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The many meanings of 'anti-government'

| Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
A vehicle drives into a group of protesters demonstrating against a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 12. (AP photo)
A vehicle drives into a group of protesters demonstrating against a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 12. (AP photo)

In Federalist No. 37, James Madison said “no language is so copious as to supply words and phrases for every complex idea, or so correct as not to include many, equivocally denoting different ideas.” Reminders of this truth are displayed whenever the brutes who unleashed violence in Charlottesville, Va., are described as “anti-government.” This term has many meanings. Using it carelessly sows confusion.

The white nationalists, alt-righters and others who were in Charlottesville to protest removal of Confederate statuary are indeed, in one way, anti-government. But almost none are anarchists who literally oppose the very institution of government. Instead, they oppose specific government policies . Most are no more anti-government than were Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil-rights advocates who rightly opposed Jim Crow policies. They occupied moral ground far higher than the immoral swamp occupied by today's alt-righters and their ilk. That doesn't change the fact that both groups staunchly object to particular government policies.

And just as civil-rights advocates remain happy to use government to enforce policies they favor, today's white nationalists and alt-righters would be happy to use government to enforce segregationist and related policies. In this way, the Charlottesville mob was not anti-government.

Charlottesville's most famous son, Thomas Jefferson, was in a real way decidedly anti-government — that of Great Britain. In 1776, he so deeply objected to British policies that he risked his life attempting to escape British rule. Yet America's third president did not oppose all government.

Clearly no anarchist, Jefferson actively helped to strengthen the government that replaced the one he was instrumental in displacing. Yet lifelong he remained, in another way, “anti-government.” One common use of this term today describes libertarians (and some conservatives) who, like Jefferson, want small government, limited in reach. This “anti-government” stance differs radically from the “anti-government” stance of alt-righters, white supremacists and neo-Nazis.

A libertarian's — a Jeffersonian's — “anti-government” stance reflects mainly a strong presumption against using force to direct peaceful people's affairs. The libertarian objects first and foremost not to particular policies of a large and constitutionally unconstrained government, but to its very existence. Even if such a government were today to behave in no ways that the libertarian finds objectionable, he remains opposed to it, understanding that such power is destined to be abused.

Of course, the libertarian is indeed “anti” many specific government policies — tariffs, subsidies, minimum wages, occupational licensing, K-12 schools' funding and operations. This “anti-government” stance reflects no prejudice against an ethnic group, no favoritism for a culture or way of life. It reflects prejudice only against using power to secure special privileges, favoritism only for maximum scope to live, work and play as individuals peacefully choose. It is, in short, a pro -individual-liberty policy.

Donald J. Boudreaux is a professor of economics and Getchell Chair at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. His column appears twice monthly.

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