Engraved outside the National Archives Building in Washington D.C. is the phrase: “This building holds in trust the records of our national life and symbolizes our faith in the permanency of our national institutions.” It’s an uplifting quote meant to channel the spirit of patriotism. It’s also one that is supposed to burn an imprint into the reader’s mind: the state and its behemoth bureaucracies are here to stay.
Monuments of grandeur serve a special purpose. H.L. Mencken once wrote “the average man, whatever his errors otherwise, at least sees clearly that government is something lying outside of him and outside the generality of his fellow men.” This is very much true, and large, menacing buildings such as J. Edgar Hoover Building or the Lincoln Memorial help establish this cognitive divide. By using architectural techniques dating back to ancient Rome, the designers meant to create an aura of endearing superiority for the plebes to drool over.
In a recent National Review piece, Kevin D. Williamson wrote the initial builders of Washington’s various monuments “wanted to show that this new country of free men could hold its head high in the world and stand beside the pomp of any empire.” That may very have been a driving force, but I have a different theory: government monuments are meant to be imposing. But even more than that, they are formed for the purposes of transcending the here and now. If a sense of permanence can be established in the citizenry, there is little standing in the way of perpetual domination. The use of the word “permanency” on the National Archives building is no coincidence. There is no better way to dispel resistance than to perpetuate the idea that it’s futile.
The state, as Rothbard noted, appears to many as “the supreme” and “the eternal.” But that perception is a farce. Very little makes an indelible mark on human history. People are born and die. Businesses start and end. Wealth comes and goes. And states are established and dismantled. None, except for the brightest and most convincing of thinkers, sticks around for very long.
Pulling off immortality would be a great feat for man. But alas, we are born with a set time in the material world. The state’s quest for permanency is nothing but extreme hubris displayed by the most imperialistic of empires. Governments rise and fall all the time. Currently, the regimes in both Syria and the Ukraine risk falling due to civil unrest. In Europe, governments are continually teetering on the brink. Just two decades ago, the Soviet Union collapsed, giving way for a new cronyist form of governance. It was no different from the crumbling of the empires of Rome, Ottoman, and Byzantine.
What truly achieves permanence is not lofty monuments built to worship some all-powerful dictator, but ideas. Mankind’s future is decided on mental battlefields. The very reason we have oppressive governments today is because enough have been fooled to believe that society couldn’t function without them. It’s why public schooling is mandatory in much of the Western world. Get ‘em young, pump ‘em full of tall tales of national glory, and watch ‘em recite the pledge of allegiance until they have one foot in the grave. That’s the tried-and-true formulate for institutionalizing subservience. It’s the Orwellian logic of, “he who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”
By teaching that monopoly government is eternal, it becomes eternal. The lesson boxes in the thought process of impressionable fellows. It disallows them the ability to conceive of anything different from the status quo. And worse, it ingrains the idea of eternal residing in the heart of national government.
A sloppy understanding of what is really universal follows. No longer are principles seen as defining features for societal relations. Government becomes the focal point of all disputes. Order comes only from the starched-shirt bureaucrat – not from any logical precepts. Discovering the rational boundaries by which humans should live, organize, and govern their actions is the basis of natural law. It is meant to be timeless, applying universally to all humanity. The very notion of an all-encompassing order is a threat to state, which relies on unquestioned obedience. More so, it is threat to the Marxist/progressive theory of ever-evolving laws that replace and duplicate each other on a journey to the end of history.
Even some libertarians doubt the efficacy and truthfulness of permanence in teleological law. In a recent FEE.org debate, minarchist philosopher Tibor Machan wrote, “because none of us is going to live for eternity, none of us can establish anything as timelessly true.” This is the same mindset that decides slavery was once justified, state-enforced segregation was perfectly fine, and unions were a virtuous force in combating excess capitalism. In simpler words, it’s a superfluous understanding of history in relation to logic-based law. What it amounts to is a rationalization of crimes just because they happened in the past. Everything is nothing, and nothing is everything all at once.
Understanding the nature of permanence in relation to government provides insight into how fickle the state truly is. Societies have progressed from despotism to democracy to monarchy to republics. Opinions have changed, elections have occurred, and ruling bodies have been tossed out overnight. No matter how espoused, the sacredness of government eventually unravels. The people are then left staring at the truth: that their leaders are nothing but pompous tyrants.
This tenuous reality was present in the recent public execution of Jang Song-thaek in North Korea. Song-thaek, uncle to supreme dictator Kim Jong-un, was given the death treatment for angering his nephew. The Kim dynasty is supposed to be sacred. Their word is supposed to be God’s. Yet, here a second-hand man by marriage was offed like an injured race horse. In the most tyrannical country on earth, the aura of permanence saw a hole poked through it. In effect, the emperor was revealed to have no clothes, except for some rags of irrational tendencies.
The heads of the state would love nothing more than to wield the force of immortality. It’s a power-trip that pays off financially and mentally. Constructing the potemkin village of surreal authority makes for quick shock and awe. It aides in scaring the citizenry into compliance. But facades don’t last forever, no matter the marble symposiums erected as tribute.
James E. Miller is editor-in-chief of the Ludwig von Mises Institute of Canada. Send him mail