United States of Fear

[F]irst of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory.

Many people will recognize these as the words of former President Franklin D. Roosevelt. After taking the oath of office on Saturday, March 4, 1933, Roosevelt delivered his inaugural address, containing the now famous line. In his speech, the President spoke to a crowd in the early throws of the Great Depression. High unemployment and an uncertain future had many Americans wondering, “What’s next?”

My late grandfather was 21 at this time, the only one in his family with a job, making a small wage—even for the time. Put simply, this experience would impact him for the rest of his life.

He was reluctant to throw anything away or buy anything new. In fact, he didn’t like to spend money if he could avoid it and saved all that he could. He had a lifelong distrust of the stock market and banks. In 1999, at the height of the Y2K scare, my grandfather withdrew some five figures from his bank and stashed it in his house. (Upon learning this, my mother and my aunt managed to convince him that the bank was in fact a safe place for his savings, and he re-deposited the money in his account.)

The fact of the matter is that my grandfather wanted to make sure he could provide for his family (and he did). As much as I hate to think of it this way—I think my grandfather was afraid. He was afraid of once again being in a position of having practically nothing, of being that 21 year old kid and knowing that, if he lost his job, his family was in trouble.

In reading FDR’s speech, in hearing his discussion about fear, I think about my grandfather.

I also think about the complete and utter—uh, bologna—contained in FDR’s famous address.

I’m referring to the President’s attempt to discourage fear among U.S. citizens. The fact is, FDR, like members of government before and after him, thrived on fear to push his agenda. Government uses fear as a means to expand the scale and scope of its power in unprecedented ways. FDR is their poster child.

As Robert Higgs has discussed, the growth and maintenance of government requires fear on the part of U.S. citizens. Fear means people will clamor for the government to “do something” to assuage their anxiety. As a result, the government steps in to supposedly provide a remedy. He states:

 [Governments] exploit it [fear], and they cultivate it. Whether they compose a warfare state or a welfare state, they depend on fear to secure popular submission, compliance with official dictates, affirmative cooperation with the state’s enterprises and adventures.

Fear is useful for government actors for two distinct but related reasons. First, fear has a “neutralizing” effect on citizens. If someone is afraid of X, for example, they are more likely to tolerate, or even demand expansions in state activities to control or eliminate X. This includes the use of methods, which, under other circumstances, would not be tolerable.

Second, those working within and with the state to provide security and defense (i.e., government actors or private contractors, etc.) will actively look to promote people’s fear and exploit it for their own personal advantage.

Examples of this abound. FDR, despite his message of “freedom from fear,” cultivated fear throughout his presidency and set the stage for future executives to do the same. On March 6, 1933, President Roosevelt issued Proclamation No. 2039 and declared a state of emergency in the U.S. (it was continued by Proclamation No. 2040 on March 9, 1933). Over the next several years, FDR would push through some of the worst policies in U.S. history (despite what your high school civics teacher told you).

These proclamations have become a staple of U.S. presidencies since this time. They grant the President hundreds of powers normally reserved for the Congress. Patrick Thronson, a J.D. candidate at University of Michigan Law School, identified at least 160 laws that immediately expand the President’s authority to act during an “emergency.”

Since 1976, 53 states of emergency have been declared, not counting those issued in the wake of natural disasters. Most of these orders remain in effect, including the one issued by President Roosevelt—in 1933.

Clinton enacted states of emergency in 1995 and 1998. President Bush continued these orders, and he added a healthy crop of his own. Not to be outdone by his predecessors, Obama continued both Clinton AND Bush’s declarations, while adding his own. In fact, Obama has issued or continued a state of emergency regarding terrorism in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013.

The result of these declarations is disastrous for civil liberties. These orders, all “necessary” in the face of crisis, allow the President to freeze an individual’s assets, confiscate private property, and limit trade. These directives can force retired veterans into military service, and allow for unlimited, secret patents for the military. In some cases, these laws allow the suspension of Habeas Corpus, meaning that the President can arrest, imprison, and detain individuals without review.

Fear is a powerful tool. This is not only well-known by those in positions of power, but exploited. Just like a child makes a parent check under his bed for the monster, U.S. citizens, out of fear, have called upon their elected leaders to be “proactive” against monsters like “drugs” and “terrorism.” Except, while a parent encourages teaches her child to reason, to not fear his imagination, the government tells the child the monster is not only real, but has friends. At any moment, these friends are going to come from under the bed, the closet, and the bedroom door to devour you. Unless, of course, Big Brother steps in to save you.

Abigail R. Hall is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and an Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Tampa.
Posts by Abigail R. Hall | Full Biography and Publications
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