eat up the fruit of your ground and of all your labors, and you shall be only oppressed and crushed continually.
While there is obviously not one-to-one correlation in every respect—mainly due to the fact that we don’t live in walled cities and have siege warfare situations—the main aspects of this judgment in history are the same. They are the destructive effects of war:
- Destruction of life
- Destruction of property
- Spread of disease
- Destruction of the family
- Economic hardship, scarcity
- Political tyranny and oppression
- Triumph of rabid selfishness
- Low birth rates
- Enormous debt that remains for generations
- No reprieve from heaven (ratchet effect)
There is another saying among military men, again a paraphrase: “The army is not an insurance company. The purpose of the army is to kill people and blow up stuff.”
Sun Tzu wrote the classic, The Art of War. The pagan ruler wrote the famous dictum, “All warfare is based on deception.” Governments, you see, must continually lie to prosecute war: deceive the enemy for advantage, yes; but also lie to its own people about the need for war in the first place, as well as the cost of the war, the bloodiness of the war, the extent, the long-term plans for war, plus the promise, “Things will return to normal once the war’s over.” It’s all, or nearly all, a continuous lie covering the face of the earth.
Sun Tzu continued on about the economic effects of war: “Where the army is, prices are high; when prices rise the wealth of the people is exhausted. When wealth is exhausted the peasantry will be afflicted with urgent exactions [taxes, provisions for the army].” The State must continue its wars, no matter the cost, the debt, the burden—and it will be a burden.
There you have it in a nutshell, from the most famous theoreticians of war in history, as well as from biblical law: war is destruction, death, lies, and theft. There’s a convenient summary of all this in Scripture:
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy (John 10:10).
If you don’t believe war is hell, then you don’t understand the Bible. If you still want American imperialism and its wars after this, then you must think hell is the cure for the world’s problems. You must think America is hell, and hell is salvation.
But Jesus finished that verse with this: “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
From the author’s The Bible & War in America, available at www.AmericanVision.org.
- van Creveld, The Rise and Decline of the State (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 336.(↩)
- Skowronek, 242.(↩)
- Robert A. Nisbet, The Present Age: Progress and Anarchy in Modern America (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Press, 1988), 48.(↩)
- Skowronek, 87.(↩)
- Robert Nisbet, Prejudices: A Philosophical Dictionary (Cambridge, MA and London, England: Harvard University Press, 1982), 309.(↩)
- Nisbet, Prejudices, 309.(↩)
- Quoted in Nisbet, The Present Age, 44.(↩)
- The Present Age, 41.(↩)
- Democracy in America, 2.4.4; partially quoted in Nisbet, The Present Age, 42.(↩)
- The Present Age, 42–43.(↩)
- The Present Age, 43.(↩)
- For the preceding two paragraphs, consult Randall G. Holcombe, “Veterans interests and the transition to government growth: 1870–1915,” Public Choice 99 (1999): 311–326.(↩)